When Dante Lopresti was winning national championships at the Washington D.C. rugby powerhouse Gonzaga College High School, he could not have imagined that in a few short years time, he would be scrummaging shoulder to shoulder with Rugby World Cup Champion Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira.
“I remember watching him in high school, seeing that video (you know the one) of him lifting that dude up off the kickoff,” Lopresti explained. “I can’t believe four years ago, I’m watching this guy in high school and now I’m playing next to him. When I first saw him and shook his hand it was a realisation of ‘this is actually for real now.’
For Lopresti and his teammates, it became “real” heading into Week two of the Major League Rugby (MLR) season. Some visa issues delayed his arrival, but Mtawarira’s impact was felt in a big upset win over the two-time defending champion Seattle Seawolves.
Four days into a new city, a new country, with a new team in a new league, The Beast put in a big shift, playing 72 minutes and helping to stabilise a scrum that was a major issue in a blowout Week 1 loss. Old Glory has not lost since and now head into a Week five match against Rugby ATL.
“To play a game four days after my arrival, it’s been really crazy,” Mtawarira explained. “Nevertheless, it’s been awesome to meet all the people in the setup. The management team and the players have been really welcoming. Coach Andrew [Douglas] is really keyed up on running a professional setup, and so far it’s been a great start.”
Not to be outdone, Lopresti was named man of the match that game, his first start, in front of a sellout home crowd. “That first game at home, I probably knew 150 of the people in the stands. Having them supporting me was a great experience, a dream come true.”
Tendai Mtawarira played a key part in South Africa’s third Rugby World Cup triumph in 2019. Stu Forster/Getty Images
For Lopresti, the transition from Gonzaga, to the DC-based Potomac Exiles’ Rugby Club, to Old Glory, was a natural one. For the defending World Cup champion, who fielded offers from around the globe, the decision to sign with one of MLR’s three 2020 expansion teams might not seem so obvious.
“At this stage in my career, do I really just want to go for the money, or do I want to do something that’s going to impact the game, grow the game globally, and contribute to my legacy?” Mtawarira explained about the decision to join Old Glory DC. “I watched what David Beckham did in Major League Soccer (MLS). He came here and played and made a huge impact as to where MLS is today. So if I could play some sort of role like that with MLR and just get the game to the next level in the states, that would be something that will be really rewarding.”
With a start-stop beginning to his MLR career, his impact on the team has come as much as a coach as it has player. After a game-and-a-half on the pitch, The Beast will find himself on the shelf for a couple of weeks as the 34-year-old prop recovers from neck and shoulder discomfort. His impact is still felt on the field though, according to Coach Douglas.
With 20, 21, and 22-year-old front rowers in the forms of Will Vakalahi, Lopresti, and Gordon Fullerton, coaching and passing on his experience is “part of the reason Tendai’s here,” Douglas explained. “We’ve been working hard on our set piece and our scrum, and to have a guy like that working to stabilise it, we’ve already seen improvement and we’ll see more improvement yet. We know it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take time, but he’s working hard to pass on his knowledge and give his fellow front-row boys a bit of confidence. They all want to learn from him.”
For Lopresti, it took being in a professional environment to take that next step in his development — a focus on diet and fitness that has allowed him to be more effective, for longer periods of time on the pitch. It’s a benefit that along with tutelage from international stars, many local and domestic players across the league have used to take their respective games to the next level.
A few hours north of DC, Rugby United New York enjoys a base from two of the top clubs in the nation in the forms of Old Blue and New York Athletic Club. Out west, Ma’a Nonu joined a backline loaded with capped Americans. The Utah Warriors and Rugby ATL out of Atlanta, Georgia, have seen a number of key members from local 7s and 15s national championship winners make names for themselves at the professional level.
Old Glory, at the heart of Washington DC and its mix of rich history, business opportunities and top-notch education for his children, was always going to be the squad for The Beast. He has made himself right at home with the local youth rugby scene; when he couldn’t suit up this past weekend, he instead joined a clinic in the DC suburb of Springfield, VA.
“I’ve travelled here to the U.S. prior, with my wife and family on holiday. I love this place already and realised that rugby’s got limitless potential here,” Mtawarira said. “We know Americans love contact sports, it’s not that long [of a game], and it’s highly entertaining. So I thought if I could have a hand in growing the game here and getting it to the next level, it would be a massive privilege to me. I’m excited to be here and go on this journey with Old Glory DC.”
Season in a sentence: How MLR looks at the 2020 season’s quarter mark
(Teams in bold are currently in playoff position)
1) San Diego Legion (4-0, 19 league points): Ma’a Nonu has proven the perfect complement to a backline loaded with capped Americans.
2) Toronto Arrows (4-0, 18 league points): Last year’s semifinalists look to be a team on a mission; the Eastern Conference leaders are even ahead of the Legion in point differential at +65.
3) Rugby United New York (3-1, 14 league points): A stumble out of the gate has been rectified by a three-game win streak as RUNY looks like the contenders many expected.
4) Old Glory DC (3-1, 13 league points): ‘The Beast’ has helped stabilise the scrum after it was on roller skates Week One; Jason Robertson has been a revelation at 10 in an explosive backline.
5) NOLA Gold (2-2, 11 league points) The cautionary tale to this year’s early contenders, NOLA is searching for that elusive first playoff appearance after firing out of the gate in 2019.
6) Rugby ATL (2-2, 10 league points) ATL impressed early but has dropped two straight after tight losses to RUNY and Toronto, respectively.
7) New England Free Jacks (1-3, eight league points) After a shocking Week One upset of RUNY, New England has come back to Earth on a three-game slide.
8) Utah Warriors (1-2-1, seven league points) Utah can look like contenders one week and also-rans the next. Fortunately for the Warriors the squad holds second in the struggling Western Conference.
9) Seattle Seawolves (1-3, six league points) The two-time defending champions busted out of an 0-3 hole last week, and currently sit in playoff position.
10) Houston Sabercats (1-3, five league points) Houston has improved on the field but it has yet to see demonstrable results in the record column.
11) Colorado Raptors (1-3, five league points) Like Seattle, Colorado broke out of an 0-3 start to the season and still have all possibilities ahead in the West.
12) Austin Gilgronis (0-3-1, three league points) The question of the year off the field is “What’s a Gilgroni?”, but Austin needs to answer that question on the field too. The Gilgronis clearly have individual talent but need to find cohesion to maximize it.