The 16th Annual Ambassadors Shield took place in Washington, DC Sunday Nov. 11. The event's original purpose was to promote New Zealand culture and sport, but 10 years ago that purpose was expanded to include a partnership to benefit the Hyde Rugby program at Hyde Public Charter School (now known as Pride Rugby at Perry Street Prep).
A full day of Rugby began in one of the more beautiful and historic settings in Washington, DC. Nestled between the intersection of Potomac and Anacostia Rivers lies the pristine parade grounds of Ft. McNair. The fort was first established in 1791 and is our nations third oldest military installation, currently serving as the home of the National Defense University.
(An interesting historical side note is Ft McNair was also the site of the first Federal Penitentiary built in 1826. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination conspirators were imprisoned there and after being found guilty, four were hanged and the rest received prison sentences. Among those hanged was Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed under federal orders.)
The event kicked off with High School 7’s matches between the French International School, the Virginia All Stars and the Pride 7’s JV and forwards squad. The All Star squad defeated a game French team seven tries to 2 and also took down the Pride Rugby team 6 tries to 3, despite a spirited comeback by the DC team.
Next up was old boy rugby between the Washington Poltroons and the Alexandria Roosters, as well as the newly founded All Deaf RFC vs. US Combined Services Vets. The Roosters showed their connection to all things French by sporting berets prior to and after the match. The Poltroons showed why they are one of the largest and most social old boys clubs with players representing just about every club in the Potomac Rugby Union. The game was spirited and the after match celebration was even more so.T
The All Deaf RFC was an exciting addition to this year’s event. Playing in their first ever game against a cagey Combined Services Veterans side, the All Deaf showed tremendous heart and passion as they made their debut. With their own determination and passion, the Combined Services side prevailed with a methodical and controlled effort to take the victory.
The next two games featured another rendition of the US Combined Services Vets vs. a Virginia Cardinals side and the Rugby Academy vs. the Virginia High School All Stars. The Vets vs. Cards game was a tale of two halves. The Cards dominated the first half but the Vets came roaring back and dominated the second half only to fall just short with only a try separating both teams and the games end.
The Academy vs. All Stars game was one of the more exciting games up to that point. The All Stars team stepped in with 30 minutes notice to fill in for a last minute “no show” to play the Academy. Both teams exchanged scores throughout the game and it looked like the Academy had the game in hand in the closing minutes only to give up a try and the lead at the final whistle.
Next up was youth rugby with Alexandria Youth Rugby playing exhibition matches with their U9 and U11 players. Judging by the quality of play and passion that the kids showed Alexandria certainly has a bright rugby future.
Playing in their third 7’s match of the day and 30 minutes after their XV’s match, the High School All Stars took on the much-vaunted Pride. Five of the Pride's starting seven have received HS All American Winter Camp invites for this December.
Pride showed their speed and ability to keep the ball alive in a dominating performance against the depleted All Star side, scoring seven tries to none. Despite the score line, the All Stars had a successful day of rugby, as they went 2-1 in 7’s and were victorious in their 15s match.
The feature match of the day pitted the New Zealand Ambassador’s XV vs. the US Combined Services. Both teams were lead onto the pitch in front of their flag bearers in front of approximately 1,500 fans. Following conclusion of each countries anthem, the NZ side performed their traditional Haka.
Perhaps it was the timing of the event on Veterans Day weekend or playing on the parade grounds of Ft. McNair in front of the homes of some of the highest ranking military officers in our Nations Capitol, but judging by the steely looks of fierce determination on the faces of the military side, they readily and gladly accepted the challenge.
The first half proved to be a barn burner as both teams played rugby bouncing from one end of the field to the other. The Combined Services’ No. 10, Rob Holder, used the wind at his back and precision kicking to regularly get his team out of a hole and gain field position. Also outstanding in their backs was fullback Andy Locke. Despite having just returned from duty in Afghanistan, Locke brought energy and pace into the backline. Shoring up the Combined Services forward pack was Air Force Academy Instructor and former Eagle, Brian Lemay. Lemay led from the front and was always in the thick of the action.
The New Zealand side had standouts of their own with fullback, Morgan Findlay from Lindenwood University (St Louis, MO). Findlay showed his ability both in attack and defense with an exceptional day as he inserted himself into multiple attacks and provided excellent cover defense. The Combined Services side had the momentum and the lead for almost the entire first half until the NZ side struck with a game changer at the whistle to take the lead 22-18.
As the second half progressed, the Ambassadors forwards began to utilize their size and experience and wear down the US military side. Ambassador’s XV prop, Royal Orbel, playing in his 10th Shield match deserves special recognition for his hard-nosed play and leadership of the forward pack. Also to be recognized is No. 6 Owen Lentz, who was a constant disruption at every breakdown and showed why he was once a member of the USA Eagles.
At the final whistle, the score stood at 41-18 in favor of the NZ Ambassador’s XV. Combined Services Coach, Rob Holder was effusive in his praise of both teams. “I am really proud of our effort and the heart and determination we showed. The NZ side was excellent at slowing our ball down and quickly recycling their own possession…that proved to be the difference.”
Following the match, a reception was held at the New Zealand Embassy for both teams, as well as the supporters of the event and Pride. In an evening filled with New Zealand food, speeches and rugby camaraderie, the event's title sponsor, Lockheed Martin, awarded a $10,000 check to support the Pride Rugby program at Perry Street Prep. Following acceptance of the check, Pride Rugby Alumni, Alex Pettiford gave a moving speech about his time spent in New Zealand and the effect rugby has had on his life. It was a fitting conclusion to remind us of the impact of the rugby community beyond the game itself.