Old White Phoenix Rises
The game of rugby was first brought to Atlanta in 1966 when Englishman Alan Simms founded the Atlanta RFC. Around the same time, rugby was imported to the college town of Athens, about an hour northeast of Georgia’s capital. The Athens club quickly flourished, far surpassing the standard of the floundering Atlanta RFC. In 1971 Atlanta RFC was further weakened by a group of “Renegade” players who broke away from the club to form The Atlanta Renegades. This breakaway club proved no more successful than the original version of Atlanta RFC, leaving Atlanta with two less than dominating sides.
While the beginnings of rugby in Atlanta were far from glorious, the seeds of a great club had been planted, and in 1974 they gave fruit. Four men; Beau Bock and Bob Langley from the Renegades along with Dan Fry and David Branch from Atlanta, met over a cheap domestic (or two) to discuss the formation of a new club dedicated to winning rugby.
Beau Bock, an experienced prop from New York who had played against both All Blacks and Fiji, seeing the need for instant credibility suggested the club rename itself “Old White” — a name worn proudly by the club for over 30 years. The new club made its debut in the Fall of 1974 on Satuday, November 16th with a tough 9-0 loss to Clemson University. The memory of this loss, though, was erased by a stunning 31 game winning streak. Seven times during this streak, Old White took the championship final in national caliber tournaments. Old White’s winning ways finally ended in 1976, but by this point the club had established itself as a dominating force in Southern rugby. Later that year, though, in November of 1976 in the finals of the prestigious Peachtree Invitational Tournament, Old White would suffer another tough loss. This time the loss was to the Renegades. It was the first time Old White had fallen to their cross-town rivals.
Changing Dynamics of Rugby in Atlanta
Still, Old White continued to play a high level of rugby. Throughout this time, Old White developed a reputation as a premier hosting and touring club with a tour of England and Wales in 1981, a second tour to England in 1985 and a tour of New Zealand in 1990. Old White made its fourth team tour to Scotland in March of 1996. The club has also hosted touring sides from Ireland, New Zealand, England, Argentina and Wales. The dynamics of rugby in Atlanta, The South and the Eastern Rugby Union changed in 1984 when Life Chiropractic College in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta started a rugby program. Unlike most American men’s clubs, Life was well-equipped with extensive financial resources, and was able to award scholarship grants to many top-level players. It was only three years after their inception that Life won the Eastern Championships.
With the emergence of a powerful program at Life, Old White again dedicated itself to becoming the best Atlanta had to offer. 1988 saw a tie with mighty Life and a 13-12 victory over the Renegades propelled Old White to the Eastern playoffs.
It was in 1989, though, which proved to be a watershed year for Old White Rugby as the club advanced to the Eastern semifinal game where it once again faced the rival Renegades. A bitter 12-9 loss motivated Old White to redouble its efforts, and that fall Old White rolled over all comers, including a 37-6 win over Life, to win the Southeastern championship and advance to the Eastern Finals. After falling behind early to perennial Eastern contender, Washington, DC, Old White mounted a courageous second half comeback, cutting the lead to three late in the game. Unfortunately, the comeback ran out of time, and Old White suffered a dramatic 13-10 loss. After the 1990 tour of New Zealand, Old White worked its way back to the Eastern Rugby Union Championship game where it defeated Mystic River Rugby Club of Boston to win the Eastern Championships. It was also in 1990 that the Old White 7′s program first qualified as one of only eight teams to make the Eastern Rugby Union Playoffs, an achievement it would duplicate in both 1991 and 1992.
The club went through a brief down period in 1993 and 1994 as many of the players who led the charge through the late 1980′s and early 1990′s retired from active member status. Still, the drive to return to national prominence remained, and 1995 saw a restoration of the traditional high standard of Old White.
Reemergence in the South
Signs of the reemergence showed themselves in the fall of 1994. After losing its first five games, the club rallied to take six of its final seven games, finishing at .500 and taking third place in the Palmetto Union tournament. The Spring of 1995 saw more improvements as Old White, under the leadership of coach and captain Steve Yeager, finished with an overall record of 9-1 and 6-0 in the Palmetto Union. That summer, the Old White 7′s first side again qualified as one of the final eight teams in the Eastern Rugby Union playoffs.
It was the Fall of 1995, though, which signaled the return of Old White. With a final A-side regular season record of 11-1, and a second straight 6-0 tally within the Union, Old White was crowned Palmetto Union Champions after an exhausting 26-23 triple overtime victory over Hilton Head, SC. That win and the Championship earned Old White a #1 seed in the Division II National Championships.
But before the Nationals, Old White embarked on its fourth tour, this one to the beautiful countryside of Scotland. Luck was not with Old White once the Nationals resumed after the tour, bowing out early. But soon there after, Old White joined the Georgia Rugby Union Fall 1996, and took it by storm as well, winning the Georgia Rugby Union Championship as well as winning the Division II USA Rugby South Championships. This Championship earned Old White a trip to Chicago for the Division II Nationals Sweet 16. Old White fought with Wisconsin RFC back and fourth, and nearly succumbed a three try deficit late in the match, but fell short.
1998 looked very promising, after reaching the sweet 16, the team was set to top that and drive for a National Championship. After a great regular season, Old White walked into the South semi’s confident, but almost too confident. the results… a loss and early dismissal from the championships.
1999 was another great year for Old White as they became 1999 Division Champions and earned Old White a trip to Dallas for the Division II Nationals Sweet 16. Unfortunately Old White lost in the first round to Albany – New York. In the Fall of 2001, Old White RFC won the Georgia Championship again leading the league against Greenville, Nashville, Renegades and Hilton Head.
In 2002, the club won the South and advanced to the Elite Eight. With this amazing season unlocking the true potential of Atlanta Old White, the club would try it’s hand at Division I rugby.
For 2 years, Atlanta OWRFC participated in up and coming USA Rugby South Division I competition. With both thrilling victories and tough losses, what Old White did not foresee was the changing of the guard. In 2003 and 2004, it was time for some of the older players who had brought the club so much success in the late 90′s to step down and let a new era of Old White rugby begin. Also in these 2 years, the players of Old White grew to miss perhaps the best and most important aspect of rugby – the social side of the game. With these factors combined, Old White decided that their grand entrance into Division I rugby should wait for a better opportunity.
Run for the National Title
The 2005 season brought one of the greatest rugby experiences a club has ever had to Atlanta Old White. New Coach, Brynn Ireland, was overwhelmed with the enthusiasm at the opening practice of the spring season, with over half-a-hundred players showing up eager to improve their games. The magical spring season was filled with intense and enjoyable practices, thrilling victories, and many amazing nights at the bar that young men dream about and young women blush about. Road trips took Old White across the US – to North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and California. The spring season, which saw Old White become Division II South “Conference A” champions, become South Regional Champions, and National Sweet 16 champions was capped off by Atlanta Old White claiming the prize of National runner-up in San Diego, California. Atlanta OWRFC played their national championship matches in the San Diego Charger’s Qualcomm stadium, received a coaching clinic from a New Zealand All Black player, and received multi-media press coverage to spawn a new era of Old White rugby.
This 2005 season brought a resurgence to Old White in many ways. Many of the players who helped bring Old White back to glory were rookies or young players, who are planning on sticking around for awhile, recharging Old White. The club reinstated their relationship with the Five Paces Inn bar in Buckhead, expanding OWRFC sponsorship. This expansion and influx of young players also saw a renewed social scene including college-like zeal for the bar; Old White players could be seen frequenting the Atlanta night scene every night of the week with Sunday and Tuesday night drink ups being added to the roster. One of the strongest signs of the reinvigorated club, was a tremendous B-side showing; the Atlanta Old White “Killer B’s” ending with a decidedly winning record. The season was also a cultural experience, with players hailing from Argentina, Canada, Fiji, England, France, South Africa, and of course the United States.
As the club reloads for another run at the National Championship, we invite all who read this to join us, share the vision…and the realization of the vision.