WINCHESTER — During a break in Thursday’s Winchester Rugby Football Club practice at Weaver Park, high school division head coach Anna Moffett-Thompson stated matter-of-factly that Liam Whalen sometimes shows up at her house at 6 a.m. to get a ball and tackling pad.
“After games, he’d come down here [to Weaver Park] to practice things he didn’t do well in a game, or on things he perceived he didn’t do well,” Moffett-Thompson said.
With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder Major League Rugby’s Old Glory DC franchise, which plays its home games at Segra Field in Leesburg, selected the Clarke County High School rising senior for its inaugural development program.
And that determination is why Whalen was picked for the program even though he didn’t realize until halfway through last fall’s selection combine that he was trying out for Old Glory’s development program and not simply competing in a clinic.
Old Glory DC — one of 12 franchises in the nationwide professional league that stretches out to the West Coast and includes a franchise in Toronto — recently completed the first year of its Under-19 Old Glory Rugby Academy, a development program for 15-player rugby for boys and girls 16-18.
Old Glory Rugby Academy traveled to Weymouth, Mass., and competed on July 18 in the second game of its two-game series with the New England Free Jacks’ development academy team, the Junior Jacks to complete the academy season. More than 100 people tried out for the Old Glory boys’ program last fall, and Whalen was one of 32 who was selected from the Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., area. Whalen was the only Winchester Rugby Football Club member picked for the academy.
Old Glory bills the academy as “a genuine path to professional rugby.” Whalen’s not sure if he wants to try and be a professional rugby player — two careers he has on his mind right now are an infantry or artillery officer in the Army — but he’s definitely thinking about playing in college. Participating in the Old Glory Rugby Academy has provided Whalen with more training and more exposure to help with playing at the college level, and college rugby programs have expressed an interest in Whalen. (Whalen declined to name the programs.)
“[At Old Glory] he’s playing with Fort Hunt (out of Alexandria) kids, and Fort Hunt was ranked No. 4 nationally this year,” Moffett-Thompson said. “He’s playing with kids from Vienna, who was ranked No. 25 nationally this year. It’s a select group of kids, and it’s a feeder program into being looked at by colleges, and they’ve developed the program to feed kids into the MLR program.”
Even if Whalen doesn’t play rugby for a college team, odds are it will still be a big part of his life, and not just because his younger brother Patrick, a rising sophomore at Clarke County, also plays.
For Whalen, those 6 a.m. trips to Moffett-Thompson’s house are clearly not something he considers unusual, even though he has a busy schedule. Rugby is one of four sports Whalen competes in.
Just in the past year, Whalen earned Second Team All-Bull Run District honors in football on the defensive line, and earned Class 2 All-State honors in swimming (second on the 400-yard freestyle relay team, fourth in the 200 free, sixth in the 200 medley relay, sixth in the 200 free relay) and track & field (seventh in the 4×100 relay).
“It’s really hard to narrow it down or put into words,” said the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Whalen when asked why he loves rugby. “Honestly, I just love that I never get tired of it.”
Whalen first started playing rugby in elementary school in a two-hand touch league while he lived in Baltimore. Whalen — who moved to Berryville in eighth grade — stopped playing the sport though until his mom asked him if he wanted to play with Winchester’s program. Whalen joined the club’s high school team in ninth grade.
The Winchester Rugby Football Club active boys’ high roster consists of 24 players and draws from Clarke County, Handley, James Wood and Millbrook high schools, and also has home-school students. Winchester also has elementary and middle school programs for boys, and middle school and high school programs for girls. Moffett-Thompson coaches the high school boys and girls. She said this is the first year Winchester has fielded a girls’ high school team.
Whalen has played a few of the 15 rugby positions over the years, but over the last two years, he’s played the 8-man or “Number 8” position. (Winchester and Whalen are currently involved in seven-a-side rugby and concludes its season on Saturday in Bethesda, Md.)
Rugby consists of eight forwards and seven backs, and the 8-man makes up the back row of the forwards along with the six (left flanker) and seven (right flanker) positions.
Whalen says he likes the position because you need to have a strong sense of what’s developing on the field with teammates and with the opposition and because it’s a versatile position.
“I kind of get to do the job of a forward and a back,” Whalen said. “I get to be all around the field. I like to keep busy.”
Joe Barauskas, 52, was one of the founding members of Winchester Rugby Football Club in 2001 and has been involved with the game for 34 years. He used to be a player for Winchester’s men’s team, and now serves as one of the youth coaches. Barauskas said while Whalen might be a bit undersized for 8-man, but his strength, attitude, stamina and intelligence are why he excels at the position.
“[An 8-man] has to be omnipresent,” Barauskas said. “He has to be a force at every tackle. He has to be an exceptional ball-carrier, and his decision-making with the ball in his hand and on defense has to be exemplary.
“Physical toughness is important. Usually, eighth men and flankers are going to be first to the tackle. They’re going to set an emotional tone and a physical tone, and he’s very good at both.”
Moffett-Thompson, 38, has certainly been impressed with Whalen’s intelligence and communication since joining Winchester’s program two years ago and starting her coaching career. Moffett-Thompson was a flanker at Denison University in Granville, Ohio and for the Morris Women’s Rugby Club in Morristown, N.J. for about 12 years before moving to Virginia, and she started coaching Whalen in January.
“He understands the game and reads the games in the middle of it,” Moffett-Thompson said. “He can identify holes. He can identify weaknesses and communicate to the pack.”
Moffett-Thompson said Whalen is so comfortable with Joe Collins, a rising senior from Millbrook who plays the scrum-half position that links the forwards to the backs, that they don’t need to use words to know what each other is going to do.
Moffett-Thompson adds that Whalen sets an excellent example for his teammates. Winchester Rugby only practices twice a week as a group, but Whalen isn’t alone when he’s making his three to six trips per week to Weaver Park.
“He’s been a driving force behind the guys coming together as a more cohesive team this year,” Moffett-Thompson said. “I think he’s a guidepost for our kids coming in as freshmen. He’s really good with pulling in the newer kids and taking them under his wing. He doesn’t realize he does it, but he does.”
Winchester played seven matches during the 15s season from March to May (3-4 record) and has played seven so far during the 7s season (3-4, with a tournament title) that started in May, competing in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The hope is that Whalen will have some company from Winchester in the Old Glory Academy next year because of the example he’s set.
When Whalen went to the Old Glory combine at Segra Field, he initially thought it was an event in which he was simply going to showcase his abilities. But when he found out halfway through he was actually trying out for a team, it didn’t faze him.
“I was still going to go out there and execute,” Whalen said. “Honestly, I was kind of shocked when I got selected, just because I never looked at myself [on that level as a player].”
Whalen participated in six sessions last fall, and competed in two more per week beginning in May. The academy focuses on technical skills, mental skills, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and leadership taught by Old Glory coaches and team members. Moffett-Thompson said Old Glory had him play the 13 outside center position in the back, helping Whalen develop his rugby IQ even more.
“Typically forwards know what forwards do and backs know what backs do, and they don’t really understand what the other does,” she said. “He’s really becoming a very well-rounded player.”
Major League Rugby was formed in 2017. According to a 2020 story by rugbypass.com, most players are paid between $10,000 and $25,000, with select imports making $40,000. Whalen is a big fan of watching professional rugby and taking notes to apply to his own game.
“The guys were really helpful,” Whalen said. “Training with them emphasized what it was like to be a pro. It’s just great to see that there’s a future in rugby in America now. All the coaches we had were great.”
Whalen also enjoyed competing in the two-game series with New England. Old Glory lost the first game at home 23-17 on July 10, but won the second 38-9 eight days later in a game just outside Boston. Whalen said the 11-hour bus trip and staying in a hotel helped a great deal with the team’s focus for the second game.
Dates for next year’s Old Glory Academy tryouts have yet to be announced. Until then, Whalen is just going to keep the same routine he had before the academy was even formed. Even with all the practicing he does for football, swimming and track, Whalen always has time for rugby.
“I like practicing,” Whalen said. “It’s like the highlight of my day. I don’t really like to have down time. I want to get as much done as I can.”