Who We Are: The Village Lions History by Mike Malone

The Village Lions were spawned from Greenwich Village’s Red Lion Pub in 1989, a collection of rugby-playing bartenders, bouncers and boozers from all corners of the globe. Team founder/Red Lion owner Alan Whelan, an Irishman, opted for black and white stripes on the Lions jerseys as an homage to the Barbarians, a global invitational team that celebrates the diversity of nationality. The red lion logo on the chest saluted the pub where the club’s initial seeds were planted.

Original Lions include former French U-19 Thierry Langlais, South African Francis Laros, former Harlequins (U.K.) scrumhalf Mike Bainbridge, Tato, Alex Delasantos, Mike Callan and homegrown players like Mike McKeon, Stevie Ray, Marty Rosenthal and Dennis Martin. Whelan had connections at St. John’s University, and a handful of recent grads soon joined the club, including Kieran Holohan and Chris Ratay. The early Lions took the MetNY union by storm, winning the third division in 1991, then grabbing the DII title a year later. The A-side was captained by Red Lion barkeep/New Zealander Joe Kelly, a hooker with an ear deformed from a lifetime in the middle of the scrum.

The early B-sides were captained by No. 8 Kevin Shuker, an Englishman. Shuker later offered players physical therapy in the basement of his East Village tea shop, where he also practiced his didgeridoo. Other victories in the fledgling days of the Lions include winning a Binghamton, N.Y. tournament, with Mike Bainbridge being named tourney MVP. The 1992 DII championship earned the Lions a spot in the Division I competition for the fall of 1993.

The Lions were celebrated for their Southern Hemisphere flair on the pitch and for post-match accommodations that were the envy of the opponents. Drink-ups occurred at the Red Lion, in the heart of Greenwich Village, and around the corner at the Lion’s Den, Whelan’s rock club where he planned to build a proper rugby clubhouse in the basement. The carousing ventured all over lower Manhattan before members would assemble for a nightcap back at the Lion.

The first team dinner was at a TGI Fridays on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue that was managed by Lions hooker Marty Rosenthal, with gag gifts given out to players, including a Golden Boot for one with a knack for separating opponents on the ground from the ball. Another early team dinner was held at Whelan’s upscale Village restaurant, Peter’s Backyard, named for his nephew, who played scrumhalf for the Lions and performed music on the Red Lion stage, later touring with KISS as an opening act.

With Tim Katsoulis, Freddy Langlais (Hall of Famer Thierry’s younger brother), Nick Morgan and a Samoan forward named Brendan Reidy on the 1993 side (Reidy would go on to earn dozens of caps for Western Samoa, including playing in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups and a professional career in the U.K.), the Lions performed adequately during their first year in the first division. But Whelan made the fateful business decision to cut back on the high-quality players he imported from established rugby nations, and the team’s success was left to its young American players. The Village Lions nearly dissolved in the aftermath.

In the 1993-1994 offseason, players discussed whether they’d leave for other New York clubs or quit the game entirely. A small nucleus, including Ratay, Katsoulis, Edwin Mays and Rob Babcock, was determined to keep Village Lions RFC afloat. With thin numbers and no hired guns from overseas, the Lions decided to move back down to Division III in 1994, with matches on Randall’s Island and training in a baseball outfield at East River Park, with players lugging lights and a generator to the field for some degree of visibility during training.

Conditions were shoddy, and on-field performance wasn’t much better, though there was always Forest Hills on the schedule. In 1995, the Lions used a Coast Guard connection to get a field on Governors Island, in the shadow of the World Trade Center and Statue of Liberty. Players took the ferry across New York Harbor for training and home matches, and drink-ups were held on the pitch in this scenic spot. Unfortunately, numbers stayed low and coaching was lacking.

One training session saw Jeff Evans, Bill McHugh and Mike Malone grab a Governors Island groundskeeper so they could have enough players for two-on-two touch and salvage the evening’s trip to Governors. The Coast Guard later vacated the island, and in 1996 the Lions returned to East River Park for training and Randall’s Island for matches.

Key players in the mid and late ’90s include former captains Monte Murphy and Ben Projansky, Tim Tuohy, Javier Hevia, Ken Murphy, Dan Taylor, Bob Pierson, Mike Barry, Carl Trezza, Bill McGoldrick, Mike Donnelly, Steve Raia, Clay Luraschi and “280″ Paul Marotta. Jeff Evans was B-side captain for much of this period. Club presidents included Murphy, Steve Mooney, George Rohloff, Greg Faherty and Eric Anahory.

One memorable 1997 league match saw the Lions and nemesis Princeton AC battle to a 0-0 tie in Princeton, a tense match that was blown up a few minutes early due to repeated fisticuffs sparked by a fiery French hooker who shall remain nameless. The Lions had their own beat writer for a spell, as the Villager weekly paper would send a reporter to cover home matches.

1997 saw the Lions find a new home at Fiddlesticks in Greenwich Village, where we stayed until 2002. Sponsorship from Fiddlesticks, owned by Niamh Conway and Peter O’Dwyer, was instrumental in stabilizing the club at this time. Opposing players were always impressed by the giant pub setting, the upscale post-match chow, and the wide selection of premium beers on draft (not to mention the winsome Irish barmaids who pulled the taps). The pub was essential to recruiting, too, and the Lions banner hung in the rear of the bar for years.

WOMEN’S LIONS

Spring 2000 saw the Lady Lions launch on the backs of standout players and club members like Jessica Houser, Erin Martschenko, Jennifer Lightbody, Val Easterwood, Gretchen Doughty, Cassie Abodeely and Karen McGraw, and a passel of Princeton grads including Rachel Liberatore, Tracy Dubovick and Lara Larsen. The Lady Lions, nicknamed the Leonas, have had a meteoric run of success in their short lifespan. In 2002, they took the USA Rugby DII championship in Cincinnati. In 2004, the women made the national DII quarterfinals en route to a No. 6 national rank. In 2005, the Leonas made the national semifinals for a No. 3 national rank.

LION KINGS

With a push from Bill McHugh and Alan Lobo, the Village Lions launched a 35-and-over old boys side in 2001, quickly building rivalries with the Connecticut Greys and the Gentlemen of New York. The Lion Kings, captained by Pat Nihan, toured Memphis last fall, the trip arranged by Memphis-based Lion Francis “Mule” Camillo and attracting Lion Kings from all over the country, including Dr. Demento Heiberger in Oklahoma and George “Godzilla” Rohloff in Boca. Prominent television journalist Martin Bashir, formerly of 20/20, has represented the Lion Kings at scrumhalf for a number of seasons.

HOME PUBS

With Whelan out of the picture for part of the ’90s, the Village Lions spent less time (and money) at the Red Lion. Club members bounced around to various drinking establishments, with official drink-ups at the Irish Times and Paddy MacGuire’s, as well as Cherry Tavern after training, before Alan Lobo got the Lions back to the Village with Fiddlesticks.

Fundraiser socials were held at the Village Idiot in the West Village and the Blue Moose in Tribeca during the ’90s. McCormack’s Pub was the mainstay for Five Nations (and later, Six Nations) viewing on early Saturday mornings in the winter.

As the club’s new practice spot has moved from East River Park to Mott Haven, the club has moved away from its previous Thursday night watering hole Croxley’s Ale House (albeit making many guest appearances) to its still inconveniently located yet lovable neighbor, Dorian Gray’s. The club continues to host all its home game socials at Van Diemens in Murray Hill.

TOURS

Players from no fewer than 42 nations have worn the Lions jersey. With their worldly makeup, the Lions showed a taste for touring since the early days. The club made trips to Louisiana Mardi Gras tournaments in 1994 and 1995; the latter saw the team’s flight canceled due to a snowstorm in New York. After several hours of supporting the airport bar — and making the local TV news in their purple and gold tour jerseys – the Lions tourists flew standby to Houston and drove through the night to Baton Rouge. The weary Lions took the field after just an hour or two of sleep in cars or a pair of packed hotel rooms.

The side, featuring Ken Murphy, Pat O’Keefe, Bill and Tim McHugh, Kieran Holohan, Mike Malone, Jim Moore, Mike McKeon, Javier Hevia, Rob Babcock, Tim Katsoulis and Bert Oberlander, won their first game, against Harrisburg (Penn.), 10-5. Then tiredness set in and the Lions lost heavily to host Baton Rouge before making their way to NOLA for Hurricanes and revelry.

The club has since toured Amsterdam/Copenhagen/Stockholm; then Italy; and then England/Ireland in 2005, facing off against Old Actonians Vets in London, then Dublin Maccabees and the Galwegians in Ireland. The Lions continued their touring ways with a jaunt to Argentina in 2009.  The men then went to Portugal and Spain in 2010 and learned the fine art of tackling a bull. (See YouTube for details.) The Leonas took their first international tour in 2010 to commemorate their 10th anniversary, traveling to Spain and France. The Leonas won in Barcelona and Toulouse, then lost in Beziers but enjoyed the privilege of playing in a proper rugby stadium.

AWARDS DINNERS

The first fall awards dinner was held in 1995 at a cheesy Times Square outpost of Beefsteak Charlie’s that later prompted the chain to change its all-you-can-drink policy. Subsequent events at the Irish Times saw the handing out of gag gifts, but the gifts soon transformed into more meaningful keepsakes for performance on and off the pitch. The club’s 10th anniversary in 1999 was marked with a black-tie dinner at the midtown pub Connolly’s. For years, the awards dinner was prefaced by a U.S. vs. The World intrasquad match, with the World winning most years and serenading the losers with an off-key rendition of “We Are the World.” When the match started to get too chippy, the tradition was given the red card. The Lady Lions started their own Old Girls vs. Young Girls tradition in 2005.

INTERNATIONAL LIONS

Besides Brendan Reidy playing for Western Samoa, several Lions have suited up for national teams. Clay Luraschi was capped numerous times for the Philippines, and Kenneth Stern and Chris Hitch have represented that national team, too. Luis Schroeder represented Luxembourg in test rugby, and Nils Clotteau has suited up for the tiny African nation of Benin while helping build infrastructure in the poor nation. The Frenchman said the harsh pitches of West Africa made him homesick for Randall’s Island. Jessica Houser has represented the U.S. national women’s team.