Earning their stripes: U.S. rugby team takes aim in spotlight


By Eric H. Lewis


(USA TODAY, 29 June 2009)



Michael Petri, a captain on the U.S. national rugby team, braced himself as he walked into his manager's office at a private wealth-management firm in Manhattan. When he asked for several weeks off to tour with the team, his boss laughed.

"My boss is very supportive of me and what I'm doing, but they gave me a leave of absence, cut my pay and cut my benefits," Petri says. "Still, it's a huge honor to play for the national team."

Such is life for the select group of Americans that make up the USA Eagles. A milestone in rugby's growth comes Saturday in Charleston, S.C., where the Eagles face Canada in a World Cup qualifying game. It will be the first international rugby match to be shown live on ESPN (4 p.m. ET).

If the Americans win the home and away games in the series vs. Canada, they will automatically qualify for the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. If they lose the series to Canada, they'll play Uruguay for the last Americas qualifying spot. The World Cup, held every four years with 20 qualifying teams, was the third-most-watched sporting event in the world in 2007, according to the International Rugby Board (IRB).

Rugby, which began in England in 1823, spread throughout the British colonies but has not caught on in America in part because football is ingrained as the nation's sport. Organized American rugby competes against the cash-rich football industry from the youth level to the NFL.

The U.S. team is composed of amateur players who receive small per diems from USA Rugby while competing at the highest level in one of the world's most popular and dangerous sports. Ranging in age from 19 to 35, the 33-man team is a microcosm of America, counting among its players an Air Force lieutenant, college students, teachers, bankers, security guards and fathers.

In contrast, other national rugby programs pay hefty salaries to their players, many of whom gain fame as sports stars in their countries. New Zealand, ranked No. 1 in the world by the IRB, recently agreed to pay its players a $100,000 bonus for selection to the national team. Players also receive a share of the national team's revenue. On top of that, all of New Zealand's players earn salaries from their professional-level club teams.

Only a handful of U.S players are signed to professional teams abroad, in countries ranging from England to France to Australia.

Many of the USA's players live on the per diem — $100 while on tour — because the travel and training make it difficult to hold steady jobs, says Petri, 25, who plays scrumhalf, a position that shares some traits with quarterback in football.

"They look forward to that per-diem check," he says. "A lot of the guys pick up odds and ends. They don't have health insurance, and you have to take that into consideration. Some have wives and kids, and they put it all on the line to represent their country."

Even while participating in a dangerous sport without the benefit of pads, players are responsible for their health insurance. They are in talks with USA Rugby, the sport's national governing body, to change that.

Petri says he was able to train with the team since 2007 because he had a job with his family's 100-year-old plumbing business based in Brooklyn. Eventually he earned a position at the wealth-management firm.

"We're on the same level as other international players, because, realistically, you are," says Petri, who made his U.S. national team debut in the 2007 World Cup. "We spend 40 hours a week working. They spend 40 hours a week playing rugby."

Putting it all on the line

Will Johnson, 25, who plays the prop position for the USA, balances his national team commitments with his studies as a graduate student at Oxford. Recently he finished writing two final papers in the hotel lobby after a match against Ireland in Denver.

"The hardest part about playing for the U.S. is maintaining the needs of an international-level training schedule amongst the needs of a normal life," says Johnson, who works part time as a coach and tutor. "Guys on the team need understanding wives and girlfriends."

National team coach Eddie O'Sullivan says he respects the players' commitment and understands their challenges.

"I have to be sympathetic to their needs as far as availability," he says. "They put their lives on hold; their families, their jobs. They have a fantastic ability to overcome obstacles to represent their country."

O'Sullivan led his native Ireland to the championship of the annual Six Nations Championship — the premier European rugby tournament — only to lose on account of aggregate points to France in 2007. That was after a 2003 World Cup quarterfinals berth. After a stint as head coach of the USA Eagles in the late 1990s, he returned to the program this season.

"What attracts me to America is the desire to overcome obstacles," he says.

"There are some strong rugby nations around the world driven by huge finances. If they had the problems that the USA has to overcome, those players wouldn't be playing."

The USA, ranked 18th in the world out of 95 teams, ended a six-game losing streak this month with a convincing 31-13 victory against Georgia for fifth place in the Churchill Cup in Denver, the only international tournament played in the USA.

O'Sullivan points out the six losses came against higher-ranked nations with professional players, including top-10-ranked Wales, Ireland and England.

When it comes to everyday life opposing rugby, Petri says, "Everyone understands how special it is to have the opportunity to play for your country. It's a fundamental issue for a lot of guys with regards to normal work. A lot of the guys have understanding bosses, and as rugby gets more popular, it becomes easier."

Game on

Although the USA is designated a "second-tier" nation by the IRB, the sport is growing nationally. USA Rugby has more than 2,000 clubs and 65,000 players registered. More than 22,000 are classified as Teen Male players, ensuring the sport's next generation is prepared.

O'Sullivan hopes the ESPN broadcast can highlight the attraction of rugby to a U.S. audience. "It's a great spectator sport. It's got the foot skills of soccer, the collision of the gridiron — to play the game you've got to have a huge skill set," he says.

Another sign of growth is the Super League, which is maintained by USA Rugby as the premier level of men's club competition nationally. It is technically semiprofessional, and players are not paid.

Petri plays for the New York Athletic Club, one of the league's 16 teams. Ten other players on the Eagles roster represent Super League teams.

While many players come up through the Super League, some come from very different backgrounds. Johnson played center and guard for Harvard's football team before making the practice squads of the NFL's Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots. He went to a rugby game in San Francisco and fell in love with the sport.

Petri came to the national team through college rugby, graduating from Penn State in 2006. He was selected to the All-American Collegiate Squad four consecutive years.

Petri says converting strong athletes to rugby in college is the sport's future in the USA.

"College sports define everything. If there were more college opportunities, the game would grow."

The sport's growth could benefit greatly from the World Cup qualifying series with Canada. The Eagles have faced Canada a record 43 times, with 11 victories. A win against Canada put the Eagles through to the 2003 World Cup, where they finished third in their pool division.

That international rivalry, coupled with the game's ferocity, drives the national team's players.

"It's a special feeling, standing on the sideline and singing the national anthem," Johnson says.

O'Sullivan sees Saturday's game as indicative of the future. "We feel that if we get certain things in place," he says, "it's game on."

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