The modern era has been fruitful for rugby in the United States. Its development model and parity between the sexes has been the envy of the sporting world.
The US women’s team won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1991 and were runners-up in 1998 (World Rugby dropped the women’s designation from the event’s name in August 2019). The chair of the board of USA Rugby is a woman, Barbara O’Brien, who has been involved in the sport since 1970. Rugby in America is progressive in nature both on and off the field, and its impact on world rugby far outweighs what its relatively small participation number of 125 000 suggests.
The Eagles go to the Rugby World Cup in Japan filled with optimism. They will arrive in the East with a few South Africans playing pivotal roles in their camp.
Head coach Gary Gold is familiar with many verses in the Springboks’ World Cup anthology. While coaching Western Province in 2007, he was given a crack at the big time when he was appointed as assistant Bok coach by Peter de Villiers. Gold operated at the heart of the Springbok system until he left after De Villiers resigned in 2011. It was a fairly successful tenure for Gold, being part of a series victory against the British and Irish Lions in 2009 and three wins over the All Blacks in that same year.
With stints in Super Rugby and the English Premiership, Gold is more travelled than most coaches at the World Cup. The first test of that experience will come when the US faces England on 26 September in Kobe City – a place with which Gold is familiar, having coached the Kobelco Steelers rugby union team for a year. It’s where he bonded with former Springbok Jaque Fourie, the recently appointed US defence coach.
Together, Gold and Fourie will look to guide the Eagles through the challenges of playing in Japan. Their unbeaten run in the 2018 Americas Rugby Championship will pale in comparison to the pounding they will face against Tonga, the flair of the French and the physicality of Argentina. Defensively, Fourie must come up with a plan to stop the world’s best players from breaching the line.
South African flavour
“I am so excited to be a part of the USA coaching staff and team,” Fourie said after being appointed. “They have grown so much in the last year and after playing in three Rugby World Cups myself, I know what a massive honour and privilege it is to be part of one of the biggest sporting events in the world. To do that with this team and as a coach will be amazing.”
Fourie started playing rugby in Japan in 2011, including five years with the Kobelco Steelers from 2012 to 2017, where he helped with defensive tactics until he retired. With 72 Tests and nine World Cup tries in his armoury, Fourie should be able to impart some of the defensive knowledge that the US will need. But a match must still be won on the field, regardless of how impressive the coaching staff is.
Adding to the South African flavour is Marcel Brache, an American-born, Cape Town-raised wing. Brache played Currie Cup rugby for two years and just one game for the Stormers before signing for Super Rugby side Western Force in Australia in 2013. His best performance in a rugby jersey is a first-half hat trick for Force against the Sunwolves in 2015.
Ruben de Haas is another young product of the South African rugby system. Born in George, he emigrated with his family when he was 11 years old and finished his schooling in the US. De Haas comes from a family of Cheetahs players. His father Pieter and grandfather Gerard both played for Free State.
De Haas eventually played Varsity Cup and SuperSport Rugby Challenge before catching the eye of coach Gold, who included him in his Eagles training camp in June. De Haas would have to dethrone fellow South African-born Shaun Davies for the scrumhalf berth. Davies left South Africa after attending Westville High School in Durban, to study overseas. He won two national college titles with Brigham Young University and has been instrumental in helping the Eagles achieve success in the Pacific region.
Hanco Germishuys is another player whose parents emigrated from South Africa. He never lost his love for rugby and was rewarded by being selected for the Nebraska All-Star team at club level until he eventually joined the Gloucester academy in 2014, before training briefly with the Sharks academy a year later. Germishuys has been part of the Under-19 US national team setup since he was 14 years old. For most of his development, he has been a precocious talent who still required a waiver to play in the 2014 IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy because he was under the age of 18 at the time.
A mix of nations
There is also a New Zealand, Australia and Irish influence in the US team, but at the heart of it is an All-American with an all-American name – Blaine Scully. It’s a name worthy of Hollywood and made for television sports movies.
Scully earned honours in swimming and water polo, but chose rugby. His decision paid off as he went on to win two National Championships and captain the USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans touring squad. Scully will need to lead his charges with the hero status that’s been thrust upon him.
The strategy for progress in US rugby is to tick the critical boxes – funding, professional administration, gender parity, ample resources and facilities – and infuse them with the correct dosage of international flavour to buy experience.
In 2011, USA Rugby’s rookie programme won the International Rugby Board Development Award. It’s a programme that introduces the sport in schools and community and state-based rugby organisations, one that far exceeded its initial target of 100 000 participants. That same year, USA Rugby, in partnership with the US Olympic committee, awarded full-time training scholarships to 23 sevens rugby athletes. It’s the kind of forward-thinking advancements that complement the use of overseas-born players to the betterment of the game’s future in the country.
In a historic moment in June 2018, the US recorded its first victory against a tier-one nation when it beat No. 6 ranked Scotland 30-29 in Houston, Texas.
The Eagles’ Sevens team has been involved in impactful public relations for US Rugby by producing one of the best sevens players to grace the circuit in Perry Baker, the flying American who has been named Sevens Player of the Year for two consecutive years.
The NFL rejected Baker because of a torn meniscus in his right knee. No team would sign him and he found himself unemployed and without an income for a few years.
“The worst times in my life were when I had nowhere to go, nowhere to live. Sometimes I’d stay in a two-bedroomed apartment with 12 other guys. Sometimes I’d sleep in my truck, because I didn’t want to go back to Florida, I wanted to stay and learn the game of rugby,” Baker said in a recent interview. “Being involved in rugby helps me with life. It teaches me important lessons like how to deal when things don’t go according to plan. Like either I’m going to lay down and say my life is over, or I’m going to fight.”
You won’t see Baker in Japan, but the spirit that he embodies is prevalent in US rugby structures. And although the Eagles may not win a single game at the World Cup, teams who come up against them will know that they are playing a team that has paid its dues to the game of rugby and deserves to be treated with respect.