Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
Blaine Scully is one of the relatively few North American players to secure not one but two professional contracts with top-ranking clubs in the UK. It’s a rare occurrence for rugby players from ‘home’ to have the great fortune and experience of playing overseas. It’s also very lucky for the Canadian and American supporters; not only do we see our heroes play on a regular basis if we watch professional rugby, but they bring that experience back to their teams. It’s a great win-win.
For 30 year old Scully, it’s been a great win all around for him and for his career. Massively popular amongst his peers and supporters alike – and talented at fullback – he’s also been the US Eagles’ captain since 2015.
Scully appeared for the Eagles at both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, as well as the 2011 Pan American Games with the 7s team. With over 75 caps between the illustrious Leicester Tigers of the Aviva Premiership and Pro14’s Cardiff Blues, and a further 37 caps for the US, Scully has learned and seen much.
The highlights are many as an Eagle. “Personally, it does not get better than representing the United States. Receiving the jersey, running out behind the flag, and listening to the National Anthem are some of my proudest moments. It is a true honour to share that with teammates, who become brothers.” One of the standout memories for Scully (among facing the All-Blacks at Soldier Field in Chicago and touring New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup) is facing Canada in his home town of Sacramento in 2014. “It was a game I will never forget. The match was back and forth for 80 minutes. In the end, we came from behind to win the test.”
Of his time with first Leicester from 2013 to 2015, then with Cardiff as of 2015, Scully feels fortunate to have had such a great run across the pond. At Leicester, Scully was only supposed to have a two week trial, but it went on to become two solid seasons. Of signing the contract he says, “it was a proud moment, the culmination of years of hard work and the start of a fantastic few seasons at a very special place. I will always be grateful to Leicester for the opportunity, the incredible experience, and the mates I made there.”
I mention that at that time, he played against other Eagles regularly; Samu Manoa was a regular fixture for Northampton Saints, and Chris Wyles was often on the field for Saracens, also two popular and successful teams. I asked Scully to share his impressions of meeting fellow Eagles on the Premiership field. “It was always fun to play against Chris and Samu. The years I was at Tigers, all three of our clubs were in the playoffs with both Chris (Sarries) and then Samu (Saints) winning the Premiership title. Pretty cool experience for all of us, as well as American rugby.” Well, one might extend that to North American rugby. When we face our closest rivals on the pitch, we’re on opposite teams. But when one of our own gets a professional contract overseas, we’re proud of “one of us” – North American, Tier Two players – making a mark in rugby’s birthplace.
Since 2015 Scully has played for The Cardiff Blues for the Pro14, which he says is a little different from playing for the Premiership in England, with each presenting “unique challenges.” However, he feels at home in Cardiff. He explains: “the Cardiff Arms Park, one of rugby’s historic grounds, is a true cathedral of the game. As for the supporters, they are a special group who have been unbelievably welcoming, occasionally with a “USA” chant that makes me feel at home.”
It’s five professional seasons between Leicester and Cardiff, two of the oldest and most established clubs in the world. Scully is nothing but honoured to have played in both cities. “Both clubs have so much tradition, wonderful people associated with them, and supporters that are world class.” he says.
Shifting gears to Sevens, Scully reflects on how he’s watched the popularity of the game grow with much interest, having played 7s from 2009-2013. “It has been fascinating to see how quickly the game of 7s has evolved. With the Series expanding, fully professional squads, and the Olympic movement, Sevens has become a truly fantastic spectacle.” He’s proud of how well the USA 7s has improved in recent years, saying they’ve “become one of the most formidable programs in the world.”
His home state of California is hosting the Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco this summer, and he’s excited to see it. He believes that the USA will do well. By all accounts, it’s certainly looking that way.
In general, Scully admits there are still challenges before American rugby but feels that overall it’s an exciting time for rugby in North America. “The game is growing globally and within the United States there is more exposure to the sport than there has ever been. Sevens in the Olympics is doing fantastic things for our sport, and with the launch of Major League Rugby, our professional player pool is now in the hundreds.” That said, we’re all aware that growth rests on the grassroots growing and more youth turning to rugby. There are markets where that’s an issue (recent numbers in New Zealand are not promising at the grassroots level) but as of now, not in North America.
I asked Scully about his role in the creation of the USRPA (United States rugby player’s association). It’s taken a long time for the players and staff involved to make it a reality for American players, but with pride Scully shares that it’s finally coming to fruition.
“The purpose of the USRPA is to create the highest quality experience for high performance rugby players in the United States. The aim is to protect & promote their welfare in addition to growing the game in the US. The best “Unions” around the world are supported by vibrant and engaged players’ associations. Fundamentally, players’ associations are for and consist of current athletes. But the impact they can achieve offers something greater – helping our sport be the best it can be.”
He goes on to say that there are many moving parts – the USRPA has to have buy-in by all parties in order to be successful and to truly advocate for the health and well-being of the players. He is proud that all the hard work is paying off.
One of the key people Scully has worked with to make the USRPA a success is Todd Clever, former Eagle captain and good friend. Clever speaks highly of Scully, saying that their playing styles are like their business acumen: different yet complimentary of each other’s goals, especially since the bottom line has always been the same. Clever respects Scully as a person immensely, saying that he’s one of the most self-disciplined, hard working, and giving players out there. The feeling is mutual for Scully, who says that former captain Clever is “one of the great servants of USA Rugby, representing the Eagles for almost 15 years which is a pretty outstanding contribution” (alluding to Clever’s final two years as an Eagle). If you’d like to read about Clever going out On His Own Terms, please check out this piece I wrote a few months ago.
About working together on the USRPA, Clever says that there are still challenges getting it up and running, but that they “have definitely made a lot of headway” and that Scully “deserves a lot of credit for getting us there. He’s put in a lot of hours.” Clever says that if ever there was a player that puts his family and community first, regardless of where he’s playing, it’s Blaine Scully. “He’s pouring his heart and soul into making this USRPA a reality.”
These two incredibly successful Captains remain close and speak often, aside from USRPA business. From the start of Scully’s playing days they were often roommates and grew close. Scully agrees with Clever’s assessment that while they’re different they “compliment each other well and have always worked hard to support one another and our teammates… But it all started with respect for our country, the jersey and each other.”
Thinking about the future, Scully shares his hopes and ambitions. He’s passionate about growing the game and excited for what’s in store for Rugby in America. “We are in the midst of a defining period where we have exciting growth potential and have experienced some momentum. Now it will be about channeling that growth in an aligned direction. There are a lot of good people working very hard to make this happen.
“I am excited to be a part of the “rugby movement” in the United States. But for now, I am focused on doing the best I can to help the national team be success, continue to improve as an individual in any way I can, and be a person of positive impact within the sport.”
By all accounts, the Eagles are lucky to have Blaine Scully at the helm and as their champion, while rest of us will continue to benefit from his ambassadorship of our game.