By: Adam McQueen
San Sebastian, Spain: Will Hooley took a final glance at the goalposts as he stood over the ball. With no time left on the clock and the United States behind by two points, a shot at history hinged entirely on his right boot.
Technique. Process. Exhale.
An hour earlier, the Eagles seemed destined to earn a first-ever victory over Samoa with a commanding 15 point lead. Despite Hooley dragging two touchline conversions, the United States were in complete control. Then the rain came down.
A flood of Samoan tries coincided with the torrential downpour. International rugby rests on momentum and the swirling winds had blown it directly in the Pacific Islanders’ favour. A late penalty in front of the goalposts offered the Eagles an opportunity to regain a foothold in the match. It was a kick of the simplest proportions – akin to a basketball layup – that Hooley could make blindfolded.
The fly-half stuttered towards the kick and slipped upon impact. It was a calamitous strike that left Hooley laying flat on his back while the ball took a path of it’s own volition towards the corner flag.
The moment was embarrassing at best, and potentially catastrophic at worst.
Now in this moment, Hooley had a chance to make amends. He stood 40 meters back – 50 with the angle – and prepared for the improbable kick with his familiar routine. The ball sailed through the uprights, causing the stoic fly-half to let out a celebratory roar. Another incredible moment in a historic season for Hooley and the United States.
A New Path
The redemptive arc that Hooley underwent in Spain is nothing new to him. His even-keeled demeanour is what has kept him on track throughout his brief and turbulent rugby career.
“It’s funny how in sport everyone remembers you making that fantastic kick, but I’m the one who sits there and goes ‘ah, remember the touchline conversion I dragged left’,” says Hooley. “I am always thinking like that.”
Two years ago, Hooley’s rugby career was at a crossroads. Nearing the end of his contract with the Exeter Chiefs, the young fly-half had not seen the pitch for four months after suffering a gruesome head injury against Harlequins in the English Premiership. The frustrations of a once-promising career were beginning to provide more questions than answers.
“I was down in the dumps,” reflects Hooley. “Where was my career really going?”
Despite representing England at the age-grade level, Hooley’s dream of senior international rugby had seemingly faded. Then his unlikely journey took a sudden turn courtesy of his chatterbox father and Californian Grandmother.
“I was playing for Exeter in the Premiership away at Worcester,” says Hooley. “My Dad, who will literally chat to anyone, was talking to this couple next to him who were American.”
The person Hooley’s Dad spoke to was Mark Lambourne, a former member of the USA Rugby Board of Directors. After Hooley’s father mentioned the Grandmother’s Californian roots, Lambourne immediately noted that his son could potentially achieve international honours with the United States.
The ‘unknown’ of American rugby was the last thing on Hooley’s mind. He simply wanted to get back on the pitch again. Once the fly-half regained his form with his new club Bedford Blues in the Greene King IPA Championship, the allure of international rugby reemerged.
“As soon as I moved to Bedford I thought if I don’t say yes to this opportunity now, I’ll probably regret this for the rest of my career,” says Hooley.
“It’s been the best decision I have made. My Grandmother, who is no longer with us, she’s hopefully up there and I can give a massive thank you to her.”
Being Prepared for the Unprepared
When Hooley began to look at the United States seriously, he sought the advice of current and former Eagles, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles, both of whom ply their trade in Europe professionally. Wyles, who retired from international duty in January 2016, cautioned Hooley to ready himself for an entirely different rugby environment.
“I remember meeting Chris in London and he basically told me ‘be prepared, it will be one of the best decisions you have made for all sorts of reasons, but don’t get frustrated because you will see at points the lack of professionalism or player understanding’,” says Hooley.
Wyles’ warnings of amateurism could not have been further from the landscape that Hooley walked into. With the launch of the domestic professional competition Major League Rugby in 2018, the Eagles were able to select a fully professional side for the June and November international windows for the first time ever.
For Hooley, who joined the Eagles camp in January to prepare for the Americas Rugby Championship, it felt as if the gulf in talent between overseas and domestic players was a thing of the past.
“Now guys are in professional environments playing a very good level of rugby in the U.S.,” says Hooley. “There is not that feeling of European guys having to come in and own it and hold the hands of domestic guys. It is absolutely not that at all.”
Head coach Gary Gold had also instilled a culture in camp that has been integral to the Eagles’ cohesion. Gold developed a clear identity and continuity within the squad, changing the overseas-domestic division into a unified team. Everyone is now on the same page.
“He is just passionate about wanting the best for us,” Hooley says. “He has always said that we won’t be the best side in world rugby and that we won’t have the most talent. But what we will have is unbelievable work rate and we will know exactly what we are doing on every place of the pitch.”
Once Hooley stepped foot in America, he knew he had made the right decision. It was now about repaying the faith that had been placed in him.
“I wanted to make sure that they realized I was not just trying to play for the USA because I wanted the glory of going to the World Cup, I wanted to play for the USA to make my family proud,” says Hooley.
“I could help build the team going forward and maybe have a ten year international career. Not just fly-in, get a couple caps, go to the World Cup, and then bugger off. That’s not what I’m about.”
The Historic Season
Few, if any, foresaw the United States’ magical 2018 season. However, those within the camp knew that something special was brewing. An early undefeated ARC campaign triggered a ripple of attention, but it was the June summer tour that truly turned heads.
“When we had training camp before the games in the summer, we really understood our gameplan,” says Hooley. “Ultimately, we are going to play to our strengths; we have some great ball carriers and very good kickers of the ball.”
Once Scotland arrived in Houston for the Eagles’ biggest match of the year, it was time to put it all together.
“There was that feeling of not just trying to compete with Scotland, but being able to win the game,” Hooley reminisces about his favourite Eagles victory to date. “That Scotland night was one to remember.”
The United States won a total of ten matches throughout the calendar year and closed the international season ranked 12th in the world, their highest position ever. Yet, it was the uglier performances that were just as telling as their near perfect outing against Scotland.
“We actually were disappointed against Samoa but it is a testament to where we are now at,” explains Hooley, despite his late game heroics. “The U.S. side of three or five years ago probably had those patches of playing well, but when they lost their momentum or errors came in they really slipped away and the floodgates opened.”
When the margin for error is so small, it has been that attention to detail that determines success, Hooley notes.
“At the international level – it pains me to say it like this – but is about who can make less mistakes. I have really begun to understand that and I think the team has begun to understand that.”
The achievements that Hooley has accomplished in his first year with the Eagles would be satisfying for an entire career. However, much like his kicking technique, the fly-half emphasizes that it is the process rather than the results that are his fondest memories so far.
“This is the journey I am on now,” reflects Hooley. “All those bad things that happened a few years ago… my career has been saved by America.”
Hooley lets the introspection of an incredulous year sink in ever so slightly, before snapping back into his even-keeled demeanour.
“It is now about kicking on. We have done well, we are in a great place, but there is so much more for us to get better,” says Hooley. “This is now the platform that we have built and we are going to keep building.”