Louis Stanfill, Eric Fry and Blaine Scully play for the USA Eagles men’s national rugby team.
This week, they’ve also played a key role in promoting their team’s first international appearance in Sacramento.
Though living far from home, the three Jesuit High School and Cal graduates have met with reporters and kept a running tally on friends and family members buying tickets. That has helped lead to a possible sellout for Saturday’s 3 p.m. match against Canada at Bonney Field, the new Cal Expo stadium that debuts on Friday night when Republic FC plays the Colorado Rapids Reserves.
Just as a seat for a Republic FC match has become hard to get, so is a rugby ticket at the 8,000-seat stadium.
It doesn’t suprise Stanfill, Fry, Scully or Eagles coach Mike Tolkin.
Northern California – Sacramento in particular – always has had a strong rugby presence. More than 7,000 players are registered in the Northern California Rugby Youth Association.
Stanfill and Fry played for Jesuit’s perennially powerful program, which has won seven national titles, and both went on to Cal, which has won 26 national championships.
Scully played basketball and water polo and swam at Jesuit, but he became a four-time All-American in rugby, first at UCLA, then at Cal. The fullback-wing scored a hat trick in the Eagles’ 37-29 loss to Japan on Sunday in Carson.
So why has it taken so long for the USA Eagles to come to Sacramento?
“There’s always a lot of lobbying around the states for this,” said Tolkin, who used to battle Jesuit in the national finals when he coached at Xavier High School in New York. “I think now we have a great venue to play in … and I think it fell into place at the right time.
“If this thing works out, this could be one of our go-to places. I think we need a presence in Northern California. It’s one of the major rugby hotbeds in the country. So it’s crazy not to play here regularly.”
Stanfill thinks Sacramento has been bypassed for larger markets such as Los Angeles and Houston, where the Eagles played their last two matches. He thinks that will change after Saturday.
“We’re not Los Angles or Houston, but the rugby culture is very strong and growing even deeper with youth rugby really booming,” Stanfill said. “Sacramento is going to be an excellent fixture for international matches.”
Despite rugby’s growth, the Eagles are in an uphill battle on the international stage.
While they have qualified for the 2015 Rugby World Cup next fall in England, they are 3-18 in the six of seven World Cups in which they qualified. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England are the world powers.
But even Canada, ranked 16th in the world, has been a challenge for the Eagles, having won the last seven matches.
Since there is no professional league in the United States, Stanfill, Fry and Scully had to go overseas to play professionally.
Fry, 26, and Scully, 26, have worked their way into contracts with the English Premiership, England’s top division.
Stanfill, 29, played in Australia and Italy and now is with the Old Puget Sound Beach RFC in Seattle, where he also works, earning a rare steady paycheck. During his 10 seasons with the USA Eagles, he has played in two Rugby World Cups – he made his debut with the Eagles at 19 – and has 47 caps (has played in 47 games), second only to captain Todd Clever with 58.
Stanfill has managed a building and worked in a law office and in security. There also was that gig as a ranch hand – anything to keep a few bucks in his pocket.
That’s why Stanfill and Fry want to see a viable pro league in this country.
“It took a big leap of faith with Major League Soccer years ago,” Fry said. “And they got it right. It’s going to take those with money who don’t have to see a payoff for ‘x’amount of years while rugby develops a bigger following.”
Tolkin knows his players have to compete full time professionally in the world’s top leagues to hone their skills if they hope to move up from their No. 18 ranking. It doesn’t help that many foreign teams aren’t keen on signing Americans.
“We’re starting to knock at the door,” Tolkin said. “But we can’t overreach, can’t overpay. We have seen that with a few attempts at pro soccer (before MLS) that have failed. Hopefully, we learn from those mistakes. I think it will come.”
If it does, the players know a city that they believe would support a pro team.
“Sacramento has got a foothold, and it’s been a hotbed for athletes who have gone on to be pretty good Eagles,” Scully said. “We are seeing that tradition continuing with the local youth clubs and the high schools that play rugby.”
Added Stanfill: “If something were to take off professionally, Sacramento will be an excellent place to be.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.