Rugby in spotlight again at Bonney Field

Blaine Scully, who attended Jesuit High School, will play for the U.S. national team against Russia tonight at Bonney Field.
Blaine Scully, who attended Jesuit High School, will play for the U.S. national team against Russia tonight at Bonney Field.

It’s a great time to be a Sacramento-area rugby fan.

High school programs are thriving, the Sacramento Express is playing in the new five-team Pro Rugby Organization, and the United States national squad, the Eagles, will play at Bonney Field on Saturday for the third consecutive year.

“Sacramento is having an exciting rugby movement,” said Eagles co-captain Blaine Scully, a former Jesuit High School and Cal star who plays professionally in Wales. “Sacramento is a hotbed of American rugby from the grass roots to high school rugby to sending players to major college programs, and now with a pro team in the mix, Sacramento is on an ideal trajectory.”

The 28-year-old Scully, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound fullback and wing, was a three-time All America at Cal and played on two national collegiate rugby championship teams. When not playing for the U.S. national team, he’s a rugger for the Cardiff Blues of the Guinness Pro 12, one of the best leagues in the world.

Saturday will be Scully’s third “test” (nation vs. nation) match with the Eagles in Sacramento; the Eagles beat Canada 38-35 in 2014 and Japan 23-18 last year. One of Scully’s Eagles teammates is center Thretton Palamo, a Davis High School graduate.

“It’s going to be fun, that’s for sure, as it is whenever it’s the USA against Russia,” said Scully. “Bonney Field is one of the best places we play because it’s so intimate. The fans are so close.”

Scully, the son of retired Sacramento County district attorney Jan Scully, said that when the Eagles played at Bonney Field in 2014, he provided 60 tickets for family members and friends. Last year, that number rose to 70, and this year, with his mother helping coordinate the effort, Scully said he expects to distribute more than 80 tickets.

First-year Eagles coach John Mitchell has had coaching stops in his native New Zealand with the storied All Blacks and in Australia and South Africa. This is his first visit to Sacramento, he said, but Scully has been telling him about Sacramento’s rugby history and culture. Mitchell said Scully also has told him about the best places for sushi, Mitchell’s favorite food.

“When Blaine talks about Sacramento rugby, you can see and hear his enthusiasm,” Mitchell said earlier this week. “I can see how the area is a hotbed for rugby talent and fans. Today we held workouts open to the public, and we had quite a lot of people in attendance. That was nice to see.”

Mitchell invited four Sacramento Express players – Eric Fry, Langilangi Haupeakui, John Quill and Sione Sina – to work with the national team this week.

Fry, who was born in Davis and played for Jesuit and Cal, most recently was with Newcastle of the Aviva English Premiership, the English rugby union’s top division, but he was not offered a new contract. Sacramento Express coach Luke Gross quickly signed him, and the 6-foot-3, 270-pound prop will be in uniform for Sunday’s match against league-leading Denver at the University of Denver. The Express can use him immediately because the team is in last place in PRO at 1-5.

“The prop is the ball winner, and Eric can certainly do that with his size and quickness,” said Gross, who played 62 matches with the Eagles. “He plays the most physical position, and he may be 270 pounds, but he’s a lean 270 and can run all day.”

Unlike Scully and Fry, Gross did not play college rugby. Gross, who is 6-foot-9, played basketball for Indiana State and Marshall and didn’t start playing rugby until he was 24. He played for the Eagles in the 1999 and 2003 Rugby World Cups and helped Roma win the Italian Cup title in 2001.

Gross is familiar with Scully, having coached him on the United States Collegiate All-America team. Gross started working for USA Rugby after his playing career. He said he has led several player and coaches camps and combines in Sacramento over the past five years and witnessed the enthusiasm for rugby in Sacramento, from youth programs and high school programs to men’s and women’s club teams.

Granite Bay upset Royal Irish of Indianapolis 14-8 on May 21 in Charlotte, N.C., to win the National High School Club Championship. The Royal Irish, who beat Granite Bay in the title game last season, were playing in their fifth consecutive national title game.

Jesuit has won multiple national championships. The Marauders lost to Gonzaga College High School 7-6 in the National Single-School Rugby Championships, also in Charlotte on May 21.

In high school club rugby, players don’t have to attend the school; single-school teams consist of students from one school.

Gross said the strength of the youth, club and single-school programs in the area keep feeding Sacramento’s reputation as one of the nation’s rugby hotbeds.

“Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco have good bases of support, but as far as sheer numbers of people involved in the sport, I think Sacramento has to be one of, if not the highest, in the country,” Gross said. “There’s a reason PRO came to Sacramento.”

Mark Billingsley,