Spirit in the Camp

2018 USA Men's Eagles

How do you measure the success of a team?

Is it in wins and losses? Points scored? How about rankings?

The true measure of success will always lead to an arguable feat, but what success yields — and how a group of athletes are shaped in pursuit of it — can be the most valuable achievement in all.

The most successful year in the modern era of the USA Rugby Men’s National Team has come to a close. And in three competition windows, a group of men managed to make history with nine test match wins, a second-consecutive Americas Rugby Championship title, a historic upset of No. 6 Scotland, another first-ever victory over Samoa and their highest world ranking of No. 12.

But within that, and despite two agonizing losses along the way, emerged something much greater than what the numbers would present. It was the spirit in the camp, the culture of a group and a relentless drive that saw beyond the measurable moments of victory.

After 43 caps and two Rugby World Cup performances in 2011 and 2015, Captain Blaine Scully has seen the evolution of the Men’s Eagles first-hand. Where they were once 2-7 in test matches at the conclusion of his 2011 debut year, the United States men have risen tremendously to a 9-1 test match record and, more importantly, as a group of men.

“We’ve grown closer as a group of players as we continue to build on our strong connection and commitment to one another, what we play for and what we represent,” said Scully. “Like the Eagles before us, our cohesion is fundamentally based on a shared dedication to representing the United States. Our team standards are high, uncompromising and supported by our own unique environment. Similarly, our pledge for constant improvement and the focus in our process are key pillars of our environment.

“Competing with professionalism, mental resilience and toughness are core to us. We want to be aspirational in the goals we set, disciplined in our actions and purposeful in the way we prepare to compete.”

The pinnacle of every year is to come out of the gate with fire, fight through the adversity of the season and emerge winning on the other side. It’s also proving every naysayer wrong on the way and excelling in spite of every American sport enthusiast who turned a blind eye to rugby.

But so much is the goal of every athlete, every rugby nation and each new season. The question remains: wherein lies the differentiator that delivers a win over a loss in each circumstance as it unfolds?

The answer: culture.

For the Men’s Eagles, every week presented a new and unique challenge. As if the achievements of the match before hadn’t already set a high bar, an expectation was also building out of precedent.

Many days on the road unfolded the same. Breakfast in the meal room, meetings through the morning, an afternoon with back-to-back gym and field sessions, one-on-one performance reviews and treatment to cap off the day. Every moment of almost every day was accounted for, not just by athletes, but by coaches, medical and administrative staff alike.

When you weren’t doing, you were readying for what came next.

But beyond the long days of training, the intricate hours spent studying film and the meticulous energy devoted to perfecting the athletic craft was a glue that bound all the hard yards together.

It was equal parts dedication, consistency, leadership by example and the desire to achieve something bigger than oneself.

The themes not only confounded a diverse group of athletes, but the staff who’s work underpinned their ability to compete.

Players were challenged to think practically when under pressure on the field; they were expected to present new perspectives in film review; and equally, they were held accountable for setting an example for the athletes around them.

These practices weren’t only evident in rugby-related actions, but in the everyday courtesies encountered through long spats of travel.

What was unique about this group of men wasn’t necessarily just their athletic ability. It was their relentless desire to continue pushing forward, absorbing every opportunity to learn – despite what came before them, despite what would come after them — and regardless of who they faced on any given match-day.

“It is important for us to prepare our players for not only what they encounter in rugby but also to develop them into good men in life. We encourage all our guys to own their roles and contribute to the team because we know that is what will bring us success,” says Head Coach Gary Gold.

“It isn’t about any one guy, or any one coach, it is about all our players knowing what they need to do and feeling confident they have been put in a position to achieve it. We want all our athletes to contribute something positive to this team and to lift each other up so that we can together grow this game in America and carry forward the history of the Eagles.”

“We have a very devoted coaching and management team, but also feel incredibly supported by the larger American rugby community,” said Captain Blaine Scully. “Our results are the product of a process that relies on developing the individual and a dedication to improvement which is necessary to being an effective team that performs.”

Opening the season against an Argentinian XV side they had never beaten before – under a new Head Coach — was a daunting task in itself. But sticking to the battle for more than 80 minutes of play, the United States men overcame a seven-point deficit to score 14 of their own and win their first of 2018.

Another unnerving encounter with then-No. 6 Scotland saw the USA men train for days in the sweltering heat of Houston, Texas – all to be prepared for every moment which led to their first-ever victory over a major rugby nation since the Olympics in 1924.

And then, it was a penalty kick at full-time which sailed through the posts as every man, woman and Eagle in Anoeta Stadium waited on baited breath for another first-ever victory over Samoa.

These three wins capture the essence that has been the Men’s Eagles through the 2018 year; showing that despite how daunting a task may be — or how bleak a situation — the team will find a way to come out on the right side.

This theme invokes the rich history of Eagles who came before; a history that should be more well-known and carries a powerful message.

With more than 50 caps and two Rugby World Cup appearances in 1999 and 2003, former Men’s Eagle Captain and current General Manager Dave Hodges is a direct representation of those who came before.

“This 2018 version of the USA Rugby Men’s National Team – The Eagles, leaned on the players who represent the USA over the years from the first ever Eagle, Chester Allen in 1912; to our last capped Gold medalist, Lefty Rogers; and to the first modern era Eagle Steve Auerbach. The DNA of this team stems from all the players who came before them,” said Hodges.

1924 Men’s Eagles”What this program achieved on the field was because of the groundwork the former players laid, many of whom valiantly represented the team without much fanfare. We will always pay tribute to the endeavors of past Eagles who performed in monumental matches that did not go their way at times but certainly laid a foundation for the 2018 men to overcome teams like No. 6 Scotland.”

In remembering the Eagles who came before, Captain Scully can remark a notable year where Hodges himself led the 2003 team in their own monumental journey.

“The 2003 Eagles team, which achieved 7 test victories in a single year, were a prime example of our values,” he said. “Many of those men have become extraordinary contributors to the growth of the game. Who we are today is an extension of where we come from and our history. As a team, we understand the responsibility bestowed on us from our predecessors and will always strive to be the best versions of ourselves for all those who accept the jersey and the responsibility after us.”

It’s easy to want success, and to even believe you have what it takes to achieve it. What’s more difficult is acknowledging every ounce of responsibility that comes with wearing an Eagle jersey and using it to overcome moments where it could appear there is nothing left to give. ‘

So then the question becomes, what of the two losses – the heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Maori All Blacks and the one against No. 2 Ireland?

Was culture not enough to sway a favorable outcome?

You can evaluate the minutes in those games every which way; and within them you’ll find things that went wrong and others that went right.

But, be the technical nuances as they may, those two matches were an indication of one thing: trajectory.

A phrase used all too often but never more fundamentally fitting. The 2018 season wasn’t the end all be all that is the U.S. Men’s National Team. Instead, it is the manifestation of a well-drawn flight path with the right people aboard to navigate toward a final destination, especially as the team looks ahead to its biggest challenge in 2019.

Consistently beating highly ranked teams is that much the goal of everyone. Good athletes can get there, but without the right culture and the right spirit in the camp, the rise is just as quick as the fall.

Nine test match wins, a shining new ranking and a trio of firsts does not mark the ultimate prize for the Men’s Eagles. Instead, it brings to light a flourishing team dynamic that evolves with each new assembly; to define a group of athletes as they strive for grand success.

And while that success could be measured with victory – with wins over losses, rankings and points scored – it is, at its core, only a mere factor in the larger landscape of building a legacy.

*Photo credits in order of appearance | Inpho Photography, Inpho Photography, Norma Salinas, Karen Drinkwater-KLC, Norma Salinas, USA Rugby, Norma Salinas.