Big names, clubs support Eagles’ pursuit of top honors

MARIETTA, Ga. – Northampton Saints’ Samu Manoa and Leicester Tigers’ Blaine Scully have each been recipients of the Aviva Premiership Rugby Player of the Month Award during the 2013-14 English top-flight season, proving to the world American rugby players are not out of their element at the highest levels of club rugby.

Other overseas internationals currently in the Men’s Eagles squad in Atlanta for the second leg of the IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Qualifier this weekend include Todd Clever (NTT Shining Arcs, Top League), Scott LaValla (Stade Francais, Top 14), Folau Niua (Glasgow Warriors, RaboDirect Pro 12), Hayden Smith and Chris Wyles (Saracens Football Club, Aviva Premiership), among others. Of the 26 players in camp, 14 currently play professionally in leagues abroad.

The other 12 players, however, play for clubs and schools here in the United States. Seattle-OPSB, which competes in BC Rugby and lost the 2013 USA Rugby Elite Cup Final, has the most representatives with four – Miles Craigwell, Olive Kilifi, Louis Stanfill and Shalom Suniula.

The club has been consistently good the past few years on both the 15s and sevens stages, with Craigwell earning Crispin Cider Senior Club 7s Most Valuable Player honors at last year’s tournament, which the club won. To bring some of that success to the Eagles, Mike Tolkin brought Seattle-OPSB Head Coach Justin Fitzpatrick into the coaching staff fold.

It is not the first time a coach from a successful U.S. rugby club has worked on the Eagles’ staff, with Dan Payne of Life University only recently stepping down to take on a bigger role at the school in Marietta.

Phil Thiel is the only Life representative with the Eagles, though Cam Dolan played undergraduate and club rugby with the school before signing a professional contract with Manoa’s Saints last December.

The players are thankful to have quality coaches from prosperous American programs in the national setup.

“Any time you have someone like Dan Payne running a program – he’s an excellent coach, an excellent organizer, he does everything right – it does make the transition a lot easier,” Thiel said.

“Dan came in at the end of my freshman year [at Life],” Dolan said. “He’s a very structured individual. On the field, he’s very precise, hard-working. He comes from a wrestling background, so obviously we’re going to be grinding all the time.

“With him being in the U.S.A. setup and then having him day-in, day-out, it kind of lets you ease into it a bit more. It’s not such a wake-up call when you come to camp.”

Tim Maupin of Olympic Club, Mike Petri of New York Athletic Club (where Tolkin coached before taking the lead role of the Eagles), and Tai Tuisamoa of Old Mission Beach Athletic Club have all played Division I club rugby in recent years. Clever and Wyles also played for OMBAC before moving overseas, while Manoa helped San Francisco Golden Gate in the latter years of the Rugby Super League.

With the Eagles’ performance in Montevideo last weekend in the first leg of the RWC Qualifier lacking some of the organization fans saw in a two-match winning streak last November, having a full week in a high-level training environment together ahead of Saturday’s match has been beneficial for the Eagles.

Hear Phil Thiel discuss gelling in camp:

“We have guys coming from different clubs all over the world,” Dolan said. “Not everyone plays the same sort of game, so it takes more than a couple practices to get back in that flow and be able to gel and try to lose track of what you’re used to pick up where we left off four months ago.”

“We’ve gelled a lot in the past week and we’ve learned a lot from last Saturday, individually and collectively,” Thiel said. “So we’ve tried to be very professional and honest with ourselves about the performance, and that’s actually helped us come together more now that we’ve had that performance together. Now we get to fix it.”

The starting roster has been announced for the Eagles’ match at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University Saturday. Tickets are still available for the “most important rugby match in the U.S.A. this year.”