Work For It: Mike Petri and the path to 50 caps

Mike Petri will earn his 50th international cap for the Men's Eagles Friday, July 24, when the U.S. hosts Japan in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup. From his debut at Rugby World Cup 2007 France to the present day, 'Peaches' has balanced representing his country with a teaching career, raising a family, and even publishing a children's book. USA Rugby caught up with his coaches, teammates, and friends to take a look at the ongoing career of the U.S.'s starting scrum half.

As a Tier Two nation, the U.S. has predominantly played fewer tests per year than the likes of England, New Zealand, and, more often than not, Argentina. The fact the country has just seven players with more than 50 caps is evidence enough, especially considering five of those players reached the half-century mark in 2007 or later.

Mike Petri will become the eighth Friday, though, if it were not for current Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin, he may have been challenging LeBron James on the national basketball team.

"I was looking for athletes and checked around for who stood out," Tolkin said of his recruiting plan at Xavier High School, where he coached the New York institution's rugby team. "I saw [Mike] play basketball and asked him after the freshman game if he wanted to try out. He said we has willing to give it a try and the rest is history."

At that time, however, the coach had no idea the youngster from Brooklyn would eventually nail down the starting scrum half spot with the Eagles.

"I wasn't even sure he was going to make the freshman team."

Petri continued with the game that has taken him to England on a professional contract to World Cups in France and New Zealand. His debut, the Eagles' final pool match at France 2007, will be best remembered by a sensational Taku Ngwenya try.

The Xavier graduate, 24 at the time and wearing the No. 20 shirt, replaced Chad Erskine five minutes from time in the match, a 64-15 loss to South Africa. In the Eagles' eight matches in 2008 and the first two of 2009, Petri wore No. 9.

  Paul Rudman / KLCFotos

In that South Africa contest, Thretton Palamo became the youngest player to be capped in the World Cup at 19 years and 18 days. Though he was five years Palamo's senior, Petri was in the same boat as his countryman.

"He was more of a New York kid; he had that big accent on him," Palamo recalled. "But the cool thing about him is that he's never changed. He was supportive then and he's supportive now.

"I remember I wasn't getting any playing time in the World Cup and was having one of my harder days - at that age, you think it's the end of the world. But he was sitting next to me on the bus and he could sense it, I guess, and he turned around and sorted me out.

"He just genuinely cares about the boys. That's what's cool about him. From 50 to the first, he's always been the same." - Thretton Palamo

Including Palamo and Petri, seven Eagles currently in the 2015 World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup squad suited up against South Africa. Louis Stanfill recognized his teammate's assets on and off of the pitch back then, and concurred with Palamo that Petri never strayed from the path of a professional.

"He's more or less the same guy he is now," Stanfill said. "He was a leader, but a younger guy, so, like the rest of us, he was lower on the totem pole. He still brought that same quality of work ethic, that same quality of leadership ability.

"Some people don't change, and it's for the better." - Louis Stanfill

Petri's selection to the World Cup squad came under Peter Thorbun, who would have taken Petri's play with Belmont Shore in the 2007 Rugby Super League as a sign of things to come. The southern California club won the competition that year, and the now-50-cap man called the scrum half position his own alongside Eagle fly half Mike Hercus.

"The funny thing about 'Peaches,'" former Eagle and Belmont Shore teammate Dallen Stanford said, "A lot of players you have comedic moments and they'll be up to no good some of the time. 'Peaches' is the ultimate professional. He's straight down the line.

"Him, Chris Wyles, and Blaine Scully are the most professional Eagles I've worked with. Even Wyles will have banter and will do some funny prank, but you'll never find that from 'Peaches.'"

"[Petri, Scully, and Wyles] are the three players who could date my sister if she were single." - Dallen Stanford

By 2009, long-time team manager Tristan Lewis returned to the Eagle setup. If there are stories locked away from camp, or information to be gathered from players who were not under the spotlight of a professional outfit yet called to the country's national team, Lewis is the gatekeeper.

Eagles who reach the 50-cap plateau are presented with a crystal Eagle to signify their achievement. Each of the seven Eagles to make it to 50 have done so under the guidance of Lewis.

"I didn't see the beginning of his career," Lewis, absent from the coaching staff from 2006 to 2009, said. "When I caught up with him in March of 2009, he was pretty much established as the team's scrum half, with a little bit of pressure from Tim Usasz at that time. Obviously Mike's now fended off everyone who's tried to come after him.

"You don't get 50 caps if you don't keep your spot. Scrum half's always going to be the best scrum half you've got. He's deserving of his 50th cap if anybody is."

"As he always says to me: 'Taku, I didn't get that naturally; I had to work for it.'" - Taku Ngwenya

Petri, who was selected to the historic Barbarians F.C. touring side in 2009, signed a professional contract with Sale Sharks of England's premier competition for the 2010-11 season before joining Newport Gwent Dragons on loan. He did not make an appearance for the Sharks and made just three with Newport, and, as Stanfill put it, "was pretty miserable."

He was named to the starting XV in three of the U.S.'s four 2011 World Cup matches, and scored one of the Eagles' four tries in the tournament. Scored against Russia, the try was the second of Petri's career. Coincidentally, the first also came against Russia on home soil.

New York Athletic Club welcomed Petri home with open arms in 2012, though rugby was not the only concern on the then-28-year-old's plate. Teaching at his alma mater, Xavier High School, and having just been married, Petri made sure he did everything he could to keep his personal and professional life in line with his aspirations to play international rugby.

"He's just a young man that is the epitome of what it takes to be a professional athlete without getting paid professional wages." - Tristan Lewis

Tolkin took on the Eagles' head-coaching gig in 2012 and had experience with the de-facto scrum half at NYAC, as well as Xavier and the national team, prior to the appointment. While the correlation between the New York men ranges from Petri's high school career to the Eagles, it was the scrum half's work ethic that caused his name to rise to the top of the depth chart.

"Mike's a pretty self-motivated guy," Tolkin said. "Once he got involved in rugby, playing and training, he was hooked on the game and he was disciplined enough to train properly to make himself better.

"He really took care of things on his own." - Mike Tolkin

Petri has remained with NYAC on the club front, and has been joined by multiple Eagles in the northeast, including Stanfill. While international teammates like Todd Clever, Ngwenya, and Wyles took opportunities to further their careers abroad, Petri has improved his game at home while growing the sport in any way he knows how.

"Other than his brief spell at Sale and that trip overseas, he's a true home-grown product," Lewis said. "He's the product of a high school rugby system that seems to produce pretty well in the form of Xavier."

"I just think he's been a great servant to USA Rugby," Wyles said. "He's one of the nicest human beings on the planet. He has huge amounts of respect for everyone. He's worked really hard, and, for most of his career, he's been an amateur, mixing in big test matches.

  Paul Rudman / KLCFotos

"He's a born-and-bred Brooklyn guy, and American rugby fans and players can relate to him."

He recently published "R is for Rugby," an alphabet book for children, to heavy fanfare, not long after the birth of his first child. Anyone hoping for an explanation as to Petri's nickname will not find it on the page for the letter 'P,' nor will they get a satisfactory response from teammates and coaches. The story goes that 'Peaches' is no more than a play on the surname Petri.

"The reality is that's the affection everyone holds him in," Lewis said.

It has taken the better part of eight years to reach 50 caps, and the 35-year-old with a birthday around the corner has helped bring the game of rugby closer to the forefront than it has ever been in the United States.

Last fall, Petri was one of the 23 players selected to face the New Zealand All Blacks - and the infamous 'Ka Mate' - at Chicago's Soldier Field as more than a million American rugby fans wished they were doing the same. The scrum half is leading the way in the build-up to this year's World Cup in England, but is ensuring his legacy is not lost amongst the up-and-coming Eagle hopefuls.

Kutztown University's Niku Kruger traveled with the USA Rugby Selects to South America earlier this year, where he followed the lead of Petri in his first assembly with the national team camp. Also named to the PNC squad, Kruger is in line to wear the No. 9 shirt.

"It's definitely been lots of fun for me, just to learn and to kind of experience how he does things," Kruger said. "He's a true athlete. Even though he's one of the most-capped guys on the team, he's always right in front, doing everything, staying back to carry things. He sets the standard high for me.

"He's my roommate. Every morning I wake up and he's stretching. He's definitely pushed me to become a better athlete, to look after my body." - Niku Kruger

A day will come in which Petri will be on the sideline or in the stands, coaching or cheering on the Eagles, but not this weekend. Petri will play in his 50th test Friday, before the team continues its preparations for the World Cup with matches against Tonga, Canada, Harlequins Football Club, and Australia this summer.

Read more testimonials from Mike Petri's coaches and teammates below, and watch the Pacific Nations Cup doubleheader live Friday night at 8 p.m. PT on ESPN 3.

  Paul Rudman / KLCFotos

He and I like to try to speak Italian to one another because he came and visited me back in 2011 when I was staying in Italy, and that was a lot of fun. He's from the south of Italy, but he still loves it.

I think he's the hardest-working guy I've ever seen. He works his butt off. He's dedicated.

He balances his life like a professional would. He manages his life correctly. He knows he's got x-amount of time to train, then he goes to school, does his school, then he can train. Then he does more school, then he goes home, where he's got a family; makes sure the baby goes to bed, then he writes his book, and sets himself up for his next school day and his next training day. That's Mike Petri. It's a life of time management and devotion to the game - a professional without being paid.

When he was named to the World Cup squad; that was really an exciting moment for me, knowing Mike had worked so hard for it. I was really proud of him. Seeing where Mike had come from and where he was going.

I think the biggest [roadblock] for Mike, interestingly enough, is himself. I think Mike is really, really hard on himself, and he always wants to please people. I think Mike just has to go and throw caution to the wind and take some chances. And I think that sometimes that's been a barrier to him, and you just have to remind him, "Be aggressive. Go for it. Take some chances and people will follow you." That's the thing with Mike: he has the experience and the ability to just go out there and do it.