The journey that appeared to be Blaine Scully’s destiny wasn’t always to be it seemed. While he conquered water polo and basketball in high school, his mum prevented him from playing the physical game of American football.
“I went to Jesuit High School in Sacramento, which actually has a really good rugby programme. Although I didn’t play rugby, I played every other sport! I picked up a rugby ball after playing water polo. I started playing at UCLA, then transferred to CAL and finished my career there,” said Scully.
Rugby may not be a dominant force in the USA yet and “[American] football is king” explained Blaine, who hasn’t actually played the sport due to his mum’s advice and guarding.
“My dad and brother played college football, but mum wanted to keep me away from making tackles, although I ended up doing it for a living anyway. She was good though and super supportive. She would have got her head around anything to support me. She went to my first rugby game and thought it was crazy, but ended up a hardcore fan.”
Despite leaving behind the worlds of water sports and basketball courts, Scully believed he’d made the right choice. “I knew it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. It turned out to be one of my best decisions.”
Yet the beginning of Scully’s professional rugby journey wasn’t the most lucrative. The USA Sevens circuit, which he was a part of from 2011-2013, didn’t turn fully professional until 2012 – 12 months after he was initially signed up to the project. But a move to Leicester was on the cards.
Welcome to Cardiffornia
“The opportunity came through an agent. It was initially a two-week trial; Leicester needed injury cover and I was available, and on the plane pretty quickly. Two weeks turned into four and that turned into two years,” he explained.
Scully’s England move would eventually pave the way for a four-year stay at Cardiff Blues, which saw him lift the European Challenge Cup.
His time in Wales will be fondly remembered by both himself and his wife, Shannon, who nicknamed the Welsh capital ‘Cardiffornia,’ after Scully’s native state, California.
Having spent his opening four years in the UK without his wife, who was still based in the United States, the relief of her finally joining up with Scully made life much easier.
“That was really important to me because before my wife had moved overseas I was alone and so the support of teammates was massive for me,” the winger said.
“We really enjoyed Cardiff. I lived just outside of town, and would walk the park almost every day. We had our little routine of coffee shops we’d frequent and enjoyed the pace of life and being part of the community, which was something I really connected to,” he explained.
Captain in Japan
Despite the domestic success with the Blues, Scully’s fondest moments come from the test arena, where he captained his nation on the biggest stage and tallied up 54 caps along the way.
“It was an awesome responsibility, and that’s how I saw captaincy. It was a position of service, not privilege. I was always keenly aware of my responsibility to USA Rugby and making sure I did everything I could to put us in a position of success.”
It was this mentality that saw Scully and the USA qualify for Rugby World Cups 2011, 2015 and 2019, the latter of which he played as captain.
“Heading into the World Cup in 2019 was a great honour and the top honour of my career. The results were what they were, and still tough to take, but that’s the reality of the arena. Sometimes you’re good enough, sometimes you’re not,” he reminisced.
Looking back at last year’s competition the former Eagles back three player believes that his side weren’t a mile off the pace and deserved to get more out of their efforts – especially after a landmark win over Scotland in 2018.
“What we tried to do was take it a game at a time. We had a really good 2018 and performed fairly well in 2019, although we had one or two poor results. For us, we put a lot into training for a World Cup game,” said Scully. “We knew we were in a really tough pool. There was no getting around that.”
Despite sitting in a pool alongside England, France, Tonga and Argentina, Scully was keen to get on with the job in hand and not leave any excuses out there.
“I was always conscious of never making any excuses on the toughness of the pool, I mean you’re in a Rugby World Cup, what do you expect?” He said. “We accepted that challenge head-on and we knew England were going to be very tough, France too, but we put ourselves in a position to win. We were there for 60-70 minutes and let it run away from us.
“[Against] Argentina we had a few moments where we were back in the game before it got away from us and Tonga was similar. Our results hung on a few different moments that meant we weren’t able to recover. For the most part we were competitive, outside England, where we were beaten pretty well. The games demonstrated how brutal a World Cup is. If you miss one moment, it’s gone.”
‘We’re touching 400 million people here’
Despite pool stage exits in three consecutive World Cup’s, Scully believes that the publicity and successes have boosted rugby in the USA to new levels, and will only be helped by Major League Rugby.
“It’s important for our pathway,” explained Scully. “Every good rugby playing country has a strong domestic competition. That being said, for us, it’s still the building of the infrastructure that supports the top end. College rugby is one of the most important components, high school sport and youth sports too.
“Having this integrated into the inter-scholastic model is the most important thing for sustained success. There’s a lot more work for us to do.”
With rugby now widely televised within the USA, the former Eagles star believes it’s entirely possible for the sport to truly expand within the country.
“We’re touching 400 million people here, from a scale point of view, if we get a market share, the scale takes care of the rest. There’s about 130,000 rugby players here and there’s many more rugby fans now.
“The raw materials are there, but it’s about how well they can construct a meaningful strategy. It’s not a quick fix; you’re talking a multi-decade process.”