Worth a Try
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Inaki Basauri had just finished a condensed retelling of his rugby adventures. He had explained how a kid born in Monterrey, Mexico, and raised in Bethesda had gone from an awkward American teenager who didn't know the rules of the game to a rugby professional in France. He had detailed how a once-aimless Montgomery College student had ended up training with the U.S. national team for the upcoming Rugby World Cup.
"Now that I actually listen to me saying it, it's pretty crazy," he said, as if considering the idea for the first time.
There hardly is a standard path to a place on the Eagles -- as the U.S. team is known -- who begin group play against defending champion England on Saturday in Lens, one of 10 French cities that will host games. In four previous trips to what organizers call the third-biggest sporting event in the world, the Eagles have 11 losses and just two wins, both against Japan.
The Americans are among the longest of long shots in the 20-team quadrennial event, which has historically been dominated by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. New Zealand, which hasn't won a World Cup since the inaugural event in 1987, is a heavy favorite; other powers include France, Ireland and England.
The Rugby World Cup is front-page news in many of the competing countries. When the English beat host Australia to win the 2003 World Cup, a crowd estimated at 750,000 flooded central London for a victory parade and team members visited 10 Downing Street to meet then-prime minister Tony Blair. Organizers predict a global television audience of more than 4 billion by the time the final is played in Saint-Denis on Oct. 20.
The sport's powers boast squads made up of professional stars with personal sponsorship deals. U.S. players, on the other hand, receive modest stipends of several hundred dollars a week and say they can attend large rugby events in the United States without being recognized.
Basauri, 22, will be surrounded largely by amateur teammates on leave from their regular jobs as landscape technicians and plant managers and salesmen. The Eagles have long relied on foreign-born players, and so this year's team includes players born in Zimbabwe and South Africa, in Tonga and Fiji and New Zealand.
Many of Basauri's American-born teammates learned the game at an even later age than he did. "It's really par for the course in this country," said national team coach Peter Thorburn, a native of New Zealand. "A lot of them don't play until they leave high school or they leave college."
Which doesn't make Basauri's ascent through the sport any less unexpected. Five years ago, the Walt Whitman High School graduate was studying liberal arts at Montgomery College and wondering what to do next.
"I was kind of confused of what I wanted to do with my life and stuff," he said last week before the U.S. team left for Europe. "I had no clue, no clue whatsoever. I was a bit lost."
That professional rugby even became an option was itself something of a fluke. Basauri had been your typical baseball- and football-playing suburbanite until middle school, when an Italian friend invited him to a youth practice with the Maryland Exiles.
"Very tall and very awkward," remembered Dan Soso, the longtime coach of the Exiles' youth teams.