By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"A big, gangly kid," said Jason Maloni, another Exiles coach who encountered Basauri a few years later.
"Honestly he was kind of tall and goofy looking," said Tom Sanders, who played with Basauri in his early teens.
Because of his weight and height -- Basauri was taller than 6 feet by the time he entered high school -- football coaches always had plugged Basauri into the offensive and defensive lines. And like countless football linemen shuffled off to grunting anonymity, Basauri was unused to offensive stardom.
So even though he didn't know anything about rugby, "When I got to run with the ball, I pretty much fell in love with the game right away," he said. "I liked it because you hit the [stuffing] out of people, you run into people. I was completely lost about the rules. They would pass me the ball, and I just ran, ran over kids, and finally got tackled. I wouldn't let go of the ball. . . . Kids would start yelling at me -- 'What the hell are you doing?' "
Then Basauri went home, and his body began to ache, and he decided maybe this wasn't the sport for him. Despite playing football, he said he was "a fat slob the first time I went -- totally out of shape. . . . After the first practice I was sore as hell."
He made up his mind not to return until Soso began hounding his house, calling him over and over. Basauri's parents didn't know the game either, but they thought it would be a nice complement to football, and so Basauri was soon back with the Exiles. Based largely on potential, he was quickly elevated to the first team, and by the summer before his junior year of high school he had been invited to try out for the U.S. national under-19 team in Colorado.
He spent his final two years of high school as a starting lineman for Whitman in the fall and an Exiles star in the spring, making various rugby all-star teams as he grew to 6 feet 5 and about 240 pounds.
"He was a big kid out there, and on the field he was like an animal, you were afraid to go up against him," said Chris Pacious, another former teammate with the Exiles. "Rugby season comes along and he's just foaming at the mouth, waiting for it. He was one of those kids that just lived and breathed it."
In his first year at Montgomery College, he was chosen a vice-captain for the U-19 team that played in the world championships in France, his second trip abroad with a U.S. team. He figured he'd come home, work on his grades, try to get into the University of Maryland and keep playing for the Exiles. Then came the offer from Massy, a third-division French club in the suburbs of Paris. The club would give him accommodations and a small stipend if he would join its youth side while going to school in France. His French was limited to "bonjour" and "my name is," but he didn't care.
"This was coming out of nowhere," he said. "I knew I liked to play rugby -- getting offered to come and live off of rugby was amazing."
He had always considered himself "an average kind of player" in high school, but when he began playing year-round he settled into the game. He lost 40 pounds of fat and eventually began replacing the lost weight with muscle. Only a handful of Americans have the chance to play full time in Europe, and when Basauri returned to play with the Exiles during the French offseason he had long, shoulder-length hair and a year's worth of European experience.
"He was quite the sight, stampeding down the field like a giraffe on the loose," said Maloni, who became a teammate of Basauri's on the Exiles' senior side. "I always thought he was just a nice high school kid; he came back and he was just operating at a different level. . . . You don't know really what someone is capable of until they're thrown into a situation like an overseas team where everyone's good, sink or swim. I was hopeful, but frankly shocked."
The following summer he was back again, now a starter with the Exiles' men's team and a legitimate star.
"After a second year overseas, he was a real dominant force," Maloni said.
"He was an absolute beast that summer," Sanders agreed.
In France, he continued adding weight, spent a second summer at a skills camp in New Zealand and moved up to Massy's senior roster. This February, in the middle of Basauri's fourth season in France, Thorburn e-mailed to ask for some DVDs of his league highlights. Basauri eventually made three trips back to the United States for national team training camps and tournaments before being among the 30 players selected for the final roster. There are other Eagles who share Basauri's flanker position, but Thorburn said he has "no doubt" that Basauri will receive playing time this month.
Basauri sees this World Cup as a personal audition at his sport's biggest event. He'd still like to play professionally in the Southern Hemisphere one day, maybe in England, too, before he returns to the United States to enter coaching or athletic training. In the meantime, he's now fluent in French and recently signed a contract with second-division club Agen, with whom he'll earn a salary in the mid-five figures. Which is why he decided that the past few years have been "pretty crazy."
Without rugby, "I probably would have gone to college, like all my other friends, gotten a job," he said. "But that's pretty boring compared to what I'm doing, you know?"