George Sucher of Arlington reached the pinnacle of his rugby career when he was selected to play for the United States Eagles in the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
That honor meant that Sucher, who also plays for the Washington Rugby Club, often had to train alone, 200 miles from his nearest Eagles teammate, and leave his job for almost four months to take part in pre-tournament matches.
And it means he and most of the Eagles--who are amateur players--will be at a severe disadvantage when competing in pool games against mostly professional teams from Ireland, Australia and Romania in the world cup. It begins today in Wales, England, France and Ireland and ends with the World Championship game on Nov. 6 in Cardiff, Wales.
But playing in the fourth Rugby World Cup--the second-largest single-sport tournament in the world, behind the men's soccer World Cup--is something that Sucher will remember always.
"I never thought I would represent the United States in anything," Sucher said. "One day I will be an old, crotchety guy who sits in a bar when he's 70 years old and tells people about playing in the world cup."
The Eagles are in the quadrennial tournament for the first time since 1991, and in many ways are still catching up to the rest of the rugby world. Following the 1995 tournament, won by host South Africa, rugby changed from a mostly amateur game to a professional one.
Eagles captain Dan Lyle, a former player for the Washington team, makes almost $300,000 a year playing for Bath Rugby Club in England. But most of the rest of the 30-member U.S. team are still amateurs, including Sucher, who sells computer software, and Rockville native Kurt Shuman, who is finishing his masters thesis at Oxford University. Sponsors will pay for the Eagles' travel and accommodations, but the players will not be paid.
Even getting the team together for practices is difficult. Six Eagles play professionally in England, Wales, Italy and Australia. Of the domestic players, all but five are based in California or Colorado. Only Sucher and fly-half David Niu of Philadelphia are based on the East coast. Sucher often e-mails coaches in Europe and searches the Internet to find training regimens.
"We are definitely at a disadvantage," Eagles Coach Jack Clark said. "We have players like George who work hard and do a good job, but they are always going to be overmatched. He is going against players who have played rugby since they were children."
And those international players get better all the time. In the past four months alone, the England national team practiced together at least four times a week. The Eagles have had about 80 practices this year. Those differences lead to events such as England's 106-8 victory over the Eagles last month.
"Losing like that was really embarrassing," said Sucher, who scored the only Eagles' try, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown. "At the banquet afterward one of the English directors of rugby addressed the crowd, and he was trying to be nice but wound up being really condescending to us. He kept saying over and over how badly we had lost. It was almost like he was trying to stick it to the Yanks."
Like most of the Eagles, rugby was not Sucher's first sport. He played football and wrestled at St. Joseph's High in Philadelphia, then went on to wrestle at James Madison. Once his wrestling eligibility expired, Sucher began attending rugby games because his roommate was on the JMU team. Soon he was convinced to give the sport a try--and liked it enough that he decided to play for the Washington rugby club when he moved here in 1993.
Some of those Washington teammates are flying to Ireland to watch some of the U.S. games. Those who do not go will gather at local bars to watch the games via satellite TV. And everyone associated with the club said they are proud of Sucher and the Eagles regardless of the results this month.
"Even when we played cross-town rivals Potomac Athletic Club last week, many of them were asking about George and saying they were rooting for him," said Simon Bowyer, Washington's captain and Sucher's roommate. "George realizes he is doing something most people would give their left arm to do. Maybe only one percent of the people in D.C. will know that he played in the World Cup. But that one percent will remember it forever."