About nine years ago, Sean O’Leary was helping out at a Gonzaga summer camp when he caught a glimpse of the future of American rugby. O’Leary, who was the coach of the U.S. under-17 rugby team at the time, called the coach of the U.S. U-19 team, Salty Thompson.
“I’ve got a player for you,” O’Leary told him. “But you’re going to have to wait awhile.”
Ben Cima was only 10 years old then, but O’Leary, who now coaches at Notre Dame, knew USA Rugby had something to look forward to in the precocious kid hurtling around the Eagles’ camp, running a mile in 5 minutes 45 seconds, oozing with uncommon instincts.
At 19, Cima will head to the University of Maryland this fall as one of the most dynamic young players in the country at the game’s most important position. He is the fly half on Thompson’s USA all-American team and this month he will lead the all-Americans to Argentina for a tour of games against some of South America and Europe’s best U-18 teams.
Cima helped lift Gonzaga to its first high school national title in May after a 26-year history of near misses, and he is a hopeful for a roster spot on the U.S. team for next summer’s Rugby World Cup in England.
A fly half’s charge is decision making: reading the defense to know when to toss the ball to a back and which one to toss it to, knowing when to kick the ball away for field position’s sake, and organizing the offense. As Cima looms behind each scrum, hoping the ball will be sent his way and knowing he won’t have time for indecision when it does, he doesn’t just see the field, he dissects it. Before charging defenders have time to adjust, he zips the ball off to another back, sets up a play, and his team begins making ground.
“He’s very gifted with the ball in his hands,” said Gonzaga Director of Rugby Lee Kelly, who knew Cima from those days at camp. “He’s always been an outstanding passer and playmaker.”
Cima’s rugby acumen is hardly a surprise. He was born in Argentina to a rugby-rabid father, Marcelo, who “always liked to say he was a really good rugby player,” as Cima remembers it. Cima spent his school-age years in the United States, watching the Argentines’ rugby matches whenever he could, tuning into club games on the now-defunct Fox Soccer channel. He began playing for the Maryland Exiles rugby club at 6 years old.
Cima and his older brother Matias, who played for the U-17 national team and plays at Maryland, “had rugby in their blood,” Kelly said. “They were both gifted athletes from day one.”
Though his instincts about when to pass and when to punt separate him from most teenagers at his position, Cima’s ability to do the latter is, as Kelly put it, “exceptional.”
Former Eagles’ football coach Aaron Brady heard about Cima’s powerful right leg and, needing a kicker, reached out to him before his senior year. Cima agreed to join the team.
In front of a massive crowd in a key September game at Good Counsel, the Eagles looked upset-ready into the second half when a bad snap on a crucial punt flew over Cima’s head.
Had the Falcons recovered, they almost certainly would have scored. Had Cima just fallen on the ball, Good Counsel probably would have scored a few downs later. But Cima did neither. He scrambled back to not only recover the ball, but smack a 60-plus yard punt back upfield on the run. By season’s end, he was the first-team All-Met kicker.
Unlike a quarterback in football, the fly half in rugby must also play defense. There, teams used to target Cima, who was small, skinny and younger because he always played up with the older kids, Kelly said.
But as he grew to reach 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, a tall and sturdy build for his position, Cima also developed grit. He emerged as a strong tackler, one of the Eagles’ best poachers — players who hurtle after loose balls into other charging bodies and emerge with possession. He makes hustle plays, like fumble recoveries, that can lead to scores down the line.
After two years with the high school all-Americans, Cima was selected as the U.S. fly half for the Junior World Rugby Championships held in Hong Kong, on the same roster with college players and a few professionals.
Professional rugby, likely in one of the more established overseas leagues, is something Cima says he has “definitely wanted to” pursue. But so is education, and four years in the business school in College Park may prove too many in the eyes of those clubs that might have pursued him.
“There’s a very small window in your lifetime where you can play pro rugby, and if I take four years to go to college, those are four of the best years I’d have a chance to get a contract,” Cima said. “It’s hard, but I’ve definitely thought about going pro and I’m just playing it as it goes. For now, the priority is education.”
But as he gets that education — maybe in international business, though he’s not sure — Cima won’t give up on a future in elite rugby. He’ll play club rugby for the Terrapins, whom he chose so he could stay close to home and play a semester’s worth of rugby with Mathias, who will graduate after this fall.
As he looks toward 2015, Cima sees the Rugby World Cup — a once-every-four-years event as highly anticipated in some parts of the world as FIFA’s. Getting called into World Cup training camp, let alone making the roster, as a teenager at the game’s most pivotal position would be a massive achievement.
More immediately, Cima hopes to lead the high school all-Americans to a statement performance in their mid-July tour. Using his native Argentina as a standard, Cima says he has seen the American team close the gap on traditional rugby-playing nations in just three years. On a 2012 tour, the U.S. fell to the Argentines, 52-3. In 2013, they pushed them to a 33-18 loss. This season, he hopes the Americans can pull off a few victories in Argentina against the hosts and U-18 teams from Uruguay and Italy.
“The goal again is to keep closing the gap,” Cima said. “That’s what developing rugby countries have to do because there’s still a big gap between the United States and the superpowers. The goal is to keep getting closer, but obviously it’s in our minds that we’d love to win all three games.”