A 29 strong squad of relatively unknown American rugby players toured South East Queensland last month with a point to prove. From the red soils and freezing winds of the Darling Downs to the spiritual home of Queensland Rugby, Ballymore, America’s best University players, the AIG All American Collegiate team rucked, mauled and tackled their way into the hearts and minds of 1000s of onlookers.
Across 10 days, they defeated a darling Downs XV with raw speed and power; they gave the Brothers select XV a genuine scare, only to be pipped at the post. Then, on the hallowed ground of Ballymore, they gave the curious crowd plenty to cheer about with a courageous 43-40 loss. The performance is particularly noteworthy given that the squad met each other just days before their departure to Australia. Assembled from over 14 different US colleges across the USA from Berkeley in the west to Kutztown in the east, the young Americans were still recovering from jetlag half way through their visit. There would be little time for kangaroo encounters or koala selfies. These guys meant business. You see, rugby is serious in the USA. Rugby has officially arrived in the land of stars and stripes. They knew to be taken seriously in a developed rugby nation, they needed to perform. And perform they did.
With each match livestreamed, the viewing audience was significant. One of those viewing may well have been John Mitchell, the super coach charged with bringing the USA Eagles steps closer to becoming a world force.
Standing within earshot of the dressing room banter one could gain a sense that the players knew there were eagle eyes watching from across the Pacific. There can be little doubt that future Eagles careers were born on this tour down under.
Off the field, their mark was made too. On display off the park was perhaps the best example of the benefits of the mix of sport and education. Nobody does it better than the US college system. Local high school rugby players and families seized the opportunity to meet the players, hear about their study and play balance that US College rugby provides. A pathway of unrivalled opportunity was revealed to these families through the passionate, knowledgeable stories shared by the US student- athletes, delivered with confidence and enthusiasm; a credit to their country and their respective colleges. Doors have been opened to the land of opportunity through rugby and education, so there is no surprise that more and more Australian school leavers are packing up their boots, books and vegemite and walking right through them.