A scrum for success

Sacramento rugby player works on taking his game—and the country's—to the next level

Louis Stanfill hopes to lead the USA Rugby team, the Eagles, to a victory over Canada later this month.

Louis Stanfill hopes to lead the USA Rugby team, the Eagles, to a victory over Canada later this month.

photo by taras garcia

Louis Stanfill works up a sweat at Capital Athletic Club on a recent weekday morning, pushing, pulling and squatting hundreds of pounds in the weight room. For Stanfill, summer vacation comes second to his goal of being picked up next season by a professional rugby club overseas. Weighing in at around 250 pounds, the 28-year-old must maintain strength, power and muscle in order to tackle other players and shove opponents backward during a scrum.

“I do a lot of the hard work,” says Stanfill. “I hit a lot, I tackle a lot, and if I get the ball in my hands, I usually just run straight. And I don’t pass very often.”

Now in his off-season—during which he’s also been playing for the USA Rugby team, the Eagles—Stanfill is at a crossroads: He lives with his parents, has no health insurance and no club contract. Yet, if—like last year—he gets picked up by a team overseas, he’ll quickly pack a suitcase and spend the next eight-month rugby season training, traveling and playing his beloved sport. On top of that, if he can help the Eagles outscore Canada in a pair of qualifying matches later this month, Stanfill might also punch his ticket to the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

Stanfill started playing rugby somewhat by accident during his days at Jesuit High School. He played basketball, football and baseball, but lost a baseball mitt given to him by his dad. Rather than “incur the wrath” of his father, he decided to change things up and say, “I want to start playing rugby.” With the help of supportive parents and the Jesuit team, which had a good track record of preparing players for the collegiate level, Stanfill excelled. After graduating, he joined brother Jake at UC Berkeley, where the Golden Bears were collegiate rugby champions from 2004 to 2008.

Unfortunately, Jake—just 23 months older than his brother—injured a knee during a rugby match in his last season at Berkeley, and was never able to never able to play again. A few years later, Jake settled into a career in property management, where he remains today.

The younger Stanfill, on the other hand, caught a bit of luck: He made his debut for the Eagles in 2005—while still a student—just shy of his 20th birthday. He got the chance because the assistant coach at Berkeley turned out to be the head coach of the national team.

It wasn’t too long before Stanfill decided to commit himself to the sport.

“After the 2007 World Cup, I made the conscious decision to say, ’OK, the next four years, I’m going to dedicate my life to rugby,’” he says. “All my choices in life revolved around: ’Is it the best move for my rugby career?’”

After graduating from Berkeley in 2008, he played on two nonprofessional teams (the New York Athletic Club and an Australian team called the Canberra Royals Rugby Union Football Club) before earning paid one-year contracts on Italian teams Rugby Mogliano (part of Italy’s top rugby league, the National Championship of Excellence) and Rangers Rugby Vicenza (in Italy’s second-tier of professional rugby, Serie A).

During the 2012-2013 season with the Rangers, Stanfill received free lodging and was provided a car. He lived in Italy for eight months with his girlfriend, needing only to pay for food and whatever leisure activities he wanted.

But life isn’t just fun and games for American professional rugby players. First off, it’s a sort of a lonely, “nomadic” life, says Stanfill, who has lived out of a suitcase and traveled from team to team for the last several years. Plus, there’s still no professional league in the United States, and foreign teams aren’t often looking to sign Americans.

“I think Louis is a great player, [but] the thing is, foreign teams are only allowed so many foreign slots per team,” says Eagles and former Golden Bears teammate Chris Biller, who just completed a year contract on an English club team. “So, do [they] take a guy like Louis, or are they going to go after some speedster who’s really fast and athletic and young from New Zealand [who is ranked No. 1 in the world] or something? That’s the dilemma Americans run into.”

Now that Stanfill’s contract is up, he has no job or car and lives at home with his parents. And though he just finished playing in the International Rugby Board’s Pacific Nations Cup with the Eagles (during one of the matches, he captained the team), the national team doesn’t provide much pay or health insurance. Chatting with SN&R several weeks after the tournament, Stanfill still felt a bit sore from the four games, all of which were losses.

“The fact that the players don’t have health insurance is absolutely preposterous,” says Jake Stanfill. “They’re never going to crack the top 10 until the current board starts putting money into the team.”

Despite the fact that the current management doesn’t offer great incentives to its players—merely a per diem salary and a “win bonus”—there could still be hope for the future of the Eagles.

“The caliber of rugby players each year gets a little better,” says Louis Stanfill, who has played 43 matches with the national team over the course of eight years.

Sacramento and the Bay Area, in particular, seem to be producing a large number of talented rugby players, says Stanfill. Sacramento-born Blaine Scully, another alumnus of both Jesuit and Cal, plays for both the Eagles and the national rugby union sevens team, a faster-paced seven-person variant of the more-popular 15-player game.

So, when rugby sevens appears in the Olympics in 2016, expect to see Scully, an up-and-coming star, on the team. In fact, there’s some relevant backstory regarding the United States and Olympic rugby: The Americans are two-time reigning Olympic champions. And the last two times rugby was an Olympic sport, in 1920 and 1924, the team was made up of mainly Californians—many players coming from Stanford University, UC Berkeley and Santa Clara University.

Though the Eagles are currently ranked 18th in the world, Stanfill isn’t worried about beating their biggest rivals Canada, ranked 15th, to qualify for the World Cup this month.

“We’re in a position where we have an American coach [Mike Tolkin], and he’s very good, creating this … cooperative effort on all levels—much more so than in the past,” says Stanfill.

“If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen.”