Blaine Scully has called time on his professional rugby career, but looks back on his time with Leicester Tigers, Cardiff Blues and USA fondly as he looks forward to a life of parenthood and ambition.
The former Eagles captain spoke to Robert Rees about his post-rugby life, his journey into rugby and his time travelling the world playing the game he loves.
Starting a family
Starting a family is a big step in anyone’s life, but for Scully, who has since moved back to the USA from Wales, explains how big a factor the birth of his daughter was in him retiring.
“It was definitely part of it,” he said. “The realities of heading back overseas with the family, and the fact it was always my plan to have a break after the World Cup anyway. It puts all that in focus and we discussed it as a family and it felt right thing for me was to be grateful for the time we had and look forward to whatever is next.”
Looking ahead to what his future may hold, Scully explains he hasn’t got a definite path he wants to follow.
“I’m still figuring it out. In some ways I retired at the right time given the situation, and I say that facetiously somewhat, but it’s a difficult time for everyone in the sense that a lot of folks having to change lanes. That process is ongoing in terms of identifying what’s next. First and foremost, being a good dad and working through the re-prioritisation of my life with my family being a core focus.
“At the moment I’m just enjoying time with my baby girl. There have been some silver linings as I’ve been there everyday since she was born, which is amazing.
“I did a crossover into business program through Harvard Business School, which was a few months. That was a cool experience and now I’m looking at getting some post-graduate education.”
The physical, modern game of rugby can take its toll on a players’ body, but despite being just 32 Scully believes that retirement is the right option.
“It was never an easy decision. There was a lot that went into the decision based on how much I’d put into rugby and it’s never an easy thing to walk away from. It was like finishing a book for me, closing that chapter, because at some point it had to end, that’s reality of sport. I felt it was the right time for us as a family. Having done most things I wanted to do as a player, and talking it over with my wife I felt it was the right time to do this.
“I could have played on a few years, and had a few offers we briefly looked at, but ultimately it was about focusing on my family and that looked like staying here in the USA. 32 is youngish, but in the context of all my other schoolmates, they’ve been in their careers for a long time and I’m going to have to start one of those soon.”
“Some people figure it out early, others later. I’m still figuring out that process. My process has been slightly complicated by the pandemic, but I’ve had some conversations,” he explained.
Starting out your journey as a rugby player in a country not famed for playing the sport can be a challenge, but despite having a successful career it wasn’t always on his agenda as he went through high school.
Rugby not on the cards in college….
“California has always been a hotbed for American rugby, it’s where most of the Olympians came from in the 1924 Olympics, where we won a gold medal,” said Scully.
“It’s a built-in uniqueness. It was one of the few varsity programmes in the United Sates where it’s treated the same as college football, not from a scholarship stance, but sport is serious. I was very fortunate to be there and play under two former national team players and giants of American rugby in Jack Clark and Tom Billups.
“That was my mentorship and professional rugby foundation, although I couldn’t have foreseen where my career would go. I played for the Sevens team with CAL and made the Churchill Cup team in 2010 and made the World Cup team as a bolster and took off from there.”
Despite it sitting down the pecking order in American sports, rugby is starting to take off gradually.
“You get a few thousand at our games. Our National Championship game in 2011 had around 11,000 there, which would have been one of the biggest games I’ve been part of.
“You just can’t compare anything to football in the States. The biggest NFL stadium doesn’t even crack the top 20 college teams in terms of capacity because stadiums hold 100,000 people.”
Looking at how the culture changes between the USA and UK, Scully explained, “The differences is we don’t really have an academy system in the US, it’s all done through school systems. It’s all base around inter-scholastic sports, so through high schools and universities. The college athletic system, where you get your education as well as sport is the proving ground for the professional leagues.”
Despite making a career out of rugby it wasn’t his chosen sport in college.
“Basketball, water polo and swimming were my thing in college,” said Scully.
“My mom did a pretty good job of keeping me away [from American football]. I did flag and stuff, but never really played it.”
His first major venture into rugby wasn’t in the full format of the game, but a Sevens program.
“It was a little bit different back then. It was very much a development of rugby players and was hugely beneficial to me. It accelerated me on the path that I was getting more exposure to the game and Sevens is ruthless in your skill development,” he said.
“It was really important to me. I went to Sevens’ camps pretty quickly after starting rugby. It’s a lot different now in terms of it being a totally different discipline in many ways, with incredible athletes.
“The circuit wasn’t as robust back then. We didn’t go full time in the US until 2012. I was on one of the first training contracts before heading to Leicester.”
“To the friends, teammates, opponents, coaches and fans, to the clubs and countries, and of course, the game itself, you have my deepest thanks for the experience of a lifetime.” pic.twitter.com/H8Dmb6AkSL
— Blaine Scully (@BlaineScully1) March 10, 2020
Scully heads to the UK
It was this move to Leicester that gave him his major break in rugby.
“It happened fairly quickly, but sometimes you need to get fortunate and that was one of the moments for me.”
After two years at Welford Road his time in England came to and end and he made the short trip across the Severn Bridge, to Cardiff.
Here he’d go on to lift the Challenge Cup in a glorious four-year spell at the Arms Park.
“I felt incredibly supported at both clubs,” said Scully. “They welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t know what to expect, but it comes down to the quality of the supporters. Frankly, all I did was work and play as hard as I could and be myself and people appreciated that.
“If you do that as an athlete people can’t ask for much more and there was a mutual respect based on that. I always really appreciated their support and was keen to let them know how much we appreciated it, which we don’t always do.”
Two years into his spell at Cardiff he finally welcomed his wife Shannon over, who had spent the previous four years back in the USA.
“It’s a very tough part [of playing]. I’m hesitant to say it was a sacrifice, but it was a really tough decision to make in pursuit of what I set out to do when I first picked up a ball. I had to throw myself fully in to the opportunity and make my time there count.
“When she did eventually move over we had an amazing life experience, being able to travel and see the world through rugby.”
“It’s [Wales] a little different than California, but when Shannon came over we started calling it ‘Cardiffornia’,” he added.
“I love Wales and the people. I met a lot of great friends and people I still talk to today.
“It’s a city, but in many ways relevant to some of the places I’m from it’s smaller so much more intimate.”
“I went to a few [Wales] games, to support my teammates. I was never one to go out into town when the boys were playing, it’s not really my thing. I’d go to the game and watch them if I could. It’s a special experience heading to the Principality Stadium. It’s the sport at its best. It’s a cultural experience and that’s why I loved playing international rugby and playing overseas.
“There’s life to it that is truly unique.
“Lloyd Williams, Ellis Jenkins, Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Lewis Jones were all superb with me. At that time there was fellow American Cam Dolan here.
“There were a number of guys who were so good with me.”
Bilbao and Scotland…
Looking back at his fondest memories in a rugby shirt, he discussed the Challenge Cup victory in Bilbao and a test match win over Scotland.
“There’s Bilbao, or Scotland which was our biggest test match victory since 1924. I find it slightly shallow of me to sit here and say there’s a couple of results were the best time, but if you can take into context what goes into each of those it’s hard to identify of what that moment means.
“Most people point to the Challenge Cup 2018 or Scotland win and it looks like something on paper, but there’s more that goes into it. I’ve always loved that journey and that process of going all into something. Then when you achieve it it feels amazing.”
Looking back at his debut against Russia, at Sixways in Worcester, Scully fondly pondered over the scenery that day.
“I can recall most of it. Getting the phone call to meet up with the team. I’d been part of the training team before and they’d played Russia and Tonga the day before I got there so I knew I had a responsibility to bring up the energy if possible. When you’re young it’s one of the things you can do straight away, add positive energy to an environment.
“I was hoping I’d just get a crack in the [matchday] 22 then, then I was told I’d start at fullback. It was at Sixways Stadium and it had rained all day, but was fine for the test.
“I remember all the smells of the changing room and running out on to the field. Coming back in at half time I was as tired as I’d ever been. I was in the game early, catching high balls and made line breaks.
“At the end of the game Russia were knocking on the door and as fullback I was responsible for closing that gate on the last man. I hit Ostrushko and he’s built really well. I gave myself the biggest stinger! It was my first stinger, I lost feeling in my arm, but made the tackle and we beat Russia for my first test win.
Comfortable at both fullback or wing, he explains which he’d choose, if he was given the opportunity.
“I ended up specialising on the right wing which ended up being my favourite position. I enjoyed being on the wing and being available for cross-field kicks. I never got as many as I should have though. Towards the end of my career I found the right wing my spot, but as long as I was on the field, whatever it took to get out there, that’s what I’d do.”
“I’ve taken on everyone except Wales, how funny is that for all the time I was in Cardiff. Comparing myself to the best is what I wanted, to know where I was. Sport gives you feedback and you can compare how you grow.
“You roll that into a team context, which is more rewarding. What I loved so much was the contest and that feedback. It’s fun! I enjoyed competing at that level to see where I was at and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to go overseas and always wanted to push myself.
“I always saw it that I was flying the flag for American rugby players. Your Tom Billups’, Dan Lyle’s and Chris Wyles were a great example of doing that. You then got future Eagles like Joe Taufete’e and Titi Lamositele. The list goes on.
“I felt that personal responsibility of representing more than myself.”
“There’s so much transferability between competitors. I’ve always pulled inspiration from a number of athletes and I find that adds balance. That was the value of my diverse athletic background, even though I found rugby late. In so many ways it was beneficial to my rugby development.
“I had to figure all this out with 14 other players on the field. That’s how the sport captured me, it tested me in every athletic way possible.
“You have to respect Michael Phelps. He’s the greatest Olympian ever, but he would have been bursting onto the scene when I was in high school.”
Major League Rugby
Rugby on TV
“There are a number of networks that broadcast rugby. I was working for NBC before lockdown. I was helping cover the Six Nations and [Gallagher] Premiership, and also the European Cup. ESPN covers Pro14, Super Rugby and MLR and then NBC covers the rest as well.”
Can rugby take off? I ask him.
“I’d like to think we could achieve market share. It doesn’t need to be the biggest sport here, but if we have allocate resources smartly, which we could focus on geographical markets and build sustainable pathways through the 50 states with meaningful competitions, it’ll help us to be more successful as a national team, which gives a more marketable product globally.”
His advice to any young person starting out in American rugby is, “watch as much rugby as you can and expose yourself to the game. Treat it as a study. One of the most beneficial things to me was consuming the game and watching it as someone who’d want to be in that contest.
“If I wanted to be fullback I’d watch the game but specifically watch the fullbacks. I’d clip out my favourite players and watch their games every week. Honest self assessment if also vital, in terms of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
“Physical and mental stuff is part of that, but you just have to enjoy it and have some fun.”
It’s this analysis of players that aided him in his bid to be one of the best in the team.
“Just the way they operate and move with the ball or off it. How they position themselves defensively and their nuts and bolts of the game. If they kick, what type of kick is it, when they kick and what situation,” he explains.
Best player you’ve played against?
“You could say Nemani Nadolo. That’s not a fun tackle to make, but equally someone like Isa Nacewa is an unbelievable player. Those are the guys I really enjoyed playing. Cory Jane, Israel Dagg and Julian Savea. I’ve played against some outstanding players.
“Isa is someone I loved playing against. He was such a well-rounded player and that’s what I aspired to be. I’d have watched him every week, what he did with the ball, how he approached the game and how he looked for work. He was pretty good on defence too,” Scully said.
“Rugby locker rooms are full of these characters. Ben Youngs at Leicester, Lewis Jones and Gethin Jenkins. I view character not just as a joker, but someone who’s unique. I loved playing with Gethin.
“He was so tough, but he was fair.”
Book coming out…
Despite one chapter closing, there is another, or perhaps I should say several chapters coming, as Scully prepares a book.
“It’s something I’m planning on doing. I’ve started it and we’ll see where I get to. I’ve made some decent progress and it’s in the work. Hopefully it’ll be about the lessons rugby has taught me. It’s figuring out the right words to express that.”
“Main photo credit”