LONDON, England – The Men’s Eagles are made up of a diverse collective of athletes wanting to represent the United States on the national stage. From American Samoa-born Andrew Suniula to Aussie Luke Hume, captain Todd Clever leads a red, white and blue consortium around the world. Seamus Kelly, from Queens, N.Y., has followed in some of his heroes’ footsteps in pulling on an Eagles jersey.
Kelly was not always bound for rugby; he was a high school football star. Recording nearly 4,000 rushing yards in three years at Xavier High School, “Famous Seamus” had offers from numerous universities to put on a helmet and score points in front of thousands of fans.
“I thought I would definitely go down that path,” he said. “[But] I took a visit out to Cal just to leave no door unopened and fell in love with the place; the way the program was run and, obviously, the quality of the University was a big draw.
“I made that decision pretty easily after my visit and decided it would be the better path for me.”
Kelly followed the path of most young Americans looking to play a sport, as American football is arguably the most popular age-grade sport in the country. He started when he was eight years old.
“I still love football and will miss it every once in a while,” Kelly said. “But I never look back. I look at where I’ve come since making that decision.”
In his fifth year at the University of California, Kelly has been a part of two national championship Golden Bears teams. He began with the program when Eric Fry was in his last year.
“[He was] a different position, but I still admired him,” he said. “His work ethic was second to none. He’s still the stuff of legend there. From an early start, it was a standard I looked to reach. I definitely give him credit for that.”
Kelly made his Eagles debut just five days before his 22nd birthday in May this year. He came off of the bench in the Eagles’ 16-9 loss to Canada in the first match of the 2013 IRB Pacific Nations Cup. Kelly followed his debut with a string of starts against Ireland, Tonga and Fiji. He was substituted again in the final PNC match against Japan, a 38-20 loss.
The center started the first Rugby World Cup Qualifier match against Canada in Charleston Aug. 17, but came off with an injury. His appearance in the match against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks in Philadelphia earlier this month was the first time he had played since the injury.
“A great medical team and facilities at Cal gave me the opportunity to rehab and get back,” Kelly said in Philadelphia. “I’m feeling pretty good right now.”
He missed the 2013 IRB Americas Rugby Championship with the Eagles Select XV, who went 2-1 for a second-place finish.
“I watched the ARC games,” he said. “Just a little too soon to come back for me. [The Philadelphia assembly] is the first real rugby since August and I was itching to go. It’s been great so far.”
Though they lost 29-19 to the Maori, the Eagles put on one of their best performances in a year in front of a sold-out crowd at PPL Park. Part of the reason for the difference in play could be the change in coaching staff, with Derek Dowling, Dan Payne and Tony Smeeth leaving their posts.
Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin added Billy Millard and Justin Fitzpatrick to his staff beginning with the ARC.
“We were obviously sad to see the old guys go – I learned a lot from them,” Kelly said. “I think the new coaching staff has brought a lot of energy into the team and really given some power to the players to express themselves as athletes.
“I’ve already learned a lot of things from the new coaches; I feel myself picking up some skills and honing some skills with their help. I’m excited.”
Following the two wins north of the border and the narrow loss to the Maori, the Eagles defeated Georgia for the first win of 2013.
Prior to November, the Eagles had lost seven consecutive matches.
“I think everybody’s picked up a lot of lessons as a team and as individuals from the summer, but at no point did I think anybody doubted their individual ability or the team’s potential,” Kelly said. “The great part about sport and competition is you always have another chance.
“The November Tour is a really good opportunity for a lot of guys and the team in general to play their guts out; still show the other teams around the world that we’re something to be reckoned with.”
Kelly will start on the bench against Russia Saturday, Nov. 23, at Allianz Park. Andrew Suniula will start at center alongside Folau Niua. Suniula has been something of a mentor for Kelly, who was only in the presence of recently-retired Paul Emerick for an assembly.
“He was another guy I looked up to as a young player playing in his position,” Kelly said. “I watched a lot of his games and admired the way he played the game and the position. One of the U.S. legends. For the short time I was with him in my first assembly he was helpful.”
Emerick missed all of the 2013 summer tests before retiring prior to the first RWC Qualifier. The Eagles have yet to qualify for the 2015 tournament in England and will have a second opportunity next March against Uruguay.
Kelly will graduate from Cal next year with hopes to continue his rugby career professionally.
“I’d love to get in an environment overseas where I could really max out my potential as a rugby player and be as successful as possible for the United States,” he said. “That would be my goal. Wherever that takes me; I have no specific plans with that yet.”
The Eagles defeated Russia 13-6 in the Bears’ first appearance at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Last year, they replicated the result with a 40-26 win against Russia in Wales. Saturday, the Eagles could improve to 2-1 for the November Tour.