CARSON, Calif. – Men’s Eagle Scott LaValla has taken the road less travelled for an American rugby player. Currently playing professionally in France’s Top 14 with Stade Francais, LaValla did not start playing rugby until the age of 16, when he realized it fit him better than sports like football and baseball.
“I was really bad at baseball,” LaValla said of his high school sports career. “I was always interested in rugby; we had a local club and when I learned more about it I wanted to play.”
It did not take him long to find success, with a call-up to the U19 National Team in 2007 and a chance to captain the U20s at the IRB Junior World Cup.
“That’s when we were relegated from the Junior World Cup,” LaValla said. “That was our claim to fame. Now it’s their first year back.”
With the less-than-stellar performance by the Americans on the national stage that year, LaValla did not become discouraged, instead leaving the States for an opportunity at Trinity College in Ireland.
“I was going to walk on at the University of Oregon, and I wasn’t too excited about going there,” he said. “I was more excited about going to Dublin.”
It was LaValla’s club coach from Washington who made contact with the coach at Trinity, Tony Smeeth. Smeeth is currently an assistant on Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin’s coaching staff.
LaValla was elected captain by his peers at Trinity College before his time was up, and he earned a degree in Philosophy and Political Science. As for rugby, LaValla honed his skills while taking in a new culture, a move which made him visible to Stade Francais.
“It wasn’t the best monetary option at the time, but it was the best prospective option for me,” LaValla said. “It had the best potential to play at the highest level. I had some other chances to play lower division rugby and make a bit more money in the short term, but it didn’t offer the same opportunity for advancement as Stade Francais.”
LaValla signed an academy contract and had one year to prove himself to move up to the first team, which he did.
“It’s probably the best domestic competition in Europe,” LaValla said of the Top 14, where Eagles teammate Takudzwa Ngwenya also plays for Biarritz. “The opportunity to learn a foreign culture, see a bit of the world—I’d recommend it to anybody.”
The six-foot-four lock used his professional success to earn a spot on the Eagles roster for the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, where the Americans were scheduled to play Ireland. Under coach Eddie O’Sullivan, he never got the chance to play against his friends and former teammates.
“My whole goal was to play against Ireland because I lived there for four years,” he said. “As soon as I knew we were playing against Ireland three years ahead of time it was my goal to be in that game, but I didn’t get to do that. I was on the bench, but never got to play.”
LaValla made his way into the starting lineup by the third match of the tournament against Australia, a 5-67 loss. Though he called the Eagles’ performance and early exit to the tournament “disappointing,” LaValla was more focused on the next steps—what it would take to get better and make sure it did not happen again.
“Going to the World Cup is pretty special,” he said. “I think most people would agree, though, when those things happen, it doesn’t seem so big when you’re doing it. It seems like, ‘Okay, cool.’ You’re more focused on playing well. Then it’s gone so quick, you just want to work for the next thing.”
Stade Francais made it to the European Challenge Cup Final in 2013 but ultimately lost to Irish side Leinster. LaValla considered the Final one of the most special moments of his career due to friends of his in the Leinster squad.
LaValla’s Irish connections came into play in Houston last weekend with the ninth-ranked tier one nation visiting BBVA Compass Stadium, where a few of his former mates lined up against him. Lavalla anticipated a fun match with ‘a bit of banter on-field,’ but for him it was still a competitive test match.
“I thought we didn’t perform as well as we would have liked, we didn’t attack as well as we wanted to,” he said. “That being said, I think the game was a story of two strong defenses.
“For us, we were in it. But two years ago at the World Cup, against an equivalent Ireland squad, we didn’t play them as close, so it’s improvement.”
LaValla, Ngwenya, Chris Wyles and Samu Manoa all rejoined the Eagles in the week leading up to the Ireland test after having completed grueling club seasons abroad. The Eagles had previously lost their first Pacific Nations Cup match to Canada and received a boost from the international additions.
The Eagles are in the middle of one of their busiest seasons in history, with three more Pacific Nations Cup matches and a set of Rugby World Cup Qualifiers against Canada all scheduled before the end of the summer.
“I’d like to see the Eagles advance in the World Rankings,” LaValla said. “We’re 16th now. If we could get in the top 12 or crack the top 10, I’d be pretty happy with that. We’d have to surpass the likes of Canada, Fiji, Tonga, Japan—which is doable. It’s a very realistic goal. We can beat these teams. It’s just a question of performing.”
At just 24, LaValla has a lengthy rugby career ahead of him. Motivation, he said, is to take advantage of the opportunities he has been given and improve.
“To make the most of a good situation is motivation for me,” LaValla said. “Most of the guys here can play professional rugby, but due to the circumstances or opportunity or injury haven’t gotten there. The world’s full of great rugby players. It’s not a question of who’s the best; sometimes it’s who you know—right place, right time. Once you get that foot in the door, you don’t want to lose that. It’s not enough to just be there; you have to show you’re improving.
“It just has to be about controlling what you can control to make yourself the best player possible. The knowledge that the margins are very small motivates me. There are guys, some of my best friends on this team, who aren’t in the same position as me. So I want to make the most of it.”
Tolkin was not with the Eagles during the Rugby World Cup in 2011, but has seen during his tenure as head coach the kind of dedication LaValla has to become the player he is today.
“He’s one of the hardest-working guys on the team,” Tolkin said. “He’s always doing extra work after practices. He’s established himself as that type of player and it shows in his statistics, both professionally and at the international level.”
Though Tolkin and teammates praise his work ethic, Lavalla was quick to humble himself and point to his teammates’ efforts.
“I don’t know of anyone on this team who isn’t trying to do the same thing; work each day to get better,” LaValla said. “I want to be the best player I can be and be regarded as that by other people.”
The Eagles are looking to get back on track in the Pacific Nations Cup Friday against a ferocious Tonga team also needing a win to keep pace with Canada. Watch the Eagles from StubHub Center, formerly Home Depot Center, live on Universal Sports at 7:30 P.M. PT.