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Mark Crick's Rugby Journey

Crick playing for New South Wales.

The Rugby World Cup is here; the Eagles start tomorrow. From now until the RWC's end, or at least until I run out of material, I will be attempting at least one rugby post per day. Let me know if you can provide on-site color, or if you can invite me to an embassy RWC watch party, or if you can comp me into a bar showing every match, or if you have any other coverage ideas. Bear in mind that, if you're still reading this, you know more about the actual game than I do.

When the U.S. begins play Saturday morning against England, Mark Crick will have trouble watching. That might not be totally shocking, considering the D.C. resident and co-owner of Balance Sport and Fitness in Kalorama is a native Australian. The thing that makes it surprising is Crick is an alternate on the Eagles, who came within one step of fulfilling a lifelong dream by making a RWC roster and who could yet be called up if injury strikes.

"It's just difficult to watch, just purely because you can't help but see yourself in there," he told me. "I'm in a tough situation; if there's an injury, I'm on the first plane over there. Here I am, one part of me is just like, 'Let it go, it's done.' You feel like you've got to--I could hardly talk to anyone for two days [after getting cut].

"[But] the realistic situation is, it's a month-long competition against some of the most brutal rugby players in the world. Injuries occur. You don't sit back and watch the TV and wait for guys to get injured, but in the back of your mind, you know. I've been told, 'if there's an injury, be ready to go.' And that's tough, because at the moment, I just want to go and drink, I really do. I don't want to worry about being fit, doing all the hard work. But that time will come."

If you're wondering why he ever left Australia, you wouldn't be the only one--"Terrible place: sunny and beautiful and beaches and mountains and beautiful women," as he explained.

He's played the game relentlessly since the age of 7, making the Australian national U-19 and U-21 teams. After school he played professionally for the New South Wales Waratahs, then went to Ireland and played for Ulster. He had some visa problems in Ireland and was once met coming off the field by immigration agents and made "a hasty exit" back to Australia. He had planned on finishing his playing career in Europe and was down in the dumps, so he decided he'd travel and see the world while playing rugby.

Over the Internet he got in touch with the guys from PAC rugby, a D.C. club, played for them briefly during his worldwide tour, then went back to Australia and made arrangements to come play for a longer time with PAC. There's some sort of assumption in parts of the world that U.S. rugby players must get paid well--what with all our bling-bling athletes over here--but obviously, Crick discovered that not to be the case.

"I went from playing in 30,000-packed stadiums, to basically guys rocking out with the goalposts in the back of their yards and nailing them into the field before practice," he said. "I'd tell people I play professionally, trying to pick up chicks, and they'd just laugh at me. They just imagine bums at university. It was kind of difficult to explain to people."

That was about 3 and a half years ago. Almost immediately, his teammates asked Crick to become a player coach, "which was a real pain in the [bleep], because it was a lot of work," he joked. But he led PAC to the Super League playoffs, and ran rugby camps, and opened a gym, and about a year ago decided he'd give up his PAC responsibilities and take a real crack at making the Eagles' World Cup roster. He fell back into the life of a professional player, training and working out nearly full-time. For a while he was the Eagles' No. 1 hooker, and he was convinced that at the age of 32--after a broken neck and an epidural hematoma and shoulder reconstruction and torn knee ligaments and pins inserted into his hand--he was on the verge of making it to the highest level.

Then about a month before the Cup, he found out from another player that he wasn't going to make the squad.

"Probably the worst feeling I've had for a long time," he said. "I was really just dumbfounded."

Anyhow, he came back to D.C., and went back to the gym, and when I talked to him he said he would root for both the U.S. and Australia, but that watching rugby on TV wasn't really his thing, never had been.

"I'll be honest, I will watch a game, but if I'm not playing it I'm not really that interested," he said. "I've always been like that. I love the game, I love a lot of things about it, but there's so much more I want to do with my life. Every Saturday since 7 years old has been dedicated to rugby. There's plenty more places I want to go and not worry about rugby, just do something different."

But if you think he's bitter about the process, he's not. He still thinks the sport could have a future in the U.S.--"when American guys first experience rugby, it's like they've just seen God," he said. And he said he doesn't regret having spent the last year of his life in pursuit of a World Cup spot that still seems just out of reach.

"It's been a great experience," he said. "American rugby, to me, is the personalities that you meet, there's nothing else to it. The game is still developing here, there's no real supporter base for the U.S. national team as such. I would literally walk into a rugby tournament, and no one would know that I played for the U.S. team, because no one really cared. They care about their own club, and that's great.

"To me, the U.S. team was meeting the people....I'd have to say without a doubt it's probably the most unselfish, most committed and just [ego-free] group I've ever met in sports. No one stands above the rest, no one's getting paid a million dollars. We're all getting paid $100 a day, doesn't matter if it's the captain or what, and everyone acts like that, you know? It's just something that you don't see in sports.

"Honestly, Im disappointed, but [heck], I made so many good friends....I don't think there's a place in the U.S. that I could go without knowing someone, and that's an incredible kind of thing. The thing about rugby players, it doesn't matter who you are or what you've ever done, if you play rugby, you're guaranteed you'll have a place to stay that night. It's just an incredible thing."

(As for the Eagles' chances against England, "I'm not saying it can't happen, but when it comes down to it they have all the resources and we just don't have anything over here," Crick said. "It's literally guys who have jobs-- who in their spare time try to play rugby at a professional level--playing against guys who are full-time professionals, superstars in their own country, earning upwards of a million dollars a year....Put it this way, if the U.S. even came close to beating England, I'm sure that Disney would make a movie about it....

"If they can go out there and play good rugby and just earn the respect of the guys from these other professional- playing countries, I'll be so happy for the guys. They've worked so hard. Who knows? You never go out there and say, 'Oh my God, we're going to lose.' You go out there to compete. In the end, that's what playing sport is: you just want to compete.")

By Dan Steinberg  |  September 7, 2007; 10:18 AM ET
Categories:  Rugby  
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