Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ohio Rugby Represented in Combined Services Rugby Squad

The men and women of our Armed Forces are often seen as tough, brave men and women running into dangerous situations in order to secure our borders and protect our way of life. Sometimes when they fly into foreign lands their mission is to fight an 80-minute battle of a sporting variety. Such was the case when the Combined Services Squad that traveled to New Zealand recently; and of the 28 men taken to compete for the Navies Commonwealth Rugby Cup there were Ohio ruggers on the list.

William Baldrey, a Second Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy, wanted to try out for the traveling select side after seeing it announced in an administrative message and hearing talk from other ruggers among his ranks. It wasn't as easy as replying to an E-mail and packing his cleats, though.

"The first step was getting command approval to try out for the team," Baldrey said. "Once you were endorsed by your command to try out, you were required to submit a package detailing your past rugby
experience, personal accomplishments and any references who could vouch for your play. From there, packages were screened by the Services Sports Coordinator and Head Coach who ultimately decided who would be flown out for a four-week training camp in San Diego, CA."

"Typically an announcement is made through a message that goes out to all Marines and Sailors, but it is also advertised through military fitness centers on various bases; servicemen with experience and talent are encouraged to apply as long as their parent commands allow them the time away from their primary military duties to participate," said Douglas Schueler, senior officer and Officer in Charge of the group. "This year the players that applied and were allowed to participate attended a training camp."

In all 40 players tried out for the team. That group was taken down to 28 and taken out west to train for the tournament, with Baldrey as one of them. Prior to joining the Navy, Baldrey had played rugby on and off for about ten years - beginning his career on the East Side suburbs of Cleveland in high school. While he normally plays loose forward but got moved up in the pack and played lock for the CSS.

The combined team was going to be facing some stiff competition down in Auckland but they aimed high and prepared with the goal of obtaining top honors squarely in their sight.

"The competition was called the Four Nations Maritime Rugby Cup," Schueler said. "The other nations involved were New Zealand - the host country, Australia and Great Britain. Each put forth a team consisting of players from their respective Navy."

The American players were very much debutantes at the competition. Every other team had been competing in the tournament since its inception in 1996. With the deck squarely stacked against them, there were some nerves among the players. Despite the initial nervous feelings, the CSS focused and went to work.

"Everyone was focused on playing rugby at the highest level most players had ever experienced," Schueler said. "When we first arrived, sightseeing and other typical tourist activities took a back seat. It was great to see the team so focused. I think there was a bit of anxiousness due to the high competition level of the tournament, but that soon abated when our players learned they could hold their own during the first match."

Though they played tough and competitively, unfortunately, their on-field pursuits didn't quite pan out but the trip and the experience were far from wastes. Overall, New Zealand's team was the big winner.

"Although we didn’t accomplish our ultimate goal of winning the tournament, we showed the ability to play rugby at a high level and surprised our opponents with the level that we did play at," Baldrey said. "While on tour we all became brothers. From day one we came together as a team and all shared similar goals of competing at a high level. Everyone was highly competitive and pushed each other to perform at their best. I’m very fortunate to have been able to compete and share the  pitch with this diverse group of warriors."

"All of the players got along well and came together as a very tight knit group," Scheuler said. "Despite coming from varied backgrounds, some very tight friendships were made that I am sure will carry on for years. Some of the players even built close relationships with players on the other teams."

After the tournament ended each of the 28 players and Schueler returned to their respective bases to resume their daily lives. They did not return unchanged, though. According to Baldrey, he gained a wealth of experiences from this trip, ranging from the excellent coaching he received from Steve Lynch and the rest of the staff to the overall experience on the field and while sight-seeing.

"This trip enabled us to devote all of our time to rugby and to really absorb as much information as possible. It gave us a full time competitive atmosphere, that continuously pushed us to become better ruggers," Baldrey said. "We were also fortunate enough to receive coaching from All Blacks legend Buck Shelford and were exposed to international sides, which gave us valuable experience that we all brought back to the states with us."

If nothing else, Baldrey has gained a rugger's wanderlust. If given the opportunity, he said he would like to travel to and compete against teams in Australia. He'd also like another chance to play against the teams he played against in New Zealand. In another three years the Four Nations Maritime Rugby Cup will come around again and Baldrey could have his shot, perhaps with Scheuler again, and another crop of military players looking to compete at the sport's highest levels.

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