USA Rugby

FloRugby Exclusive Interview With Former USA Eagles Veteran Nate Brakeley

FloRugby Exclusive Interview With Former USA Eagles Veteran Nate Brakeley

Former Eagles second-rower Nate Brakeley discusses triumphs, MLR impact and future plans in an interview on American rugby's growth and player development.

Dec 4, 2023 by Philip Bendon
FloRugby Exclusive Interview With Former USA Eagles Veteran Nate Brakeley

The versatile 34-year-old forward recently hung up his boots for the Eagles following their dominant 42-12 victory over a highly touted Spanish team. 

Ending on a high, Brakeley was happy to leave the jersey in a great place, given the Eagles showed a marked improvement under head coach Scott Lawrence. 

“Yeah, we were thrilled with the way that turned out," Brakeley said. " I think, obviously, just to win a bit of hardware, which had been a while since we'd done, and get a big victory against a similarly ranked opponent. 

“But also, I think we felt that in that game, we started to play the style of rugby we wanted to, with a little bit of nip and tuck in the first half.  

“Then, in the second half, it was a lot more kind of expressive rugby on our part. And I think the fitness work we'd started to put in was showing off.”

While Brakeley was happy with the victory, he did say the team would have hoped for things to have clicked earlier in the season, especially given the length of time the squad will need to wait before linking up for their next test. 

“And it just felt like a lot of pieces came together in the last game of the season, which on the one hand, that's when you want it to come together," Brakeley said. “But on the other hand, now we're going to have a six- or seven-month break as a national team that we're going to have to come back together and figure out where we left off .” 

Looking ahead to the future for the Eagles, Brakeley was asked what he felt would be the best way forward for the team. 

Offering some interesting insight, Brakeley felt consistent competition against similarly ranked opponents with a sprinkling of tests against Tier 1 nations was the best way forward. 

“You know, I've played everything from the full range of playing against England and then playing in the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC)," he said. “We play the South American teams, and so we have a pretty wide range of rankings that we've played there.  

“And, I think we want those games with the Spain, and now the Chile and Uruguay, where we know they're all winnable, but it's going to be a battle for it, and you know, sometimes we won't come out on top.  

“If you listen to what Chile and Portugal have said coming out of the World Cup, how valuable it is for teams to get those games (against tier one sides), to test yourself against the best.  

“So, you really can understand what it's going to take to get to that level, and obviously, if you're just playing in your backyard the whole time, you aren't going to have that opportunity.”  

Reiterating his confidence in Lawrence, Brakeley said he felt the team was in the right hands with someone who understood the American rugby landscape. 

“I think that the future is very bright with Scott right now," Brakeley said. “I think it's been a while again since we've had an American coach that lives in America and knows the landscape and kind of understands what the lifestyle is of the MLR athlete, which is where the vast majority of the player pool are playing. 

“It's knowing how to get the best out of those players ready and gelling and playing at the level and fitness that it's going to take to get to the next level as a national team.  

“And so, again, I think Scott has a pretty unique and honed-in perspective on the best way to achieve all that. So, I'm thrilled he has been the head coach so far and will be for the foreseeable future.”  

With his playing days in the Eagle jersey behind him, Brakeley discussed which players coming through the USA and Major League Rugby pathways fans should keep an eye on. 

“I think Nick McCarthy is a prime example of somebody that has decided that, you know, USA is where he wants to be now that the MLR is at the level and kind of sustainability that it's at, but have a lot to give to the U.S., and they're coming over here to play.  

“Tommaso Boni going to Old Glory is another great example of that.  

“And then the other side, we now have a system for players to come out of college and get professional contracts so that, you know, the Sam Golla of the world that previously might have been lost to the USA club system.” 

Further complimenting the pathway that the MLR has paved for up-and-coming talent, Brakeley felt players were now arriving at the Eagles setup physically ready for the demands of test rugby. 

“Guys are at the physical stage and are ready to rock and roll basically slot right into this MLR national line," he said. “So, I think we're kind of getting both ends of that pipeline coming together and we're starting to build a really deep player pool. And it was it was it was called out explicitly in the assembly. 

“But, you know, we had whatever, 30 guys in the squad. And there would have been no issue with any of those 30 suiting up and playing. Like, we're starting to get some real depth. 

“And, obviously, you can point to some positions where we could probably use some more. But the number of players that with the right coaching and the right encouragement that they can play for the USA is starting to grow dramatically. And that's great to see.” 

Delving deeper into players now seeking out the MLR as a destination to further their rugby career, Brakeley felt it was positive for USA players to see a fresh perspective to gain insight into what it takes to succeed in the most competitive environments in professional rugby. 

“I took a step back and said that, you know, when I was at New York and Andy Ellis came through, the value he was able to deliver as a, you know, a halfback that had played at the next level was immeasurable," Brakeley said. “It's a massive boost to a team on and off the field, obviously, in the pace of the game and the attack, but also just being able to look at the game differently.  

“I think Nick (McCarthy), obviously, with the caliber of players he played with in Ireland, has a lot of that as well. 

“And, that both benefits us, you know, immediately, and having someone like him on the field, but also what he's able to teach to not just the other nines and halfbacks, but the team as a whole about, you know, what, again, the pace and what it looks like at the next level. 

“I think one of the challenges that USA rugby players often run into is that we don't know what we don't know.  

“So, I might be doing everything my coach tells me and be the very best. But if I, you know, that coach himself is a product of that same system, they're only coaching within the limits of what they know. 

“So, when we get people that have been educated by the No. 1 team in the world to come over, it's just, it's basically a whole new class of knowledge and insight that's getting thrown into the ring with us, so that kind of experience, it really is invaluable for the team.” 

Focusing on the league and what steps it could take to continue its ascension, Brakeley felt that it should continue to lean into what makes American Sports so successful. 

“I think that one of the unique benefits MLR has is that it is not tied to any history of the game," he said. “There's no, you know, history of amateurism and the tensions that that creates within the way that things are run. And we can really open our minds to new ideas in terms of how the game is run.  

“You know, some of the laws that are put in MLR to change the game up a bit is a great example. Some of the ways that the teams approach their marketing and their selling of the, you know, the sport of rugby, I think are very unique. 

“So I think that the MLR is probably best served continuing to build itself up versus trying to bolt itself to another league.  

“Would a cross-Atlantic match or two be exciting? Yeah, absolutely. But I think the focus is great over here.” 

With the men’s Rugby World Cup confirmed for 2031 and the women’s Rugby World Cup confirmed for 2033, Brakeley was asked about his thoughts on how the tournament could look and what international fans could expect. 

“As you say, there's no shortage of massive stadiums to put this in," he said. “Whether we do this in a regional system and do pools by regions or however this ends up, there's going to be massive infrastructure in place to make these events succeed.  

“I think that Americans love an event, so as much as you can make this an event where rugby is just part of the selling point, there's this almost festival atmosphere.  

“If you look at the way that basically Sevens approaches it, you don't even need to know what's happening on the field. It's exciting because it's large people running into each other, which is great.

“Let's make this an event where there happens to be rugby. And let's make this something that you want to go to because it's just going to be a blast regardless of what's going on, on the field or not, and I think, again, America is very good at that. 

“If you look at the tailgating culture around college football, if you look at the crazy fandom that pops up around basically any sporting event, I think that that is a fairly uniquely American experience. And so, how do we tap into that and get those same crowds to just have enough curiosity to come to a match?  

“Obviously, the international crowd is going to be here. The U.S. is obviously a fairly cheap spot to travel to just because of the size and the opportunities. So, I have no concerns about that.  

“But if they really want to make this an American event, we've got to tap into that American love of an event, of a barbecue, of a tailgate and of yelling for the USA in whatever capacity.” 

Now joining the realms of the rugby fan, the 34-time capped veteran clearly has rugby IQ that would be a shame for USA Rugby to lose. Thus, the question of what his rugby future looks like without playing, Brakeley is certain he will be involved with the game in some form going forward. 

“Judging by the hours I've seen all of my coaches put in, I'm not sure that I want to sign up for a more full-time job than rugby just right out the gate here," he said. “But, you know, I've I still have strong ties to Dartmouth. And so definitely within the college game in some capacity, maybe more at the high school level. Like, I definitely don't want to step completely away from the game. 

“It's given it's given me too much, and I enjoy it too much to just stop cold turkey. So, we'll see what comes next. I'm just not sure what that is right now.”