Former Ute star offensive lineman leads a group of Utahns trying to make USA Rugby men's national team

Published: Friday, July 19 2013 8:25 p.m. MDT

"It was a refreshing place," Cullen said. "It says, 'We are crazy about rugby' on their airplanes. You can't turn on the TV without seeing a rugby game."

It was an eye-opening experience — even for those like Shepherd, who were making their second or third tour with a national traveling team.

"Only New Zealand and South Africa are 100 percent rugby," Shepherd said. "Old ladies at the airport can talk to you about rugby."

The All-Americans saw what all that rugby knowledge can do, narrowly losing their first two games to New Zealand Universities and Wairarapa Bush despite owning a physically superior roster.

"You can tell they have played since they were young," Cullen said. "They knew every play in the book."

However, the All-Americans were quick studies, and they got revenge on New Zealand Universities in the final game, smashing them 34-11. Cullen and Roundy each scored tries while head coach Matt Sherman named Sumsion, who hadn't seen much playing time in the earlier games, the man of the match.

"(In the first two games) they went with guys with past experience," Roundy said. "They know Kyle was a good player, but hadn't really seen him play. He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

"He seemed to be in every single tackle."

The next level

Luckily for Sumsion, he has two more years of eligibility at BYU.

"I love the game of rugby, and my plans for the immediate future is to win two more Varsity Cup national championships with BYU," he said. "After that I have goals of being able to play at the next level. As long as I can play rugby, I will."

For Sumsion's former captain, Roundy, finding time to play after college in this state is tough. Despite a high level of interest and a strong youth program, Utah doesn't have an Elite Cup team — the highest level of rugby in the United States — available to players like Roundy, Pati, Shepherd and Cullen.

"That's the hard part," said Roundy, who will be pursuing a Master's in statistics at BYU this fall. "You try to keep active; try to find a way to make opportunities."

Cullen and Shepherd say they are setting their sights on joining an Elite Cup team on the West or East Coasts and then a professional team overseas.

"It takes time and thousands of minutes of rugby to develop the necessary instincts," Eagles assistant coach Payne said. "Often we expect too much out of players too quickly. Sure, we want to fast-track players that have the physical attributes that John has, but we also have to balance it with the fact that nothing takes the place of experience."

In the meantime, Cullen, Shepherd and Roundy will get together with Burdette to train for the next level. The next thing to work toward is the Americas Rugby Championship, an annual tournament that pits Canada, Argentina, Uruguay and the United States against each other. Similar to soccer's Gold Cup, all four nations will field teams made up mostly of up-and-comers to give them valuable experience — just what top Utah players need, especially a player with NFL-caliber physical talent like Cullen.

"(We want to get) John into an environment where he might play 20-25 games over the course of five to six months at a strong level of competition," Payne said. "If he could get into that situation, I think we'd really begin to see an extremely formidable player start to take shape.

"His potential is extremely high."

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