In the 55th minute of the sellout rugby match at Soldier Field between the U.S. Eagles and the New Zealand All Blacks — the world’s top ranked team — Nick Wallace and two other substitutes trotted onto the pitch in front of more than 60,000 people.
The game had been lost for the Americans by then, the score was creeping toward the 74-6 final, and a squad of fully professional New Zealanders was too surgical for the promising American side.
For the 25-year old Wallace, it didn’t matter.
By playing in a sold-out match that more than tripled the previous attendance record for a domestic rugby match, the Squalicum High School graduate and former Western Washington University football player cemented himself as a legitimate piece in U.S. rugby’s future plans.
“Nick has come a long way,” Eagles head coach Mike Tolkin said. “He’s someone that’s been with me my whole tenure here. He was a youngster, a bit out of shape, but with real good potential and athleticism. He worked hard to get here. And he stayed here. I think that says a lot. He’s stayed for over three years, and he pushed his way in.”
Wallace faced New Zealand’s Owen Franks, one of the world’s premier props (the same position as the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Wallace) in the match and exchanged jerseys with him afterward.
“It was really cool for me in the sense that I’ve watched their videos and I’ve seen him play,” Wallace said. “I don’t know if I would say ‘starstruck,’ but I was definitely like, ‘Oh, alright. This is one of their main guys.’ It was great, it was fun. It was definitely a learning experience for sure.”
Wallace’s journey to this point wasn’t as clear cut as it may seem — he played rugby in middle school and high school with the prominent Bellingham-based Chuckanut Bay Rugby Club, which has also produced fellow Eagles Titi Lamositele, Shawn Pittman and C.D. Labount. But Wallace chose to play football in college instead of rugby.
Wallace’s interest in playing football waned after red-shirting his first semester of college in 2008 and Western dropped its football program in January of 2009.
After running into former Chuckanut Bay coach Paul Horne, who currently heads Western Washington’s rugby club, Wallace revisited plans to play rugby at St. Mary’s, a tiny school in California with a sterling rugby reputation.
“He wasn’t having a lot of fun (with football),” Horne said. “I spoke to his dad later and he said, ‘It’s interesting you ask because he is going to give you a call.’ Nick calls me and asks if he thought the opportunity at St. Mary’s was still there. He flew down in December, and in January he enrolled. His rugby career just took off.”
Wallace recently relocated to Colorado and plays for the Glendale Raptors, but previously spent time with the British Columbia Premier League’s James Bay Club.
“The biggest thing with Nick is that he’s unbelievably athletic,” Eagles hooker (a position situated between two props during a scrum) Phil Thiel said. “In the open field, he’s fantastic. He’s been working hard at scrummaging, because that was his point of weakness. He’s gotten much better at that. And the big thing for him is that desire to go forward in every situation.”
Since the United States is without a professional rugby league, test matches against New Zealand (and others in the coming weeks against Romania, Fiji and Tonga in Europe) serve as an audition for players looking to link up with professional teams abroad.
“If I was somebody over in France looking for a good, mobile prop, (I’d look at Nick),” Horne said. “I think he’ll get that opportunity if he shows well in these November test (matches). They’ll see this guy and say, ‘Oh, this is the kind of guy we like.’”
Wallace’s progress in the U.S. rugby landscape is ideal because he learned the game in domestic youth programs and advanced to the national team. It’s a departure from a previous reliance on imported players.
Pittman, a Bellingham High graduate that recently retired, and Lamositele, a Sehome graduate that was training abroad and is currently injured, are the same position as Wallace and followed the same pipeline.
“Of all the fifteen positions on the field, it ends up being three (props) from the three high schools in Bellingham,” Wallace said. “It’s really quite nuts, but it’s really cool at the same time because we’re all friends.”