Rugby Q&A: USA Rugby Star Phil Thiel

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RWU HQ – This past week I had the chance to catch up with USA Rugby Eagle’s 15s front rower, Phil Thiel, and pick his brain. Here’s what he had to say…

Q: Thinking back to your high school days, you didn’t decide to play rugby until your senior year. Why did it take so long before you decided to give ruby a try?Phil Thiel
A: We didn’t get a team until my junior year, and football players had to do track in the off season. My senior year, I could do whatever I wanted, and my best friend Mac played rugby, so he convinced me to play.

Q: You then enrolled at Division II Saginaw Valley State University and played football. Were you on scholarship to play at SVSU, and did what was it that had you lean towards getting back out onto the pitch?
A: I was on scholarship at SVSU, but I wanted to try my hand playing at a higher level. Unfortunately, after I got accepted to Indiana University, and talked with the coaches there, I was going to be a walk-on transfer, so I wasn’t going to get a scholarship. IU is pretty expensive, so I went to a small school in my hometown for a year and then went to England.

Q: After playing club rugby for the Traverse Bay Blues RFC, you went to play in rugby on Cinderford RFC. What was it like playing overseas at such a young age?
A: It was a lot of fun to play in England at 21. I learned a lot, and had a really good time in the process. I love the people in Cinderford, my nickname was “Dave USA” because they said every American was named Dave.

Q: After a season overseas, you came back to the States and enrolled at Life University. Why enroll at Life? Was it the rugby? Can you fix my back?
A: I had never heard of Life. Scott Lawrence called me up and offered me a scholarship. We just had the men’s team back then so I went right into that group. I have a business and Psychology degree from Life, but I can still take a crack at your back if you want, no guarantees.

Q: I’ll pass for now on that… After taking a couple years off from college, what was it like to get back in the swing of things?
A: I love learning, I’ll do my PhD one of these days, so I really enjoyed being back in school after my time in England. I missed it.

Q:  What were some of the things that kept you busy when you weren’t on the pitch or weight room?
A: Well, I pretty much played video games all the time and tried to chase girls. As most of the guys at Life will tell you, I was much better at video games.

An action shot of Phil and the Eagles during a qualifier for the 2015 World Cup.
Phil & Eagles during a qualifier for the 2015 World Cup.

Q: Good answer! What were some of the feelings you experienced when you won the 2008 NCAA Division I Men’s Rugby National Championship?
A: That was an awesome experience, and it was a real validation for what that group of guys had been building with Scott Lawrence. We were very proud of that accomplishment.

Q: What was it like when you played your first match for the Eagles?
A: I can still tell you almost every moment of that day. I was so proud to get the jersey from Todd [Clever] the night before and just wanted to come out and play confidently. It was one of the top experiences I’ll ever have in my life.

Q: What were some of the memories you took away from playing in the 2011 Rugby World Cup?
A: The anthem against Ireland, without a doubt. Rugby is awesome, but it’s still just a game. We were representing something more that day, I’ll never forget that.

USA vs Ireland RWC 2011 Anthem

Q: You took some significant time off after the World Cup… Was there a reason for that? How does it feel to be back playing rugby again?
A: I had some injuries with my neck and had been dealing with that for a while, but to be honest, I was done with school and was pretty much broke. I have a family. I wanted to try to work and play, but knew I couldn’t make the commitment necessary to play at that level anymore. I didn’t see any contracts on the horizon so I had to make a tough choice. Luckily now, my job let’s me travel when I need to and still pays me a salary when I’m gone, so it takes the pressure off a little. I’m so happy to be back, I wish I had never left.

Q: When you travel with the team, who has been the best roommate and why? Who’s the worst?
A: I’ve actually never had a bad roommate; some guys snore, but I just get ear plugs. As far as best roommate, I would have to say Scott Lavalla because he plays REO Speedwagon and Journey (as well as other 70’s and 80’s) classics. All the guys are great though.

Q: You’re around your teammates a lot, so I’m sure everyone takes some flack time to time for what they wear, but who would you say the worst dresser is on the team?
A: Probably me, haha, I’m pretty basic. The guys take their style pretty seriously. I will say Luke Hume wears some interesting digs at times. I don’t think he owns owns a pair of pants or shorts not bought in the children’s section.

Q: The front row has been in the crosshairs of some rather “spirited critics voicing their displeasure on RWU… As a NCAA offensive lineman, I know what it’s like to hear critics. Are you guys aware of the criticism and/or how do you deal with it?
A: The toughest critics we ever have to listen to are ourselves and each other. We always remain process-oriented and just keep working to be better.

Does Phil's beard compare to James Harden's of the Houston Rockets?
Does Phil’s beard compare to James Harden’s of the Houston Rockets?

Q: There is a trend in rugby for scheduled subs for the front row after 50-60 minutes but some coaches have no schedule. Which is easier to prepare for as a player?
A: I would say no schedule, just because you never know what is going to happen. Rugby is a dynamic sport. You just always trust the guy coming in for you and know that whether you go eight minutes or 80, the team is in a good position with whoever is on the field.

Q: What part of your game have you most improved over the years and what part still could use some work?
A: I’m happy with the way I’ve been able to work with Phil Bailey to become a more effective choke tackler. I used to always go low, now I’m able to choke guys up more and help affect turnovers. I still have a long way to go though. Fitness is always something you want to improve, no matter what. That’s something I constantly work on.

Q: Explain the level of trust a hooker has to have in his props, especially on the International level.
A: I can’t say I’d trust our props to date my sister, but on the field, I know the front row has each others backs no matter what. Those guys are my brothers.

Q: The picture of you raising your arms after the try in the second Uruguay match is an instant classic. Will that be your go-to try celebration stance in the future?
A: That was a great pic by *Dr. HawkDrew [Andrew Suniula] had plowed his way in, dragging guys 20 meters for that try and we were all just pumped for him. Then I saw the Life guys in the crowd and it was just awesome. It was the moment we knew we had broken them.

Q: Now… Taking a moment to talk about life off of the pitch… What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
A: I’m a published poet (barely) and know every word to the songs from Frozen (I have a three-year-old daughter…)

Q: That is awesome… If you could sit down and have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?
A: Tough one…Buddha, Alexander the Great, and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Phil Thiel from Dennis D HawkQ: When one looks at your Wikipedia page, at one point it reads that you have a “very fine beard.” Do you have any comments about that statement?
A: Ha Ha… I did not know that. I’m actually pretty clean-shaven right now. I’d have to day I’m just happy I have information on a Wikipedia page!

Q: Beyond the usual fluff that athletes tell young players, what would you tell a middle to high school kid about why you love this game and why they should stick with it?
A: I always tell kids I coach that rugby is a sport that you should never play if you don’t love it. If you love it, you will get to play a game that tests you at every level. You will find out things about yourself and who you are that would never be tested otherwise.

Q: Finally, why do you play rugby?
A: I love it.

Q: Thanks Phil.
A: Thank you.

That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.

*Thanks to Dennis D. Hawk for the try celebration photo!

About DJ Eberle 198 Articles
DJ Eberle is easily the largest of the RWU Team; Offensive Tackle Large. In fact, this Albany native played OT for Western New England University until he graduated in 2014. Like Junoir Blaber, he's moonlights on His Dad played prop with Johnathan Wicklow Barberie and Matt McCarthy - who also in a moonlighter. DJ's cross to bear, however, is his love for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres. There is hope, though, that his genetic inclination for Rugby, will cure him of that! Follow him on Twitter: @DJEberle66