A passion for rugby has taken Water Mill native and former Montauk Sharks player Mike Bunce around the country and around the world. His devotion to the sport paid off recently when he was picked to play on the USA Rugby Select XV team. Bunce, who plays for Division I Pearl City in Iowa, was one of just four Division I players chosen for the developmental team, which is currently competing in tournaments against select teams from other countries. The rest of the players were drawn from the Rugby Super League, which represents the premier level of rugby competition in the United States.
Making the select team is a big step toward Bunce’s ultimate dream—competing in the Rugby World Cup for the Eagles, the United States national team. The World Cup takes place every four years and will be hosted by New Zealand in 2011.
“It’s basically the second-highest team in the United States right now,” Bunce said of the Select XV team. “It’s all the best players who want to get looked at and who can eventually make the Eagles. The coaches keep telling us that everyone is one really good game away from making the national team. I just want to keep playing well and practicing hard.”
The 22-year-old Southampton High School graduate said that he’ll be focused for the next several years on making the national team, with the dream of competing in either the 2011 World Cup or the following one.
“The way I look at it, last year in the World Cup, the average age of the team was about 27 or 28,” he said. “So I have the next eight years to seriously make a run at getting onto a World Cup team. I have a lot of work to do to get there, but I have time.”
Bunce moved to Iowa and joined Pearl City—one of the top Division I clubs in the country—for the spring season last year. Prior to making the move to the Midwest, Bunce had starred for the Montauk Rugby Sharks, who played Pearl City in the national finals in 2005 when both teams were in Division III. Bunce garnered the attention of the Pearl City coaching staff after playing well during a trip to Scotland in 2006.
Playing for Pearl City has given Bunce the type of exposure he needed to start working his way up the Division I ladder. Pearl City’s head coach Adam Friend also serves as the assistant backs coach for the national team, while assistant coach Mike Diamantopoulus works with the national under-18 team.
“I think they were really instrumental in making sure that people knew my name and knew that I was playing really good rugby,” Bunce said.
Bunce helped his own cause by playing extremely well in the Division I playoffs in Austin, Texas, at the end of May. Several scouts for the Select XV camp were at the tournament and took notice of Bunce, which helped make his case.
Bunce’s mother, Jeanne Bunce, said she couldn’t be happier to see her son’s hard work start to come to fruition.
“I am very proud of him, of course, but I feel it is totally well-deserved,” she said. “He works out every day, and he is always trying to make himself better, strong and faster. That takes a lot of dedication. Making the United States team has been his goal for years now, so I am totally thrilled that he has this opportunity.”
Bunce will spend the rest of this month playing in games for the Select XV team, and he’s hoping that after that, he’ll find a spot on a Super League team. With the help of his Pearl City coaches, Bunce has been exploring options of playing in New York, Boston or California.
“I’m the youngest player here, and they really want me to get on to a super league team,” he said. “I’ll make a decision this summer.”
Bunce has spent most of his career playing the flanker position, which he said is similar to the linebacker position in football. But he’s making the switch to hooker during his time on the Select XV team and is working on learning the position. The hooker is usually in the middle of the scrum and is responsible for throwing the ball in to restart play after it goes out of bounds.
“I like it,” Bunce said of the new position. “I get out in the open a bit more and I have more chances to run with the ball. There is a lot more skill involved.”
Chasing the dream of making the national team requires more than just hard work on the field. Players don’t make a living from the sport, and Bunce and his teammates must hold down jobs in addition to competing for their teams. As a player for Pearl City, Bunce has lived rent-free with his teammates, but has also worked 40 hours per week for a company that has Army and Navy contracts to build pumps.
“We have a good group of guys that live together and train together and it’s good to focus on rugby,” Bunce said. “It wasn’t too bad of a transition.”
As for the transient lifestyle that is part of being an aspiring World Cup rugby player, Bunce says he doesn’t see himself getting tired of it any time soon. He’s hoping to go back to school in the fall, but in order to chase his rugby dreams, he’s keeping his options open.