Was it really 11 years ago?
It sometimes seems like Mike MacDonald only just got started playing international rugby. As it is, the former Cal All American prop is in his third World Cup, and looking at garnering his 65th cap Friday in Wellington against Australia.
The selections are by no means assured, but certainly we expect to see Big Mac again this tournament, and when he next steps on for the United States, MacDonald will become the Eagle with the most World Cup games under his belt.
Man of the Match for the USA v Russia test, MacDonald has been at the forefront of American rugby for over a decade. In 1999 he led Lamorinda to a NorCal final played as a curtain-raiser to the USA v. Tonga. MacDonald’s team lost to Jesuit, in part because the prop was penalized at the end of the game, a call he will still dispute.
Jesuit went on to win the national title, the USA went on to beat Tonga that day, and Mike MacDonald enrolled at Cal. There in Berkeley Mac became the lynchpin for a Bears team that won four national championships in five years. MacDonald was a try-scoring prop who could run, but he also had his detractors.
Capped for the first time in 2000 against Fiji, he became the poster child for the rushed-to-Eagles college player. Certainly MacDonald was green, and he needed work in the scrum. Experienced props didn't like seeing a relative scrum newbie with an Eagle on his chest. But coaches Duncan Hall and Tom Billups both made the same decision about him – he moves around the field so well, and is such a smart player, that his issues in tight play are worth the tradeoff. And, they reasoned, only international experience would make him better.
“Looking back, there are always going to be detractors,” MacDonald told RUGBYMag.com. “Some people think Jonny Wilkinson shouldn't be playing, although in no way I am comparing myself to Jonny Wilkinson – I can’t drop kick from both feet. But the point is, everyone's going to get criticism. I take it in stride. I feel like I can play every year. When I don't feel I can I don't think I will be here.”
MacDonald kept at it, still playing at Cal and still playing for the USA. After college he played for SFGG, but his game slipped while he did so. The middle of the 2000s were when his game was at an ebb. He needed a challenge.
That challenge came overseas. MacDonald hooked on with Worcester, and then with Leeds, where he found a home. He was club player of the year, and later captain. And along the way, after 115 games for the club, during which he has scored 25 tries, he became an accepted star. With several Leeds players moving on, he is now one of the longer-tenured players on the club.
It hasn’t always gone easily for him with the Eagles. MacDonald was dropped from the 2010 Churchill Cup, and dropped on form. But he worked his way back on form, too, playing solidly for Leeds in the fall and getting a callup in the 2010 fall tour.
That, in the end, indicated the best of MacDonald’s approach. He had his criticisms, from fans, peers or even from coaches, and he just kept playing.
The reward has been the last several days. MacDonald became the all-time leading capped USA player when he started against Ireland. Four days later, he put on a superb performance for the Eagles. He made a key goal-line tackle early in the match to prevent a try, helped lead an improved scrum effort and outstanding lineout performance. Played awesome and earth-shaking defense throughout the game, and consistently made the gainline when running with the ball.
It was worthy of the Man of the Match performance, and he got it.
“Our main goal is improvement on each game,” said MacDonald when he was looking ahead to the caps record. “The World Cup is the pinnacle of what we strive for playing for your national team, and on the biggest stage. Of course I’ll be thinking about the record. I'm not going to lie, it's something I’m proud of. But when we turn up to the field and it's all business.”
In the end, MacDonald has capped his career with two special performances and a record that anyone should be proud of. He has been durable, thick-skinned, and adaptable, and over time has emerged as one of the USA’s greatest ever rugby players.
Notes and Quotes:
On the welcome the USA has received at the World Cup: "We are living the moment. Wherever we went we had a lot of support. It's great to see New Zealand getting behind all the teams at the Rugby World Cup."
On the fact that half the USA lineup is made up of players who played HS rugby in the USA, with MacDonald being by far the most experienced. "I think you think about it like All American players. It used to be we were excited that half the team was All Americans. Now it’s high school players. It's great now we're talking about it with youth players; it just shows that the work at the grassroots level is showing through.”
On what kind of club Leeds will be when he rejoins them this fall: “The group is a lot younger on average; we probably trimmed a good six years off the team with some guys moving on and others coming up from the academy. It’s going to be a steep learning curve for the guys, but I have full confidence in them.”
Some Highlights from Mike MacDonald’s career:
July 1, 2000. Starts at loosehead prop for USA in a 37-21 loss to Fiji. His first cap.
May 26, 2001. First win for the Eagles, 31-28 over Uruguay.
December 1, 2001. Scrambles out of a ruck five meters from the tryline and just gets over the line to score against South Arica. MacDonald’s first try and scored in a competitive and exciting 43-20 loss to the Springboks.
August 15, 2002. Amid much pressure, digs deep to produce a huge performance by him and his front row against Uruguay 28-24. Without this win the USA would not have qualified for the 2003 World Cup.
October 15, 2003. Part of a wild game the USA loses 19-18 to Fiji in the World Cup, the first truly exciting match of a tournament that has started with a string of blowouts.
May 23, 2007. Named Man of the Match in the USA’s 13-9 loss to Scotland A
September 12, 2007. Scores a try and named Man of the Match in 25-15 loss to Tonga in the World Cup.
September 11, 2011. Sets new record for USA caps when he appears in his 63rd full international, passing former teammate Luke Gross.
September 15, 2011. Just four days later, leads the USA to a 13-6 victory over Russia, just the USA’s third all-time World Cup victory. Also appeared in his 10th World Cup match, tying Alec Parker for that record.