Fallbrook High School sophomore Steven Branham spent his Spring Break in England playing international rugby matches with USA Rugby’s under-17 national team.
Branham, who left for England a week prior to Spring Break to participate in training, played for the U17 All-Americans in two of the three matches.
“It was an incredible experience to be able to put on the red, white, and blue and represent the U.S.A., especially at this young age,” Branham said.
Branham was born in Illinois, and after a short stint in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park, the family moved to the Sycamore Ranch area of Fallbrook when he was three. Branham attended Bonsall Elementary School and Sullivan Middle School prior to high school.
Branham played baseball, basketball, and soccer before he took up rugby in seventh grade. The family had read an announcement in the Fallbrook/Bonsall Village News about Fallbrook Rugby Club tryouts. “I wanted to see what it was, and I fell in love with it,” Branham said.
After spending seventh and eighth grades in the Fallbrook Rugby Club’s middle school program headed by Steve Fernandez, Branham made the high school club’s varsity as a ninth-grader. Mike Majewski coaches both the high school league team and the under-18 club team.
Rugby is a club sport rather than a CIF sport at the high school level. Branham also plays football for Fallbrook High School as a center and defensive lineman; he was with the junior varsity squad as a sophomore after spending 2011 on the freshman team.
Branham’s sister, Samantha, was Fallbrook High School’s soccer goalie, although next year she will be focusing on a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota and does not plan to play collegiate soccer. Although Branham’s father, Mark, did not play sports due to transportation issues when he attended high school in Indiana, the elder Branham currently plays in one of Fallbrook’s senior softball leagues. Branham’s mother, Joni, played tennis at Waukegan East High School in Illinois.
Following the conclusion of the 2012 under-18 club season, Branham and several Fallbrook teammates were invited to try out for the Griffins, which is the Southern California Rugby Football Union’s all-star team. Three weekends of tryouts led to the selection of the under-18 squad. Branham was the only Fallbrook player selected for the Griffins. He trained with the Griffins in Costa Mesa during the ensuing weekends to prepare for a June 14-17 tournament in Denver.
Not only did the Griffins win that tournament, but Branham and his parents were pulled aside by a USA Rugby scout and informed that Branham might be receiving an invitation to try out for the All-American team following the summer conclusion of the nationwide scouting process. “I was real young and I didn’t expect any attention,” said Branham, who was 14 during the Denver tournament and turned 15 on June 27.
Branham received an invitation in September. The tryouts were Dec. 26-31 at Arizona State University in Tempe. On Jan. 21, he received a letter inviting him to be part of the U17 All-Americans.
“It was a whole crazy ride,” Branham said.
U17 All-Americans coach Salty Thompson had provided the players with home-based training programs, but they did not practice together until arriving in England. Branham left for England on March 23 and arrived on March 24. (England’s Daylight Savings Time change occurred during Branham’s trip, so England was seven hours ahead of California as he was traveling east and eight hours ahead when he returned April 6.) In addition to practice, all of the tournament’s players had two hours of study time every night. Because the American and European players attended schools with different Spring Break schedules, they studied for two hours both during the practice week and during the week of games.
Branham, who plays the 8 position during Fallbrook Rugby Club matches, was a hooker on the U17 All-Americans.
The players were housed at Wellington College outside of London, and the matches were played at Wellington College. Branham noted that in England rugby and soccer are the top sports and Wellington College had well-maintained fields and other facilities. “It was incredible,” he said. “They’ve got a huge whole clubhouse just dedicated to rugby.”
The U17 All-Americans consisted of 31 players. Thompson was allowed to suit up 24 players for each game, and rugby is played with 15 players from each team on the field. Branham started in the All-Americans’ 45-16 loss to Wales on March 30. He did not suit up in the All-Americans’ only win, a 21-10 victory April 1 over Belgium. The matches consisted of 35-minute halves, and although Branham didn’t start April 5 against England he took the pitch about 10 minutes into the game and played most of the contest which ended as a 32-25 win for England.