by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Rugby players can distinguish themselves through their ability to not quit playing hard when the match begins to ask hard questions. Former Test Internationals Dan Lyle and David Hodges earned well-deserved reputations of being relentless in challenging international matches. Both of these athletes came to rugby after distinguished collegiate football careers and went on to earn 98 test caps between them. Both players had numerous difficult moments during their careers, which provided them opportunities demonstrate how determined a man could be while wearing the red, white, and blue. I had the privilege of being a part of every test match Dan and David competed in and therefore feel qualified to speak of their unheralded performances.
I want to be clear, being a tough rugby player doesn’t mean a player plays injured. In instances of injury, a team’s medical staff, which includes both trainers and a physician, are in charge of deciding if either athlete would be allowed to continue to play. There is a distinction between being injured and playing through discomfort.
To describe Dan Lyle the rugby player, I would offer that he was one part incredible athlete, one part fierce competitor, and one part tactical leader. Many rugby followers have an appreciation for the calibre of athlete Lyle was, but few knew of his ability to push himself beyond what most consider normal for international rugby.
During the 2003 Rugby World Cup Qualification tournament, the Eagles faced Chile in Santiago in August of 2002. The rainy conditions in the Chilean capital made for a difficult contest that quickly became fierce due to an emotionally supercharged Chilean national team. Because of Dan’s prior test performances and subsequent international reputation, the Chileans were targeting him at the bottom of all the rucks they could. Lyle’s first blood bin was for a nasty gash to his scalp from a Condore’s boot. It took our medical staff almost the entire allowed time to patch him up from his injury.
During the last quarter of the match, with the Eagles mounting several assaults at the Chilean line, Dan was again on the receiving end of some unsportsmanlike South American behavior and required another ten minutes in the blood bin. When the whistle blew full time, he had only played sixty minutes and yet was still the best player on the field.
After the first blood bin, I would not have been surprised if the medical staff said that he shouldn’t carry on, but Dan’s appetite to compete won the team doctor’s approval and he battled to the very end in front of a small crowd in South America.
Only two years earlier, during the Pan American Championships held in Canada, Lyle would suffer an even greater injury and still carry on. During a mid week test versus Argentina, Lyle was in the thick of stopping a trademark Puma driving maul when he and an Argentine forward splintered off. As Lyle was falling backwards to the ground, with his opposite on top of him, the South American threw an unjustifiable punch to Dan’s face. He was defenceless in this moment and trapped between the ground and the blow that x-rays would, later that night, show caused multiple fractures to his cheekbone. He walked off the field under his own power back to the locker room to be cared for without complaint. There was no drama. Much to everyone’s astonishment, several minutes later, here comes the Virginia Military Institute graduate back onto the field. The history books will show the Eagles lost that test match, but the score doesn’t reflect the amount of resiliency shown by Lyle that day.
I couldn’t write about Dan and his toughness without speaking about his long time teammate who demonstrated similar abilities to push on through when things got tough. David Hodges, or “Hodgie” as he is referred to by his teammates, has the unique distinction of earning All America status in both football and rugby.
Dave’s other unique distinction is his high tolerance for discomfort.
In 1999, Ireland played host to the Eagles at Lansdowne Road during the first of three Rugby World Cup pool matches. At one point during the Ireland test, Hodgie was in perfectly legal position to steal an Ireland attacking possession at the ruck. Unfortunately, this also placed the backrow forward in the perfect position to take a hard knee to the ribs.
Broken upon impact, Dave’s rib fracture didn’t immediately cause him to leave the field. He carried on for another 10 minutes or so before succumbing to the intense pain associated with this type of injury.
Broken ribs are one of the worst injuries an athlete can incur. Movement, not matter how ginger, causes intense pain. When you have broken ribs you don’t want to sneeze let alone entertain the thought of playing rugby. “Forget about it” is what players would say if asked to play with this type of injury, unless, that is, you are Dave Hodges.
Although the big flanker did not start the next match a week later versus Romania, he came on to replace Fifita Mo'unga (no softy himself), and then was in the starting XV only a few days later in the Eagles final test match versus the Wallabies during the 1999 quadrennial tournament.
Typically when an athlete breaks a rib, they are ruled out for a number of weeks before returning to full contact status. Hodges not only did not miss a match, he played a significant role in all three Rugby World Cup matches over the span of only several days.
These two Americans demonstrated a disproportionate amount of relentlessness that infected their teammates. Moments like these where numerous and at the center of many of the National Team’s best performances. Ironically, both played their last test versus France, Lyle’s 45th and final cap coming versus the Tri Colors in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Hodges 53rd cap was earned a year later versus France, then Six Nations champions, in a narrow defeat in Hartford, Connecticut.
Two of the toughest America has ever had take the field in red, white, and blue.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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