Not long after taking his first steps as a child, 26-year-old Hampton Bays resident Craig Priestly was playing rugby league. At the young age of 5, Priestly was playing youth rugby league back in his Australian hometown of Yarrawarrah, which is southwest of Sydney, and it was there that his love of the sport grew.
Priestly eventually went to the elite Endeavour Sports High School, then played semi-pro rugby league at age 16. By the time he left Australia in 2010, Priestly was playing for the Redcliffe Dolphins, a team established in 1959 that is now a junior team in the ranks of the National Rugby League in Australia.
Priestly came to the United States with his wife, Jacqueline, whom he met back in Australia. But she wanted to move back home to Long Island, so the two set up shop in Holbrook in 2010, then made their way east to Hampton Bays in 2012.
Priestly didn’t wait to further his love for rugby league here in the States. Along with Sag Harbor resident Teddy Grabowski, Priestly created a rugby league team, the Southampton Dragons, in hopes of furthering the sport not only on the East End but throughout the entire country. In the late summer months, after the Dragons’ inaugural season ended in the semifinals of the American National Rugby League, Priestly was named to America’s first-ever Rugby League World Cup team, the USA Tomahawks. The World Cup took place in the United Kingdom this year.
“It was definitely a big accomplishment. It wasn’t easy, for sure,” Priestly said of making the team. “When I got the phone call, I was speechless. When you grow up playing as a little kid, your dream is to play in the World Cup, and to get that opportunity was awesome.”
Priestly, who works as a trainer at Core Dynamics Gym in Water Mill, traveled with the Tomahawks to France in mid-October for a warm-up with the Frenchmen before World Cup pool play began on October 26. On October 30, the Tomahawks won their first-ever World Cup match, a 32-20 victory over Cook Islands at Bristol Memorial Stadium in England.
Priestly scored what wound up being the game-winning try, and many U.K. and Australia media outlets deemed the victory a historic feat for the United States.
“It was an unbelievable experience, that’s for sure,” Priestly said. “That play even got on the highlight reel of some of top tries of the World Cup. I don’t even know how to explain my feelings at that point. It was awesome.
“Everybody in the world wrote us off in every match,” he added. “They said we were going to lose 50-10 in every match. Before our pool games had even finished, they booked another team into our hotel.”
But after defeating Cook Islands, the Tomahawks defeated one of the host countries, Wales, 24-16, at Glyndwr University Racecourse Stadium in Wrexham, Wales, on November 3.
“Our motto for the whole tournament was ‘Shock The World,’ and we definitely shocked the world,” Priestly said.
The United States suffered its first loss in its final match of pool play on November 7, 22-8, to Scotland at Salford City Stadium in Eccles, England. The Tomahawks won their group, though, and advanced to the quarterfinals on November 16, in Wrexham—against Australia, Priestly’s former home country and the top-ranked team in the tournament.
The Australians took it to the Americans and wound up winning, 62-0, but Priestly was positive even though his team had been eliminated.
“It was an honor to play against them,” Priestly said. “I grew up watching these guys. They’re professional rugby league players, and getting paid a lot of money. To run out on the field against them was an honor and something no one could ever take away from me.”
Priestly likened the experience of playing against Australia as if someone came off the streets and stepped on the field to play against a National Football League team. While it could have been intimidating for some, Priestly said it was exciting. “We only had three professionals on our team, and the rest of us all had day jobs who played the on weekends, really,” he explained.
With the victory, Australia advanced to the semifinals against Fiji on Saturday, and New Zealand faced off against England in the other semifinal match. The finals are scheduled to be next weekend on Saturday, November 30.
Priestly was in the United Kingdom for five weeks, and he was able to enjoy a few of the sights while he was there. He was able to take in a Manchester United soccer game, and his wife joined him on the trip just before the quarterfinal match.
Priestly has had time to reflect on his time in the World Cup—and it’s something he would definitely like to do again. There are four years between each World Cup.
“If I do play in that World Cup, that would be the last one for me,” he said. “After we made the quarterfinals, I’m pretty sure we automatically qualified for the next World Cup. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and, hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do it again in four years.”
Now that he’s back home, Priestly is turning his focus back to building the rugby league on the East End and in the United States. The main thing the Dragons need help with is finances; Priestly and Grabowski are looking for more sponsors to help out in that regard. Southampton Publick House, Core Dynamics Gym in Water Mill and Landscape Details of Sag Harbor are already sponsoring the team, which is due back on the field this summer.
For more information on the Rugby League World Cup, go to www.rlwc2013.com. For more info on the Southampton Dragons, go to www.southamptondragons.com.