It’s 2005 and the camera is glaring in my face. I’m 11 years old and taking part in CBBC’s Jonny’s Hotshots, about to meet my rugby hero and England World Cup winner, Jonny Wilkinson. I was that kid who watched every World Cup game. I admired the likes of Jonah Lomu in 1999, relished the pace of Takudzwa Ngwenya in 2007 and applauded the masterclass of Dan Carter in 2015. Every tournament has its iconic moments and performers but, at the tender age of nine, it was Wilkinson’s drop goal in 2003 that inspired me to want to be a rugby player and to go to a World Cup. And now hereI am, preparing to play in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. It’s an extraordinary feeling.
Dreams, for many of us, are about to become reality. Pride is running deep through my family, such is the honour of representing the USA on the world’s biggest stage. For me the memories of watching England at World Cups come to a stop. “They” have now become the opponent. Friends I have played with or against now become the enemy. God Save the Queen is now the Star Spangled Banner.
I’ve been asked many a time: “How weird will it be to play against England?” I came through the Northampton academy and first team, represented England at under-16, U18, U19 and U20 level and have subsequently played for Exeter and Bedford. English rugby was all I knew. USA Rugby, however, gave me a lifeline when I needed it most, an excitement I was searching for and a chance to be part of a special journey. Rugby in the United States is accelerating in a great way with a wealth of talented players and a professional league, MLR (Major League Rugby), that is going from strength to strength.
Playing against familiar faces and my birth nation may be slightly strange but playing for the USA is a personal and family honour. My “rugby family” is certainly in the States. To see pictures of the stadiums we’ll be playing in, the honorary Rugby World Cup caps set to be handed to each player and even to hear the new version of World in Union raises the hairs on the neck. Whatever the nation, all players have put in blood, sweat and possibly tears to get themselves to this World Cup. The fact that World Rugby invited Japan to stage the competition also helps build the excitement to a max. Their famous win against South Africa in 2015 showed the serious desire within Japanese rugby. They will be endeavouring to capture the world’s imagination again, in their own backyard.
Watching video of their two home games in the Pacific Nations Cup, before we took on the Brave Blossoms in Fiji, it was also clear to see the passion of the fans. Both in Kamaishi and Hanazono there were no empty seats, the stadiums were full of replica shirts and the surfaces looked impeccable. If their bullet trains are anything to go by, this Japan World Cup will definitely be eye-catching and efficient.
The dress rehearsals of pre-World Cup games are now behind us. After our Pacific Nations Cup games against Canada, Samoa and Japan, we went back to Denver, fixing the last pieces of our puzzle, readying ourselves for what’s to come. Then a quick trip to Vancouver for our last warm-up Test was the last stop before the Japanese island of Okinawa. It just so happens the island has a large US military base; I do wonder whether we’ll be given a hero’s welcome or simply thrown into the army barracks.
The travelling and months away from home are made easier by the characters and strong group we have. Entertainment from Harlequins’ Paul Lasike’s angelic voice is never far away. Golf has become as competitive as training; bonds have been forged by ITV’s Love Island and AJ MacGinty’s penchant for giving us riddles to solve. Having a diverse group always makes life on the road enjoyable. The enjoyment, though, comes from performing well.
As a squad we know the difficulty of our pool, up against England, France, Argentina and Tonga, but we are absolutely not there to make up the numbers. Enough match footage has been watched, countless fitness tests undertaken and sufficient flying miles racked up to give us all Gold Club status. All that remains is to get ourselves mentally ready. We intend to relish the challenge, be excited from the moment we land in Japan and throw ourselves at England come 26 September.