When people discover I’m playing for USA, the first thing they ask about is my accent. My partner laughs at me for calling Coca-Cola “soda” but I’m still sounding as English as ever.
Even spending a large chunk of the summer in the States for our World Cup training camp and my American grandmother hasn’t changed that. Representing the United States, however, is the greatest decision I ever made. It has made my family as proud as they have ever been and given me the most exciting opportunity I could have in rugby.
Preparing ourselves these past few months to mix it with the world’s best players in Japan has been an amazing experience in itself. As the national team, we have been working seriously hard and our travel schedule has been similarly demanding. From the heat and altitude in Colorado to the fierce humidity of Fiji, our bodies have been pushed right to the limit.
We have already racked up a ridiculous number of air miles and sat through an awful lot of turbulence. These days Heathrow to Denver feels like a shuttle-bus ride, while the trip from Suva via the States back to London is best described as character-building (at least that’s what our coach, Gary Gold, says). This World Cup will involve all nations having to travel extensively around Japan and the teams who cope best will reap significant rewards. I’m not necessarily saying we’re going to win the tournament but, travel-wise, nothing will faze us now.
(Will Hooley takes on Ireland’s Darren Sweetnam during an international match in Dublin last year. Photograph: Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Playing in Fiji was incredible. I’ve never been anywhere like it. It’s a nation where rugby is a religion and a 20 v 20 game of touch is taking place on almost every spare patch of grass. Fiji couldn’t have been a more special and welcoming place. As players we were treated like rock stars, recognised wherever we went. We have a few USA sevens boys in our squad and people of all ages were rushing over to have photos taken. Walking round the markets in Suva with them was akin to walking through Borough Market in London with David Beckham.
Along with the different culture, the humidity was perfect preparation for what we are about to encounter at the World Cup. We also learned some important lessons from our Pacific Nations Cup decider against Japan. After a slow start we lost 34-20 but, trust me, the Brave Blossoms are a side well worth keeping an eye on. They have a strong and incredibly physical pack led supremely by Michael Leitch, coupled with a backline full of power, skill and pace. Kotaro Matsushima is a born finisher and they have a brilliant general at 10 in the form of Yu Tamura. They are well coached and know exactly the conditions they will face. Not only will the host nation be serious competitors, I would back them to reach the knockout stages.
So what about us? Again, trust me when I tell you that, fitness-wise, nothing has been left to chance. We have been training at the air force academy and the Olympic training centre in Colorado Springs where the air is thin but there is nothing sparse about the incredible facilities. There are enough gym racks to host four rugby squads and numerous open pitches with the backdrop of the towering Rocky Mountains.
(Hooley thinks Michael Leitch could lead hosts Japan into the knockout stages of the World Cup. Photograph: Visionhaus/Getty Images)
A playground for enjoyment? Don’t believe a word of it. Colorado now holds dark memories of boys throwing up, tasting blood in the lungs and being required to run an almighty amount of “eagle runs” – a lung-busting exercise entailing down-ups, changes of direction and umpteen sprints. Conditioning has been a priority, led impeccably by Huw Bevan, our head of strength and conditioning, who has worked with England’s cricketers. Personally, I’ve never felt stronger or quicker.
Living, playing, socialising and experiencing hardship with your teammates also brings you incredibly close. There are no egos within this USA side and the team are very tight, even though many of us play our rugby in the UK, Europe or Oceania. I’ve never been in an environment where people have been so driven to work hard. We wouldn’t claim to be the most talented side in the world but as a playing group we are determined to give it everything and try to shock the world.
Whether that’s a training session in 38C in Denver or the last couple of minutes against England next month, no one wants to let anyone down.