By Jon Newcombe
USA skipper Will Magie wants his side to deliver a ‘one-two’ knockout blow for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy host nations on Saturday.
Having seen South Africa win the Junior World Championship on home soil, after a 22-16 victory over New Zealand in the final just over a week ago, Magie hopes his country can follow suit in Salt Lake City and build on the big gains being made in US Rugby.
More than 17,000 spectators turned up to watch the USA senior side play Italy in Houston, Texas, last week to illustrate the growing groundswell of support for the sport, and Magie says the upturn in interest has also been noticeable as the JWRT has progressed.
Magie said: “We didn’t necessarily feel like the home side in the first match against Tonga with the amount of support they had in the stadium from the big local Polynesian community. But since then we’ve been out and about meeting lots of people and helping to raise awareness of rugby. I think it’s starting to take effect because some of the boys are starting to get asked for pictures after matches and things like that, which we’ve all enjoyed.”
No one thought they'd beat Tonga, except the team
There is no substitute for success on the pitch, of course, in upping your profile, and the Junior All-Americans have well and truly delivered with three straight victories in JWRT 2012.
Wins over pre-tournament favourites Tonga and then Chile and Russia have seen them qualify for Saturday’s final as Pool A winners, where they will meet Japan, who endured a rollercoaster ride to top Pool B.
“Four of us played in last year’s tournament in Georgia when we were way less successful,” pointed out Magie, the side’s fly-half and on-field general.
“We lost all three of our pool matches in 2011, so it’s been really good to be involved in a successful campaign this time around. Even though we are the host nation, we haven’t really felt much pressure because we came into the tournament ranked seventh out of eight and expectations from the outside were low.”
“No one, apart from us within the camp, believed we could beat Tonga in the first match. Of course, it would be a dream to cap it all off by winning the final. We all watched the Junior World Championship and it would be great to replicate what South Africa achieved.”
Magie praises the coaching team
Despite enjoying less preparation time together than many of their JWRT rivals, Magie says the special bond that unites the US side has helped them overcome their underdog status.
“We had a five-day trip up in the mountains in Colorado, where we stayed together at altitude in a big ski lodge,” he revealed
“That helped create a strong bond between us and has helped carry us through the first few matches. We all get along really well; there are no cliques and that seems to have stood us in good stead.”
Magie, a psychology student at the University of Leeds, has also praised the side’s youthful coaching staff – all of whom are under 40.
The 20-year-old added: “Coach (Scott) Lawrence is most organised coach I’ve played under and realty leads by example with everything he does. Coach (Jason) Kelly, who works with the backs, is great, too, and he used to be a 10 himself so on a personal level he helps me a lot. Coach (Gavin) Hickie played professional rugby in Ireland (with Leinster) and all the boys have learned a lot from his technical knowledge and attention to detail.”
Japan will start the final as favourites
While Magie and the rest of his team-mates hope to one day follow in the footsteps of current Eagles players like Todd Clever and Mike Petri and graduate from the ranks of the Under 20s through to the senior team, thoughts of the future will be put firmly on hold on Saturday.
As runners-up for the past two years Japan will probably start the final as favourites in most people’s eyes, although their passage through the pool stages has been anything but plain-sailing.
Heart-stopping wins over Zimbabwe, Canada and Georgia have led to the Brave Blossoms being christened the “Cardiac Kids” en route to the final. But this is a very positive outcome for Japan, which will be the venue for Rugby World Cup 2019, an event at which many of these young players will be aiming to play.
In this tournament, their defence has been as suspect as their attack has been dangerous, but one man they must stop if they are to make it third time lucky is US fullback Madison Hughes.
“Madison has been excellent,” Magie said. “We’ve all been joking with him that he has the all-time JWRT points-scoring record in his sights. He is on 70 points for the tournament and needs another 13 to set a new record.
“A lot of credit also has to go to lock Pierce Dargan who has been running our lineout, while the whole front row has done really well. Hooker Cameron Falcon, in particular, has been outstanding.”
Spirit of comaraderie has been strong at JWRT
The US v Japan match brings the curtain down on JWRT 2012, a tournament which has helped bring the rugby world together. The spirit of camaraderie that the organisers wanted to foster has been apparent throughout, with teams freely mixing together on campus at the University of Utah.
“That’s the big difference from last year,” admitted Magie. “The fact we’re all living in one place means we’ve had the opportunity to meet and hang out with players and coaches from other countries, whereas normally that wouldn’t be the case.”
New friendships, though, will be put to one side on Saturday, when the action gets underway with Russia v Zimbabwe for the battle to avoid the wooden spoon, followed immediately by the fifth/sixth-place play-off between Chile and Canada, the third/fourth-place decider featuring Tonga and Georgia, and then, the big one, USA v Japan.
By Jon Newcombe