Writer Eilidh Donaldson catches up with Gavin Hickie and the USA Under-20s for an amazing experience at the JWC2013 in France:
I’ve been working with Gavin Hickie on his LineoutCoach.com website for nearly two years now and it’s been amazing the trouble that has got me into.
I was watching as the USA U20s won the Junior World Rugby Trophy (JWRT) in 2012 in a nail biting final against Japan, to earn promotion to the top tier Junior World Championship (JWC). I promised Gav then if his team won we’d share a ‘cheeky glass of red’ in France for the Junior World Championship.
So 12 months later I found myself in La Roche Sur Yon (nope I didn’t know where it was either) waiting for the game between hosts France and newly promoted USA to start. It’s amazing what a girl will do for a free drink.
In this summer of rugby, previously known as off-season, with its coverage of the Lions Tour, International Friendlies, and events for emerging nations like the Tbilisi Cup, it’s easy to overlook the annual U20s competitions.
These are important events to test players to see if they can thrive in the pressurised environment of tournament play to make the step up to full Internationals and with professionalism in the game extending down into the youth set up the standards are high with many players coming from major clubs or their academy sides. Not the USA players however.
As a nation they may be large but in rugby terms America are still minnows. Their players ply their trade in University sides in the main and so for them to take to the field against South Africa the current title holders, France the hosts and England the current U20 6 Nations Champs doesn’t really seem like a fair fight. It’s just the luck of the draw but there wasn’t much luck for the US in that one.
As Gav tweeted, you want to face the best and in the opening game against South Africa they did. Going down 97-0. The Baby Boks had a less than convincing tour of Argentina ahead of the JWC, losing the series 2-1 but they were clearly saving their A game for the main event as they showed in the second game against England.
Hosts France were up next and as I took my seat in the Stade Henri Desgrange, I found myself in the ‘Celtic Ghetto’ with the families of the US players. I was a Scot surrounded by three ‘Irish by birth’ parents - Brendan’s Dad, Ross’ Mum and Liam’s Dad - who all made me very welcome. Even when I sounded stressed when they asked me which one of the players was my son! “Do I look that old!”
What seemed to be causing the confusion was that I wasn’t a WAG (wife and girlfriend), or POP (parent of the player) I was a FOC (friend of the coach) which made me unique. Hey the Coaching team need some support too you know.
As the game started ‘Allez les Blues’ rang out from the stands and they waved their free French flags like their lives depended on it. The loss to England did not sit well with the locals and the French coach prowled the touchline anxiously conscious of the pressure another loss would bring.
By contrast, our odd bunch of cheerleaders opted for quality not quantity and would chip in with the odd ‘Come on lads’ and ‘USA! USA!’ We were punching above our weight in terms of support and then the French deployed the big guns – the band.
No annoying bands playing loud and unrelated music which does nothing to enhance the action on the pitch are not the sole right of the England Football team, they are now part of rugby too. Mind games perhaps but even the French fans seem irked when the band played as the USA no 10 (Liam) lined up their penalty kick. That’s just not done in rugby!
Watching your team play is one thing, watching a team with someone in it you know is another. The parents felt every tackle and passed every ball. I got a small glimpse of what it must be like for Gav to only be able to watch – as an ex-player that must be extra frustrating not to be able to get onto the pitch and into the action.
The speed and physicality of play at the JWC is amazing to see but probably the biggest difference for promoted teams is that no error goes unpunished. At this level every pass must be caught, every tackle must stick or you will be caught out. Getting those basics right makes you hard to beat.
If life is like a box of chocolates because you never know what you are going to get then the same is true of a French rugby team. Unfortunately for the USA it was a much better French side that took the field with 9 changes from the first game.
However a final score of 45-3 doesn’t tell the whole story as it wasn’t all defence, the USA had their opportunities. I’ve watched USA Captain Tom Bliss’ break online since the match and every time he gets closer to getting the ball down. I reckon if I watch it a few more times he might actually score. What a difference going in 17-10 at half time would have made. Rugby is a game of big men and small margins.
After the game and post-match dressing room team talk the players emerged to thank their support. Pictures were taken, hugs exchanged, consoling words dispensed then it was back on the bus to start work again.
However brief this reunion was it was clear the lads were bloodied but now bowed and were ready to fight on regardless of the odds. Although a victory would have been great, that wasn’t what these parents had come to see. They wanted to support their boys and see them achieve their potential. Regardless of the result, those watching from the stands couldn’t be prouder.
I caught up with Gav after the game and he was disappointed by the chances missed but heartened by a better performance. He knows the team have more in them but it’s difficult to get flow to your game when you are on the back foot. He headed off to a long night of video analysis, already plotting how to get something from the next game.
If parent power and player passion counted for points then USA would be leading Pool A at the JWC but after another bruising game against England where their opponents passed the 100-point mark, they have just a penalty goal to show for their tremendous efforts. They do, however, have a belief that they didn’t just come here to make up the numbers. The scale of their task should not be underestimated and their efforts dismissed by those who see only the score lines.I hope this band of brothers can muster a performance and defy the odds to remain at Junior Rugby’s top table. Unless of course they meet Scotland in the elimination game then all bets are off. (Sorry Gav)
So I head off next week to see the Lions play Down Under but I wonder if the crowd will have the same spirit as this small band of WAGs, POPs (and FOCs).
I’m still waiting for my ‘cheeky glass of red’ (although I bought my own Heineken) but whether it’s sake in Japan at the JWRT or a pinot in New Zealand for the JWC I’m sure the parents of those chosen will make the journey gladly to shout their boys on.