An A-List coaching cast of Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery awaited former Cork Con prop James Rochford upon his arrival at Munster rugby in June of 2017. Signing that training contract afforded him "a wonderful opportunity to see where I was at and be around such a high calibre of players and coaches," he recalls.
"It was a real eye opener, that pre-season was the hardest I've ever done. Rassie and Jacques came in, raised the bar another level and expected the players to reach that level very quickly. Everything was done at such a high tempo with everything done to make you a better player," he remarks. "A knee injury ultimately brought that exciting chapter to a close, "it was unfortunate timing but then, timing is everything in rugby."
It was a text message from the aforementioned Flannery that informed Rochford of interest from Major League Rugby (MLR) franchise Rugby United New York (RUNY).
Owned by St. Munchin's College alum James Kennedy, RUNY was preparing for its first season in MLR and Kennedy wanted the Crosshaven man aboard.
Similarities existed between the RUNY project and that experienced by Rochford during a successful stint in Italy. RUNY lives in the shadow of the Yankees and the Knicks, while Lazio RFC played second fiddle to their footballing counterparts in the Italian capital. An exciting proposition in an exciting city meant Rochford was soon sold on the American Dream.
Former Leinster out-half Cathal Marsh was among an eight man Irish contingent who played an integral part as RUNY journeyed to the semi-final stage under former USA head coach Mike Tolkin. A last gasp converted try ultimately saw their season end at the hands of San Diego Legion, but RUNY had landed in MLR.
"It was testament to the players that season to gel that quickly and put things aside off the pitch but get things done on the pitch. We had to grow the franchise, It was not easy, but it was worth it," he recalls.
The arrival of former Northampton Saints star Ben Foden in New York during RUNY's first season raised many eyebrows while demonstrating the ambition of those in the boardroom, "he was a big signing; he had and still has such a big impact both on and off the pitch. I think he was the catalyst for bringing a good few players on board," Rochford remarks.
The standard of rugby within MLR has "always been quiet high", he insists, "but has jumped another level this year with the signings of (Mathieu) Bastareaud with us and Ma'a Nonu in San Diego. I think people realised having seen the first season that it wasn't a joke, and said 'wait, this is getting better and it could work'."
Irishman Greg McWilliams assumed the head coach role prior to RUNY's second season and his arrival resulted in "new views, a new style and a meticulous game plan" along with coaching staff who "brought another level of professionalism," Rochford states.
"With the Irish background and having been attack coach with the US he had been around a lot of the players already, so it was a quick and smooth transition. His game plan was working, our set pieces were getting on top of teams."
That was until the MLR season was cancelled in mid-March, at which point RUNY had won four of their five regular season games.
A newly established partnership with Wagner College on Staten Island means state of the art facilities are now at the disposal of those on the RUNY. According to Rochford the "spectacle" being created around MLR was becoming increasingly apparent.
"It is very Americanised and like American Football in that the supporters are out tailgating before games with music and beer gardens going on," he says. "There's stuff for kids too so, as a fan you are out for the day supporting your club. I think in Seattle at the start of the year they sell out every game. It really is getting a big buy-in, the league is growing in quality and it is growing with fans which is great as that creates an atmosphere, it is all about bums on seats.
"If you compare the Pro 14 to MLR, there are a lot more plays for territory in the Pro14. The MLR is playing to attract the fans, so everything is about keeping the ball in play, pushing teams on their fitness and holding onto the ball for 10, 12, 13 phases, it's very, very physical. In New York we are lucky to have probably the best set piece in the MLR which is always a plus, our scrumming wall is very strong."
That's much like it was at Lazio in fact, "no team in Italy had a bad scrum, it was a major chess piece for a lot of teams. Outside of set pieces, teams try to push you with the width and It's entertaining because there will be mistakes, teams tire, he says.
The RUNY project is one of learning and development and Rochford believes positive alterations around travel were impacting performances prior to the seasons curtailment, "the mentality we had at the start of the first season was 'let's win every game here and go after every team'. We got to the three-quarter mark and were first in the table, but we hit a point where the travel and quick turnarounds took a toll," he states, "it was something that the coaches took heed of very quickly. They adapted training and there was more emphasis on recovery. The strength and conditioning staff and coaches were in tune with the players and training was built around how they were feeling, It is preventative rather than reactive."
Rochford's performances in the front row for RUNY have led to speculation around possible involvement with the US national team. Having signed on a four to five year deal the 27-year-old would be eligible to represent the Eagles at the 2023 World Cup in France, "there has been interest from Gary Gold but I am not US qualified by any means and long term you have be in the shop window and playing well to be picked. It is something that would be at the back of my mind but not the forefront. For me it is not really a thought process until someone asks", he says.
For now, Rochford's attention is required at home having become father to daughter Ava just a few months ago, "I've always wanted to be a bit younger having my first child and thank God we were able to do that. It is something I have always looked forward to, being able to guide her on her path in life, being able to enjoy her company and seeing the changes along the way. Small things make you ecstatic throughout the day. Being a father is such a special thing and is something I'm enjoying every minute of."