Friday 14 December 2018

American dream a reality for Dubliner AJ McGinty

Injury will prevent AJ MacGinty lining out for the USA Eagles at Lansdowne Road today. Photo: Lynne Cameron/Getty Images
Injury will prevent AJ MacGinty lining out for the USA Eagles at Lansdowne Road today. Photo: Lynne Cameron/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. There was a time when AJ MacGinty believed that all he wanted in the world was to become a professional rugby player.

Then there was a time when AJ MacGinty believed that all he wanted in the world was to become anything other than a professional rugby player.

But look around the Aviva Stadium later and there you'll find him. A professional rugby player, yes, even if sadly, for today at least, unable to play professional rugby because of a shoulder injury.

But he will be back. He always comes back. Even when, at times, it might have been easier for him to sling his boots over his shoulder and keep walking away.

And so next year he will play in his second World Cup for his adopted country, the USA. Some of Joe Schmidt's line-up today know that they may not get that chance if they fluff their lines today.

But MacGinty will be there if, of course, he can stay fit. But this was the game he wanted to play in the most.

"I always had this one in the diary when it was announced," says the 28-year-old Dubliner. "But I believe everything happens for a reason. When this latest injury occurred, I was wondering why has this happened to me?

"Surely I was meant to be playing in the Aviva for only the second time in my career and against an Irish side that would be coming off a victory against world champions! I'd been looking forward to it so much.

"Mostly when we play, we only have a few people we know in the crowd. But today there would have been family and friends, old coaches and mentors. But there's nothing I can do about it now. Just keep looking ahead."

There's no point in him looking back, in case he might miss what's in front of him. Perhaps that's why he is a graduate from the university of Life as well as a graduate from the Life University in Atlanta.

He has learned lessons and then taken tests. But he has also been given tests and forced to learn lessons too. In that way, MacGinty has had the best of both worlds.

And so, just as this year has tested his physical and mental strength, he looks forward to the turning of the page.

He was never destined for this life as a kid so it makes the difficulties which are thrown at him now so much easier to absorb.

Being at Blackrock - where his father, Alan, was principal - may have seemed to imply obvious expectations. He was tested enough to learn that, even had he harboured any, they were pointless.

Several accidents - a back injury that temporarily confined him to a wheelchair, multiple concussions, broken legs - whether it was playing soccer or rugby, pockmarked his youth.

Electrical

A none-too-subtle hint, perhaps, that it might have been safer for him to stand beneath a tree during an electrical storm rather than pull on a pair of football boots.

And so instead of staying in Ireland to play, he went to the US to live. It was just after his 21st birthday; time to come of age.

"Listen," he explains, "I wasn't ready for the Academy contracts back then, I wasn't in the shape to be a rugby player, I was under-sized.

"I loved getting away to America and teaming up with the new lads. I feel I've got the best of both worlds. When I initially went over, I wasn't thinking of playing rugby but it's happened that way."

He was content with life until the land of opportunity reached out its hand; a rugby scholarship which would re-energise his hibernating sporting spirit.

Then a trial game against the Eagles; watch him soar. He changed his visa from J1 - always symbolic of carefree youth - to F1. He was in the fast lane now.

Three years of residency qualified him to play for the national side; he achieved it in time to play in the 2015 World Cup.

Having crossed the Atlantic with rugby in his rear-view mirror, his return journey now encompassed a completely new existence. Such is life.

He resumed rugby life in Ireland too, with Connacht, helping the province to their greatest ever day in Murrayfield when, with Jonathan Sexton on the other side with Leinster, MacGinty led the charge of the unlikely lads on a fairytale day.

His performances secured him a move to the Premiership with Sale.

Everything was a bonus to him now but if he ever thought of carrying a rabbit's foot in his luggage, he lost it a long time ago.

His time with Sale has been difficult and this year he has been sidelined for most of it with ankle and shoulder issues but discomfort sits easily with him, however frustrating it might feel. Regrets only briefly occupy his mindset.

"Early on I was looking back at how things ran smoothly at Connacht so I had a few of those thoughts.

"But being uncomfortable is good for my development, I've learned about myself on and off the pitch.

"If I had stayed in Ireland, would I have developed as quickly? I don't know, I don't have the answer to that.

"Things happens for a reason so I make the most of it and anything I learn here will help me. It's like being with the USA, things don't always work smoothly so you have to work through it.

Involved

"If you're injured, that's a struggle as well. The days are long and you're not playing rugby. It's important to keep yourself involved.

"I don't want to sound depressed at all! I enjoy what I'm doing but sometimes it's a struggle.

"But I always have the focus of trying to get to the top with Sale and the US. It's not in my mindset to be thinking I'm playing for a mediocre team. It's about trying to get to the top. I want to be the best I can be."

He was doing so with the US - and will do once restored to fitness in January with high hopes for club and country.

Gary Gold's men are the only leading nation unbeaten in 2019.

And though France, Argentina and England will undoubtedly eliminate them from their World Cup group, for him just being at the global show-piece has made the journey worthwhile, even if some of the steps have been faltering.

Life is never a straight story.

"It's been a negative 2018 for sure but I hope to turn 2019 into a positive," he smiles. Sunny side up, as they say Stateside.

 

Mature Wales can do ‘something special’

Warren Gatland says his Wales players are fully aware they can achieve “something special” against South Africa today.

Wales have won four of the last five encounters with the Springboks, and they are also chasing a ninth successive triumph against all opponents, which would equal their longest unbeaten run since 1999.

And they go into the Principality Stadium clash needing victory to complete a first four-from-four autumn Tests clean sweep after seeing off Scotland, Australia and Tonga.

“What has built nicely is the momentum,” said Wales head coach Gatland, who has replaced unavailable full-back Leigh Halfpenny with Liam Williams for the Springboks encounter.

“The players are fully aware of what they’ve achieved and they can do something special, and from that they know the momentum is created for the Six Nations and they can continue to build towards the World Cup.

“The way the players have trained at the moment, I haven’t seen this level of maturity in a group of players. Our composure in games has been outstanding.”

Halfpenny misses out due to concussion so the goal-kicking duties go to fly-half Gareth Anscombe.

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