Sunday 21 April 2019

Making it in the USA: How five Irishmen helped produce one of the biggest wins in the history of American rugby

Greg McWilliams, pictured coaching Leinster U19, is now the attack coach with the USA Eagles. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Greg McWilliams, pictured coaching Leinster U19, is now the attack coach with the USA Eagles. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Irishmen helped build the American railroad and the Empire State Building, and now they doing their bit to mark USA out on the world rugby map.

A school teacher, a personal trainer, a barman and a dog walker don’t comprise some sort of rebooted Village People, but are actually some of the jobs previously held by five Irishmen who scrapped their way up the professional rugby ladder to play a part in what was probably the biggest win in the history of the US team.

Last weekend was dominated by Joe Schmidt’s men levelling the series in Australia, but when Scotland were unexpectedly felled by the USA Eagles in the Saturday night Texas heat, there was an Irish presence on the pitch, on the bench and in the coaching box.

Former Connacht PRO 12-winning out-half AJ MacGinty was sublime in the 31-30 victory, aided by Cork flanker John Quill and Inishmore prop Paul Mullan in the pack, while former Blackrock College schoolboy star Dylan Fawsitt entered the fray at hooker late in the second half.

Masterminding the US attack is former St Michael’s College Director of Rugby Greg McWilliams, who also had a key role in the success of the Irish women’s team as the backs coach between 2009 and 2014.

The Irish rugby diaspora is strong stateside and for McWilliams, the win over Scotland – USA’s first over a Tier 1 nation in 94 years – was extra special, with his Glasgow-born father watching the game back in Ireland.

"It is one of the biggest results in USA’s history," McWilliams says amid preparations for the Eagles’ final summer test against Canada on Saturday night.

"Being an Irishman and hearing 'Flower of Scotland' and thinking of my dad, who was watching the game back home at 2am with my mother, it got pretty emotional. He is so Scottish. He sounds like Shrek! My dad couldn’t believe we won. It was Father’s Day back in Ireland so I was like, 'Happy Father’s Day, I just beat Scotland for you'."

A quintet of Irishmen being involved in USA’s big win is quirky enough, but for McWilliams, the connection is even more unusual given he had already crossed paths with some his charges previously in his coaching life.

Fawsitt drove him demented as a rampaging back row against St Michael’s while he somewhat sheepishly concedes that when under his tutelage, he batted away suggestions of playing MacGinty in the position where he would subsequently thrive.

"I coached AJ for two years at Blackrock RFC with the U20 team," McWilliams says.

"He is a guy who I have a great deal of time for… even though I played him out of position. I picked him at scrum-half and an old guy in Blackrock who used to assist me, Deccie Smith, used to come up to me all the time and say 'Hey, he’s no nine. He is a ten' and he was dead right. AJ left me and was working in New York in a bar, got the opportunity to go to Life University and went on to play for the Eagles at the 2015 World Cup. I remember him as a 12-year-old kid playing against St Michaels so to see him come full circle is surreal.

"It’s the same with ‘The Butcher’, Dylan Fawsitt. I was head coach of the Michael’s SCT and we played against him as a back row with Blackrock and he was a pain in my hole. He was really competitive and chirpy. Now I know the guy and know how honest he is. There’s Johnny Quill and Paul Mullan, who are doing terrifically well. There is a good group of us and we all hold the USA very dearly.

"I’m proud to be able to help in some way to make American rugby better and there are a lot of people over here who feel the same."

Despite the success of the Irish players in the US team, McWilliams is reluctant to flood their set-up with as many decent American-qualified Irishmen as possible. Both McWilliams as a coach and the four players involved worked their way up through the American system, and he doesn’t want to just parachute prospects in to pick up some handy international caps.

"You want people playing for USA who want to represent the USA rugby community," he says.

"Any player who has Irish parents or grandparents or have been living here for a number of years like Paul [Mullan], then yeah, but you don’t want someone to just show up and say 'I’m going to play for USA' and they don’t buy into the reason why you should represent a country, which is for the people."

As good as the thrilling win over Scotland was for USA’s Irish contingent, their end-of-year tour will be even more special. Their autumn series starts with a clash against the New Zealand Maori in Chicago on a triple bill that includes Ireland’s game against Italy, while they finish November with what will be a poignant encounter against Joe Schmidt’s side at the Aviva Stadium.

For McWilliams, who left his combined teaching and coaching role with St Michael’s in 2014 to become the Director of Rugby at Yale University in Connecticut, it will be a chance to reconnect with some old friends who have made a big mark on Irish rugby since he last worked with them.

"Having the opportunity to coach against Scotland was surreal for me and coaching against Ireland in November will be even more surreal especially because there are quite a lot of players on the Irish team who I used to coach," he says.

"I still get on well with them and to get congratulations after beating Scotland from James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh, who were all St Michael’s guys during my time. It was really nice."

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