When it comes to blooding new talent at the Test level, it is not uncommon for a country to debut one or maybe two rookies on its gameday roster, but when there are nine newbies in a national team’s 17-man lineup it gets people’s attention. And that’s exactly what the USA Tomahawks did in their international against Canada last month, although there was a good reason for it.
The American National Rugby League is preparing to host the Rugby League World Cup Atlantic Zone Qualifiers in October, and as such, wants to get a look at as many eligible players as possible before settling on its final squad. To that end, the AMNRL cast far and wide for its train-on squad. Within the squad there are 15 overseas-based players and head coach Matt Elliott, who resides in Sydney, is keeping tabs on them while his US-based assistants are responsible for the domestic-based players named to the squad. Tomahawks coaches said all along that they were going to use the two Tests against Canada as opportunities to try out various player combinations and if Game 1 is any indication, that plan is off to a good start as the rookie US team won.
WeAreRugby caught up with three of the victorious debutants to get their take on what it felt like to represent their country for the first time. Charlie Rizzo (Connecticut Wildcats), Leslie Alovili (Northern Raiders) and Josh Rice (Hawaii Islanders) all agree that being named in the team really got the adrenaline pumping. “For me, getting that email from [coach David] Niu was such a great feeling,” said Rizzo. “I felt for the first time in my rugby career that my work and dedication was finally recognized and appreciated. “Stepping out on the field representing my country was probably the most uplifting feeling I felt in sports in my life. I felt so proud to be on that field and share the same goal with my teammates. That feeling I can never duplicate and most athletes can’t ... and that’s what makes playing for the Tomahawks such a great achievement.”
Those sentiments are echoed by his teammates.
“When my name was called out I was happy and nervous at the same time as this was my first ever test game that I have played and also nervous about playing five-eighth because I am normally a lock or second rower,” Alovili said. “I believe I did pretty good considering the conditions, but still have a lot to work on if I am to stay at 5/8. “Niuy and [coach Vassilakopoulos] Vassi helped out a lot in the few days we were together talking to me and just explaining where we were heading come game day. And going on the pitch was a feeling I can’t describe.”
On top of all the nerves associated with debuting for their country, there was also the added anxiety of wondering if Hurricane Irene was going to put the kybosh on that opportunity. “I knew coach Niu was committed to do whatever it took to make the game happen so I stayed focused on what I could control, and that was getting mentally and physically prepared,” Rice told us. “It was a relief at first to hear my name in the gameday lineup, then excitement for the opportunity to represent my country for the first time. But those feelings last only a few seconds. “When we were running out onto the field I started talking to myself like I always do, repeating positive affirmations along with a little bit of singing. It gets me focused and ready to play. I blocked out all the other outside factors and told myself it was just another game of footy and knew what I had to do to help the team win.”
The second leg of the Colonial Cup will be played in Toronto on Saturday, September 17. Please visit the Canada Rugby League website
for venue and ticket information.