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Aj MacGinty, the Dublin-born out-half leading USA into the World Cup

The 25-year-old has impressed since making his international debut during the summer.

FROM BLACKROCK TO the Rugby World Cup.

It’s been quite the adventure for Dublin native Aj MacGinty, who heads into the tournament as first-choice out-half for the USA.

AJ MacGinty has already racked up 65 points in five caps thanks to his accurate goal kicking.

Though Pool B also contains the quality of South Africa, Scotland and Samoa, MacGinty and the Eagles have ambitions of progressing into the knock-out stages for the first time in the country’s history.

25-year-old MacGinty only won his first full international cap in July, having qualified to play for the States on residency grounds in February, but the impression he’s made since has been strong and he will be important to any hopes of an American impact on the World Cup.

With caps against Samoa, Canada (two), Japan and the Wallabies now under his belt, as well as 65 international points, MacGinty says the whirlwind past few months have been “an amazing experience.”

A former Blackrock College student – his father Alan is the long-standing principal and rugby coach at the famous Dublin school – MacGinty didn’t move to the States with plans to play international rugby, but has always had a passion for the sport.

Growing up, my eldest brother Mark was mad for rugby and my dad has been a coach since he was 22. Rugby was in my life since I was four years old, as far back as I can remember. I’ve always had an interest in the game and learning the game.”

MacGinty completed a degree in accounting at National College of Ireland after school, although on reflection he says it’s a route he didn’t want to go down. His rugby life continued with Blackrock RFC as he joined the club’s academy, working with current Yale director of rugby Greg McWilliams and playing alongside the likes of Ian Madigan.

A scrum-half as well back then, MacGinty had three years of U20 rugby and also featured for Blackrock’s 1st XV, while a visit to New Zealand for a Murray Mexted rugby camp gave him the place-kicking bug that McWilliams nurtured further back in Dublin.

Despite that rugby focus, MacGinty decided to head for New York when a few friends told him they were making the move Stateside on one-year visas.

“I just wanted to get out of Ireland and do my own thing,” says MacGinty.

Alan McGinty MacGinty in Blackrock colours in 2010. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Tony Smeeth, Trinity’s director of rugby and a man who has coached extensively in the States, put MacGinty in touch with the NYAC club in the Big Apple, for whom he played during the short club season at the start of 2012.

Away from the pitch, he ended up working in a bar with his friends but Alan senior (Aj is Alan junior) felt that might not be the best way for the 22-year-old to get by in America.

“My dad started looking into ways I could extend my stay in America and again Tony Smeeth knew the director of rugby down at Life University in Atlanta, Dan Payne” says MacGinty. “A position came up to go and coach there, play some rugby and study for a Master’s degree.

Within two weeks of being in touch with Dan I’d already agreed to go down, become a coach and study the Master’s in Excercise and Sports Science.”

Rugby is a big deal in Life University, with MacGinty joking that he was on slightly shaky ground when first coming in as coach of the undergraduate team, which involved working with some young men who were the same age as him.

His own playing involvement was with the Life U men’s team, with players his own age (22 at that time) right up to 35-year-olds studying for doctorates at the university.

Having impressed for NYAC initially, the move down to Atlanta is when the thought of playing for the USA first crossed MacGinty’s mind, particularly as his Master’s degree would take three years to complete, leaving him eligible on the international stage.

“At the time I first moved to New York, I wasn’t thinking ‘I’m going to go over and play for America,’” says MacGinty. “It kind of creeped in when I was deciding whether or not to go down to Atlanta.

“That was a huge change and meant extending my stay in America for another three years. When I started to decide whether I wanted to go to Atlanta, the rugby was an important part.”

MacGinty MacGinty converts a USA try against Australia.

 

Still, MacGinty had a whole lot to prove to the rugby fraternity in Marietta, Georgia. He benefitted hugely from being totally immersed in the game within Life University, making rapid physical and technical gains after first arriving in September 2012.

“I was always tiny growing up. I’d go to the gym and just mess around instead of doing weights. At Life University, you’re in the gym three or four times a week. You have to show up.

“You’d be up at around 7am for weights, then you’d have a skills session at 10am, then classes from around 11am until 3pm. You’re out training with the undergraduate team coaching then until 5pm after that, and then at 7pm I’d have my own training with the men’s team.

“That would be my schedule four days of the week. On your days off, you’d still be doing skills session. From a developmental basis, I’d go out and be doing passing sessions even with the guys on the undergraduate team, so although I was coaching them I would always have the ball in my own hands too and be working on my passing mechanics.

The same with kicking. There was so much emphasis on my own development and individual skills. For me, the biggest aspect was probably doing weights properly for two and a half years. I’m still not that big but I was scrawny when I first got over!”

On the pitch, MacGinty helped Life University to a national championship and began to make a name for himself as an out-half on the domestic scene.

Towards the end of 2013, an opportunity to impress the national coaching staff presented itself and MacGinty didn’t miss it. A camp for domestic-based Eagles players was held in Life University and ended with a game against the college’s team.

The man wearing the 10 shirt for Life U stood out against the cream of the rugby talent based in the States and from there it became a case of Eagles head coach Tolkin and his staff waiting for MacGinty to qualify.

He toured South America with a USA development team in February of this year, playing the Argentina Jaguars twice and beating the Uruguay national team, before being installed as first-choice out-half for the Pacific Nations Cup.

Samoa MacGinty makes a break on his debut against Samoa in the PNC.

His debut came against a powerful Samoa team, a week after the Islanders had played the All Blacks.

“It was a weird day because I had my brothers over staying, so I was spending time with them,” says MacGinty of his full international debut. “The game was in the evening and I just didn’t know what to expect.

“I did some silly things in the first half and at the end of that 40 minutes, it felt like I’d played an 80-minute match. I was thinking ‘is this what international rugby is like?’ I was hurting but thankfully we did a lot better in the second half, so that eased my pain!”

MacGinty forced himself into the game, impressing with his running and passing, as well as kicking 11 points off the tee, missing just once. Over the following weeks, he starred against Japan and Canada, going on to kick a last-minute winning drop goal in a 15-13 victory over the Canadians that sealed fifth place for the States in the PNC.

“I was very thankful it went over,” says MacGinty, laughing knowingly at the suggestion he didn’t have to buy a beer for himself that night.

The easy relationship MacGinty has developed with the star names in the USA squad, such as Samu Manoa and captain Chris Wyles, has grown from an initial starting point where the Dublin native suggests there might have been doubts about him.

“I came in and I know exactly what (the Europe-based) lads are going to be thinking,” says MacGinty. “They come back and you’re a domestic player in the USA and are stepping up to the international environment.

“The pro guys were coming back and probably thinking, ‘who’s this Irish lad who has been playing in America?’ But to be fair they have been really accepting and they have helped me so much.

“Any questions I have, they’re happy to sit down and the more questions I ask the better.”

DG MacGinty fires over the match-winning drop goal in the last minute against Canada.

Slamming over match-winning drops goals, slotting place kicks and making scything line breaks has helped MacGinty earn the respect of the group too. All the while, the Irish influence around him has helped.

Cork man and former Munster A flanker John Quill pokes his head around the door to slag MacGinty for doing an interview as he chats over the phone, while ex-Ulster and Ireland prop Justin Fitzpatrick is the forwards coach.

Scott Lavalla is a former Trinity captain and Ulster Ravens player, while wing Brett Thompson previously played for Blackrock.

Down at Life University, Irishmen Dylan Fawsitt, Cathal Doyle, Dave Gannon (a cousin of MacGinty’s), Marcus Walsh, Blair McIlroy and Mark Gribben have all lined out in recent times. The Irish community in American rugby only continues to grow.

The most important thing of all for MacGinty in the lead-up to the World Cup has been playing games. The chance to line up opposite Bernard Foley, Matt Giteau, Quade Cooper and the Wallabies two weekends ago at Soldier Field in Chicago was the latest Test experience.

Though the Eagles were well beaten at 47-10, MacGinty put in an impressive individual performance. He kicked both of his shots at goal, had a hand in a wonderful try for scrum-half Mike Petri and defended well.

A few darts at the line with ball in hand have been characteristic for the 25-year-old in recent months, rare sparks of attacking excitement for the Eagles as they faced an onslaught from the Wallabies defence.

“They were in our face very fast and anyone I was passing to was getting smashed, so I maybe thought I’d hold onto it a little more,” says MacGinty. “They tested us a lot when they were on defence, it was a very tough game to be honest.

“I like playing flat to the line. It’s obviously easier when you’re on go-forward ball, but I think from that Australia game there’s so much to take and learn from it – how to deal with the situations where we don’t get the ball we want or we’re not getting over the gainline.”

Try MacGinty was involved for Petri's try against the Wallabies.

Picking out the Irish flag held by family and friends in the stand at Soldier Field was a proud moment for MacGinty, but he is just restless to get back on the pitch and further the Eagles’ cause.

The lessons learned against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies will be relevant for the tests to come against the Springboks, Scotland, Samoa and Scotland, and MacGinty is firm in his optimism for the World Cup.

“I definitely believe we can win games in this pool,” says the out-half. “I definitely think we’re capable of that. The goal is to get out of the group stage, that’s my focus and that’s the team focus.

There’s games we can win if we perform and keep key players on the pitch. We can’t pick up too many serious injuries, but if we stay fit we can push to get out of the group.”

Beyond the tournament, the next rugby adventure awaits for MacGinty and though he has given some thought to what that would ideally hold, his sole focus is on beating Samoa on Sunday in Brighton.

Given the speed at which he has adapted to international rugby, it seems likely that professional clubs will be keeping an eye on him over the coming weeks.

“Right now I’m just focusing on the World Cup and it’s important for me to play well,” says MacGinty. “I think if I can perform well at the World Cup, then there’s a possibility that a contract could show up.

“It’s something that I’d absolutely love to do. I’ve played this game for more than 15 years and I’ve always loved a challenge. If a contract was to come up, I’d take it but right now I just want to focus on this World Cup and take it game by game.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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