Growing up in Christchurch James Paterson must have dreamed of turning out at a World Cup in New Zealand. Now he’s achieved that dream, just not in the fashion he once would have imagined.
While turning out on ‘home’ soil, the winger is a member of the USA Eagles team, not the All Blacks. Paterson made his debut for the Eagles earlier in 2011 after two years of Super Rugby with the Dunedin-based Highlanders.
But Paterson is not an American player by virtue of a recently-discovered American grandmother or any other roundabout manner, and the current World Cup is not his first international tournament with the North American nation.
“When I was about 17 I left high school in New Zealand and moved to America,” Paterson explained to Planet Rugby.
“My mum is American so that’s why we shifted across and I went across and played [American] football, but obviously my passion was rugby and I had to keep playing. Fortunately I had the opportunity to go to a couple of Junior World Championships with the Junior Eagles.
“From that point I decided to come back to New Zealand and try crack it here and I gave it my best.”
The 24-year-old admits that playing in a World Cup in New Zealand has been an incredible ride and one that he couldn’t afford to pass up on.
“It’s been absolutely unbelievable. I think a major tipping point for me playing for the States in this World Cup was that I get to play in a World Cup in my home country, and the reception in New Zealand has been second to none.
“The way the locals have got behind the teams that have come has been huge. In the Russia/USA game and even the Ireland game, the support we got was incredible and it’s definitely a boost for the players.
“From the moment we arrived in Wanganui and we had the whole city out on the river side next to us, everywhere we go it’s been the best reception. The New Zealand public really deserve a round of applause, they’ve been awesome.”
The Eagles claimed their first win of the tournament last week when they beat Russia 13-6. The scenes of jubilation after the final whistle where something to behold, with tears of joy highlighting just how much the game meant to the players - and for the development of rugby in the USA.
“It was a huge game for us,” said the winger.
“Russia and the USA are two developing countries in the rugby world and if we want to move on as a country then wins on the big stage are vital for us.
“There is a bit of a rivalry that’s been developing between Russia and America over the last few years and Russia have been pumping a lot of resources into their rugby of late so it was important for both sides and it was a tribute to the game.”
The Eagles had just three days between their fixtures with Ireland and Russia, a situation that all the Second Tier nations have faced. The quick turnaround time has become a hot topic, especially in the wake of the controversial comments made by Samoa’s Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu.
“It’s not ideal,” Paterson concedes. “But it’s the nature of the beast with tournament play and with all the games they had to get in, obviously the minnow teams have a quicker turnaround.
“I think it takes a bit of player management and in some ways it can be hard to field your best side every week just for the fact of the attrition of playing all those games in a short window.”
Paterson was unable to complete the game with Russia after injuring his shoulder and it’s an injury that could prevent him from turning out against Australia on Friday, with the focus rather on being completely fit for next week’s game against Italy.
As if facing Australia was not already a stiff assignment, the Wallabies come into the clash having suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Ireland on Saturday and Paterson knows this will make them even more fired up for the game.
“Yeah it’s definitely going to be our biggest challenge to date at the World Cup,” he admits.
“They’re going to come out firing and they’re a great side who I think are going to want to make a statement.
“But it’s up to us, we have to come out there with the right mindset and look to compete with these guys. I think that the Ireland game helped us mentally because a lot of the guys know that they can hang in there with the Tier One nations, but it’s going to be another level against Australia.”
The Eagles certainly won’t roll over, it’s not in their nature to do so, and given the early signs in 2011 one can expect them to be putting in solid showings for some time to come.