Portugal’s Tomás Appleton: Running rugby is in our DNA
World Rugby speaks to Os Lobos’ captain ahead of Friday’s crunch meeting with the USA which will decide the 20th and final qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2023.
Such is the collective will within the USA squad to beat Portugal in the deciding match of the Rugby World Cup 2023 Final Qualification Tournament on Friday that captain AJ MacGinty has had a relatively straightforward week.
Team morale built during gruelling training camps in Colorado and South Africa has been transported to Dubai, where the men’s Eagles have recorded back-to-back bonus-point victories against Kenya and Hong Kong.
MacGinty and his fellow Europe-based team-mates missed those camps and have been gradually reintegrated into Gary Gold’s starting line-up at the Final Qualification Tournament.
Bristol Bears fly-half MacGinty was back in the number 10 jersey for the 49-7 defeat of Hong Kong, having appeared as a second-half replacement in the opening 68-14 win against the Simbas.
The tournament in Dubai is his first involvement since the Eagles’ agonising aggregate defeat to Chile in the Americas 2 play-off in July. He has noticed a difference in attitude and intensity as the USA bid to claim a ticket to RWC 2023 at the third attempt.
“The mindset has changed. I don't think I've actually had to do much [as captain],” MacGinty said.
“Going into the week, the whole focus was just on how we approach the training sessions. Again, it was a hot day yesterday but the numbers we got through, that's all we're going after. Just that effort amongst the squad from both sides.
“And yesterday was quite a good day, too, because obviously the team's announced and some lads aren't in it, but it didn't detract from the training session [despite] some guys being disappointed not to be playing.
“So, it's more that the morale is good, the mood, the spirit in the camp is really good and everyone's raring to go and I guess for me it's like they're all big games and it's just another game, you know what I mean?
“It's [trying to find] the balance between that, not getting too focused on how big a game it is. It's just a game of rugby and we'll want to perform at our best.”
USA coach Gold on Wednesday suggested he had a similar feeling going into the Portugal match as he did when helping to prepare South Africa for victorious Rugby World Cup, Tri-Nations and British and Irish Lions campaigns.
MacGinty clearly possesses a similar conviction as he attempts to steer the Eagles to a ninth Rugby World Cup.
“The intensity that we're training at, at the moment, is no comparison to how we probably were in the lead up to those games [against Uruguay and Chile],” he said.
“So, that fills me with a lot of confidence and the prep for me has been the best we’ve had.
“That’s probably the biggest one and the intensity that we'll be able to play at then, I think that's off the back of training post-Chile as individuals and work in camp and the amount of work lads did on their own.
“Into the camp in Glendale and then South Africa, by the sound of things it was like a Navy SEALs camp and torture for the lads, they worked their socks off.
“An awful lot of work has gone into our ability to perform at a higher level. That's off the back of the coaches demanding that and the players rising to it, so that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Should USA beat Portugal at The Sevens Stadium on Friday then they will become the 20th and final team to book their ticket to RWC 2023, taking their place in Pool C alongside Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia.
For MacGinty personally, it would give him the opportunity to play at a third Rugby World Cup but first as the team’s captain.
However, in keeping with the hard-working ethos of the current Eagles squad, MacGinty is not allowing himself to look too far ahead.
Not that the fly-half would be happy with merely qualifying for RWC 2023. His seven tournament appearances to date have all ended in defeat and he is motivated to change that statistic in France next year.
“Having gone to the two, it's like I've been to a World Cup and I haven't won a game,” MacGinty added.
“That was a driving factor before, so it's like be more competitive and [use] the lessons we've learnt along this campaign and how mad it's been through the COVID season and all of that.
“But to get to this point where we're at now, and where we can go [because] the foundations of it are really, really strong.
“The camp that I feel Gary and the coaches have produced has made every single person involved a better player, and that's what you want.
“So, yeah, we'll get this ticked off and then you think about going to the World Cup and captaining the side.”