By Mike Petri
There always seems to be so much down time between the June and November tests. Yet there really isn't much of a break for a lot of people. Here in NYC, I've really taken advantage of being fortunate to have some non-rugby time to get my feet set underneath me a bit in other areas.
This past summer turned out to be quite busy despite the lull in rugby-related activities. I spent some time working with high school players at Life University and West Point. Both are tremendous camps and it was a real pleasure to see so many great athletes with real rugby ambitions working hard each day to better themselves.
The best part of it all was seeing the level of improvement of our returning campers from last year. Many of them took the tools we gave them at camp and continued to work on them at home and incorporate some of the strategies into their own teams.
Two players from Maryland stood out in particular at the Life University camp. One was a returning player, Cameron, that clearly took everything on board from last summer's camp and was an absolute stand-out at flyhalf this year. It was really incredible to see how well he developed throughout the year.
Another special moment was watching an athlete brand new to rugby pick it up so quickly. John is a senior from New Jersey and although his dad is a long time rugby man he had never played before coming to camp at Life U. He learned the rules as he went but he showed real talent in the back row and enjoyed every minute of learning the game. He enjoyed it so much that he put football camp on hold to go to the West Point camp two weeks later, where he again stood out and earned All-Star recognition.
John's enthusiasm and immediate love of the game was contagious and reminded me immediately of why I play and why I want to coach. Cameron was real evidence that using the skills learned at camps from different coaches and spending personal time working on them pays dividends and makes for a much more enjoyable overall rugby experience. I love our sport and I love working with young, ambitious athletes. They are the future and every year the future continues to look brighter.
After my experiences at the rugby camps, I finally went on my honeymoon with my wife, which was postponed from last summer due to World Cup preparation and assemblies. We spent 3 weeks in Europe in August and traveled through Spain, Italy, and France. We also got to spend time with some friendly faces in Paris as we met up with USA teammate Scott LaValla and former Sale Sharks teammate Paul Williams (also plays for Samoa) and his wife, Helen. They showed us around Paris and took us to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, where the owner is a huge rugby fan and Stade Francais supporter. He took great care of us despite the fact that he was upset with Scott for dropping a try right on the goal line during the previous weekend's game! Sharing this experience with them was a reminder that the connections made in rugby give you lifelong friends all over the world. Last year we met up with USA teammate Lou Stanfill in Venice, Italy and we hope to continue to keep in touch with other teammates on our future adventures.
Speaking of guys overseas, it is really exciting to see everyone doing so well in their overseas endeavors. I'm really pumped for Eric Fry to have played his way into the Manawatu Turbos side and for Scott to consistently be in the squad for Stade Francais. It's also always awesome to turn on Fox Sports World and watch Chris Wyles in action for the Saracens. A special recognition and congratulations to Chris for making his 100th appearance for Saracens recently. That's an amazing accomplishment and I couldn't be happier for a more deserving guy. I miss watching Hayden Smith over there, but he is adjusting well to his new life pads and is working hard to make his mark, which I'm confident that he will. He was recently added to the Jets active roster and took his first snaps in the NFL just last week! I'm really excited for him and his future career in football. The big question here in NY though is who is his preferred quarterback, Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow?!
Back to the present now as I'm finishing up a 15 hour travel day from New York City to meet the rest of the team in the UK. Sitting on the train riding through the English countryside brings back memories of my experiences here a few years ago. My wife and I spent a lot of time traveling from Manchester to Bristol to visit Robbie Shaw and his fiancée, Kitty, and then when we moved to Wales my wife and I spent nearly every day on the trains from Newport to Cardiff for three straight weeks looking for an apartment. We finally found one three days before Christmas and just in time for her parents to arrive. All in all, the entire experience was quite an adventure for us to be on together and it is really special to be back near those same familiar areas.
Despite the comforting familiarity of it all, I can't help but be honest and say I'd rather have played these tests in southern France! We are playing at a neutral ground for the first two matches anyway so playing in the south of France may have provided better conditions for some more expansive, fun, and creative rugby from both sides. Nonetheless, I'm really eager to get out and play and have the opportunity to be back in Wales for the first two games and meet up with my teammates shortly.
I'd like to also give a special recognition to everyone back at Xavier High School, not only my alma mater but also where I currently teach physics and biology. Without their support this trip would not have been possible, especially since I had to move my departure up a day at the very last minute to avoid being stuck in New York by a Nor'Easter heading into the area. (I hope everyone back home is safe and well prepared for the storm.)Additionally, my students have been incredibly supportive as well so I'd really like to thank them for that. It's been a blast working with them so far and I'm really excited to get back in a few weeks. I'm not sure they share the same excitement for my return but I'd certainly like to think so! They are in good hands though with a great sub for the next few weeks.
However, I would be remiss without mentioning the devastation that Hurricane Sandy recently caused in the Northeast area. It was an event that affected so many people and really hit home. My cousins have been displaced from their home that was ruined in the floods in Rockaway. Far too many students and other members of the Xavier family were also severely affected. I also coach the rugby team at Xavier and a significant number of student athletes for our program hail from those areas greatest hit in Rockaway, Breezy Point, and Staten Island. However, the resiliency that they have showed has been inspiring. It was really special to come to school on Monday and be together as a community to work together to get life back to normal and back on track. It will take time of course and it will be difficult but we will no doubt persevere.
Along the lines of inspiring, I heard one story in particular about one of our student athletes from the Xavier rugby team. His heroic efforts saved several people that night as he paddled through his neighborhood in a flooded Breezy Point on a surfboard rescuing people as the blaze consumed not only his home but the homes of those around him. It is an outstanding act of bravery and heroism and everyone at Xavier is extremely proud of his actions.
To say that the Xavier community has been hit with challenging times in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is an understatement. Yet there are so many others throughout the entire northeast region whose lives are now forever changed. Those affected remain in my thoughts and prayers and really remind us of the important things in life. I'm really proud of the way our city has come together to help those in need.
Back to Wales - almost at the hotel. Checking in shortly and going for a run before dinner to flush out the legs. Looking forward to bed tonight! I will check in again soon from camp. Three days until kickoff against Russia!
Until next time...