By Mike Petri
Once we arrived in New Plymouth (Taranaki), it was strictly business. With two games in a short period of time we had to ensure we were prepared physically and mentally. Heading into the first game it seemed that the mental side of it would end up being the most important!
We all know that Russia has always been a big target on our calendar, but before even looking to that game we had to battle Ireland on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country. As a New Yorker, I've been looking forward to this game especially. The opportunity to represent not only the United States but also the entire rugby community back home in New York City was something I cherished.
We attended a memorial Mass in the morning before kickoff at St. Andrew's in New Plymouth. It was really special and an emotionally difficult time. Having the US Marines, the US Ambassador, and other American fans there to honor and remember everyone whose lives were forever changed on that day was inspiring. It evoked both painful memories and immense pride in my country and in the heroes of my city that rose to the occasion when we needed them most.
The challenging part for all of us was controlling that emotional roller coaster and channeling it into a positive performance on the rugby field. Late kickoffs are always difficult anyway but the anticipation leading up to this game was incredibly nerve racking!
We waited to have our jersey presentation until after lunch (it is traditionally done the evening beforehand). I had the honor of having my jersey presented to me by John Lugano, a fellow Xavier High School graduate from NYC whose brother Sean was killed on 9/11. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Sean we shared a common bond as Xavier and New York Athletic Club rugby players. I also currently play with their younger brother Mike at the NYAC. So this moment for me was unforgettable. John traveled all the way to New Zealand by himself to be with our team and then to have him present me with my jersey on this occasion was an incredible honor.
Later that day before our final jog through, we watched a video compiled by our video analyst, Jarrad Griffiths. Coach Mike Tolkin, also a Xavier graduate from New York City, was able to get messages from people to add to the movie. Sitting together and watching highlights from recent games, photographs of the 9/11 tragedy, and good luck messages from a group of FDNY firemen back home was an intense and inspiring way to prepare for this game. I sat and heard the familiar voice of NYAC teammate and FDNY fireman Brian O'Grady and others wishing us well as the names of several Xavier, NYAC, and other rugby players who were killed came across the screen. I was inspired and ready to go.
Walking out of the tunnel on that night was truly special. To hear the Maori war horn blow while standing next to Brian O'Driscoll and the Irish team sent chills down my spine. Standing arm in arm with my teammates and then placing my hand over my heart to sing our national anthem as the entire crowd erupted and chimed in is an experience I will never forget.
We fought valiantly that day and I was proud of our effort. The result didn't fall in our favor but we walked off the field with our head held high knowing we had poured our hearts into that game.
When all was said and done, I lay in bed that night and reflected on what had just occurred. I couldn't believe it. As tired as I was, I couldn't sleep. I just kept re-living the entire experience. But then, my next thought was that this thing is only just getting started...
Until next time.... GO EAGLES!!!
September 11, 2001
We Will Never Forget...
Read more of the Mike Petri Rugby World Cup blog.
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