Sport

Meet James Bird: The Welshman flying high in the USA with the 2019 Rugby World Cup on the horizon

By Rich Jones

As a young rugby player in Wales, the opportunity to play in the Rugby World Cup ranks as the ultimate ambition.

But never in his wildest dreams could Cardiff’s James Bird have envisaged he would be closing in on the chance to play on the biggest stage representing the USA.

With two and a half years until the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Bird is making waves in the United States and is keen to help the Eagles reach Japan.

The 28-year-old grew up playing both with and against a number of Wales’ top international stars and helped introduce a classmate by the name of Sam Warburton to the sport around 20 years ago.

After taking two wildly different routes, Bird is relishing the prospect of their paths potentially crossing again in unlikely circumstances a couple of years down the line.

“It’d be an immense honour to go to a World Cup with the Eagles, and that’s mainly what I’m pushing for looking ahead to 2019,” Bird said.

“I’ve got to find form, stay fit and hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to get involved. If it worked out that we were in the same group as Wales, that’d be an amazing thing for me.

“I played with and against a few of the boys in the Welsh setup when we were kids. To potentially be up against Sam (Warburton) and the rest of the Welsh boys again would be incredible.

“It’d be an interesting one for my family and my brothers as well, to see which side of the line they take and who they’d support!

“It’s one of those things that I’d love to happen, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. There is a long way to go, and the main thing for me is just to try and get to that World Cup.”

Bird’s journey is a remarkable one. Having graduated from the University of Bristol, he seemed content to play amateur rugby and focus on his career.

Yet shortly after starting his job with accountancy firm PWC, he found himself embarking upon a journey across the pond as part of a project in New York.

In a new country, Bird utilised rugby as a means of fitting into his surroundings. His initial six month project in the Big Apple became three years and within two weeks of being cleared to play for the USA based on residency he was making his international debut.

“I graduated from the University of Bristol a few years ago and started a job with PWC in London,” he recalled.

“I was working as a consultant and about 18 months after I started I ended up moving to New York for six months for a project.

“When I arrived I didn’t really know anyone, so I turned to rugby as a way to get to know people. I’d played at a fairly high standard back home, but it didn’t really go any further than that.

“The initial six months turned into a lot longer because the guys I was working with asked if I wanted to stay.

“It turned into three years pretty quickly. I played well for my club and when the three year residency period that World Rugby stipulate came to an end, the High Performance Director got in touch from the US setup.

“That was the day after my three years was up. Two weeks later I was attending a training camp and a week later I won my first international cap against Argentina so things moved pretty quickly!

“There are only a select number of clubs playing at a really high level over here due to the sheer number of players, so we had a couple of internationals in our club side.

“I think it was probably about six months before my call-up that I was talking to my coach about the season and we mentioned the three year residency stuff.

“I didn’t know if it was realistic, and I’d never spoken to any of the coaches or anything like that. It wasn’t really something I’d thought about to be honest.

“There was the World Cup in the September/October just before, and after that tournament there was a coaching change.

“John Mitchell came in, the ex-All Blacks coach, and it was his first tournament the following January which was when I got the call-up.

“It wasn’t at the top of my mind, but I was obviously training and preparing as if I would get a call-up and when I did it was a huge honour.”

The fly-half kicked 15 points on his debut as they drew 35-35 against Argentina XV before orchestrating a 30-22 win over rivals Canada.

He eventually started four games and notched 35 points as the Eagles finished second in the 2016 Americas Rugby Championship.

And he admits his first experience of international rugby, which started at a Major League Soccer stadium in Houston and ended in South America, was “incredible”.

He commented: “I played in four games, the first was against Argentina XV which wasn’t technically capped, so my first proper cap was against Canada.

“The first game we were in the MLS stadium in Houston, we drew that game 35-35 against Argentina and it was an amazing experience.

“Then to play in the North American Derby against Canada for my first cap was incredible. We were actually playing in a baseball stadium in Austin, down in Texas, which was pretty cool.

“We got the win there, I was rested for the third game against Chile where we won by 50-odd points and then we went down to South America to play in Brazil and Uruguay.

“We didn’t get the results we wanted down there because we had a weakened side, but it was still an amazing experience.

“I unfortunately picked up an injury this year which has meant I’ve missed out, but hopefully I’ll get more chances in the future because it’s an honour to play for the USA.”

Away from the international stage, Bird plies his trade for the historic Old Blue R.F.C in New York City.

They play in the American Rugby Premiership, the highest level of competition in the country outside the newly-founded PRO League.

Many question the standard of rugby played on the other side of the pond, in a country not traditionally associated with the sport.

Bird believes the level is on par with the Welsh Premiership, where his brother, Diggy, plays for Cardiff RFC.

But he has revealed how different styles of play across different areas of the country add another intriguing dimension to the game.

He stated: “I think the top level of club competition that we play in is really comparable to the Championship in England or the Premiership in Wales.

“My brother plays for Cardiff RFC, I went to watch one of their games recently and I’d say that seems a pretty similar standard.

“It’s a lot less technical over here I’d say, particularly in the front row, but overall it’s a fairly high standard.

“Away from the top level competition, the standard drops off a little bit just because we don’t have the playing numbers.

“We’ve got the Pro League which started last year as well, and I think the standard of that was better than people thought around the world which is a positive.

“I think what’s interesting is that there is a different style of rugby from the East to the West coast. The likes of New York, Boston and down to Atlanta which is the furthest we travel, the style tends to be a lot more European.

“It’s a bit more technical and territorial and you play to the conditions a bit more, whereas on the West coast in California, Denver, Texas and places like that you have more of a Polynesian influence.

“A lot of people come from the Islands to the West coast, and you see in the rugby that they chuck the ball around a lot more and it’s quite entertaining.”

Rugby is clearly a growing sport in the USA. Over 60,000 people packed into Soldier Field in Chicago in November to witness Ireland claim a thrilling 40-29 win over the All Blacks.

2016 also saw the successful introduction of the PRO League, the first fully professional competition in the country.

But Bird believes it could well be Rugby Sevens which holds the key as they look to break into the crowded sports market.

He said: “I was at that All Blacks-Ireland game doing some work with USA, and selling out a 65,000 seater stadium for an international match on American soil is pretty incredible I think.

“Things like the Olympics are only going to grow the game in terms of the exposure here. I think what needs to happen is we need to get TV coverage of club games. The internationals are on ESPN, but we need other games on the main channels that cover sport.

“I’d say, honestly, the primary driver for rugby over here would be Sevens to be honest, because it’s an exciting sport and it kind of suits the American structure.

“There are seven minute halves then a commercial break, which fits in with the way things are over here.

“You could have it on throughout the day and it’s easy to break down and understand because there are so many breaks.”

So what does the future hold for James Bird? Based on his unorthodox journey to date, it would take a brave man to predict his future path.

The man himself concedes he is unsure where he will end up – but he is open to the prospect of embarking upon a full-time career in rugby following his international exposure.

“I think I need to talk to the US coaching setup and see what they say,” he added.

“Right now I don’t really feel like I train full-time either side of work, but obviously it’s not a professional environment.

“It’s a semi-professional club, so if the US coaching staff think a move to full-time, maybe back in the UK, is what I need then I’d have to consider it.

“It’d definitely be tough with work but I’m pretty sure they’d be supportive of it given the short time frame of a rugby career and the fact I could go back and work for the company at any time.

“We’ll have to have some conversations with the management at some stage and see what they think.

“I could play professionally overseas or also over here in the US because another PRO League season starts fairly soon.”

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