On Sunday, September 20th, former Blackrock College schoolboy Alan Junior 'AJ' MacGinty is expected to win his sixth cap in the USA's opening Rugby World Cup match against Samoa at the Brighton Community stadium, marking a notable milestone in his fledgling Test career.
The rugby narrative slews initially from the orthodox to the serendipitous but at the core of a colourful tale is how aptitude, talent and a work ethic don’t always usher a player down a conventional sporting pathway.
The 25-year-old, Dublin born MacGinty, son of Blackrock College principal Alan, didn’t grow up dreaming of playing rugby for the Eagles in a World Cup, but that won’t matter a jot come Sunday week. His allegiance is to his adopted country, the land that gave him the opportunity.
Growing up in south Dublin he played mini-rugby in Stradbrook, soccer for Cabinteely’s Park Celtic and attended Willow Park and Blackrock. Slight of build and stature, he moved from outhalf to scrumhalf, playing on the Junior Cup team and two year’s on the SCT; both campaigns in the latter competition ended with the heartbreak of quarter-final replay defeats.
However, it was in transition year playing another sport that allowed him to develop a skill set that underpinned his subsequent rugby career.
“I went down to Joey’s [St Joseph’s Boys AFC in Sallynoggin] to play soccer for the year and it was a brilliant experience,” he says.
“Even though I was undersized for my age, the traditional lack of sympathy you get from older brothers and friends when having a kick-around toughened me up. I played in the centre of midfield and loved every moment of my time there. I learned to kick with both feet and I was the fittest I had ever been.”
He laughs when asked what it was like to have his father as principal, suggesting he occasionally kept a “low profile” when others courted trouble before adding he did benefit from unsolicited grinds at home. In his last two years at school he was on the fringe of Leinster Schools squads while at the under-19 provincial age grade a broken wrist scuppered his chance. College beckoned.
“I graduated with a degree in accountancy but didn’t like it. At the time I was playing with the club, Blackrock College, and the coach Greg McWilliams gave me a chance at 10. I’d enjoyed a little bit of a late growth spurt. Thanks to his support and that of my team-mates my confidence and self-belief grew and we reached an All-Ireland final,” MacGinty says.
"I decided a year away was what I wanted to do. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea. I moved to New York in 2012 with a group of friends. Before leaving I was able to get set up with New York Athletic Club, where I ended up playing with my current USA teammates Mike Petri and Al McFarland. My old coach Tony Smeeth was able to sort it out for me."
MacGinty considered getting some bar work in New York but that news was less than enthusiastically received at home. Smeeth once again came up trumps. “By the end of the summer, an opportunity came up to study and play at Life University in Atlanta, Georgia, on a scholarship,” he says.
“You couldn’t get a much bigger contrast with New York. Originally I was a little apprehensive as it was a massive change, but it was one of the best things to happen to me. I’ve been there three years.”
There is a sizeable Irish contingent at Life University – MacGinty was set to take his final exams for a master's in exercise and sports science this week – including former Ulster scrumhalf Blane McIlroy and MacGinty's first cousin and a player who led Ireland in the 2003 Under-21 World Championship final against New Zealand in Glasgow Dave Gannon.
Qualifying to play for the USA on the three-year residency rule, the calibre of his performances at Life attracted the attention of Eagles’ coach Mike Tolkin and in April this year he was named in a USA Select squad that played a couple of matches in South America. He came on the final 15-minutes against Uruguay and started against Argentina A.
He made his full debut for the USA – former Ireland prop Justin Fitzpatrick is the Eagles’ forwards coach while ex-Dolphin flanker
is in the squad – during the Pacific Nations Cup, coincidentally against Samoa. He went on to score 44 points in three matches in the tournament, including a winning drop goal in a 15-13 victory over archrivals Canada.
He has scored 65 points in five Test matches, five of which came in his most recent outing, a World Cup warm-up defeat to Michael Cheika’s Australia.
“In a new environment you are initially cautious, not wanting to overstep the boundaries, but with each game my confidence has grown,” he says. “The more experience you get, the more you understand the importance of taking responsibility; it’s what the role demands.”
He is viewed by his peers as a good leader, an excellent placekicker and a player with the vision and distribution skills to give the USA a different dimension. “I always wanted to play at the highest level and be the best player I could be, whatever that was. The chance to play in a World Cup, the biggest stage in rugby . . . I’ll cherish these moments.”