From Rookie to Phenom: AJ MacGinty and the Making of a Legend

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AJ MacGintyPHILADELPHIA, PA – Three years ago, AJ MacGinty nearly abandoned his future career in the USA to return home to Dublin.

Bedridden after appendicitis during initial rugby training at Life University in Marietta, GA, MacGinty was almost despondent. He couldn’t practice with his team. He couldn’t attend classes. Instead, he was isolated and immobile on an empty campus between summer and fall semesters, seriously questioning his place there.

“It was really quiet, there was no one around,” MacGinty explained. “I didn’t know what to make of it.”

But MacGinty did not turn his back on his commitment to Life University. Instead, he waited his recovery out to later excel on the Running Eagles. Today, he is one of the most talented USA Eagles on the pitch.

The Dublin-native is undoubtedly a product of a environment primed for rugby. Though MacGinty originally opted to play soccer, he inevitably fell under the influence of his two older brothers, who have played and/or coached rugby since childhood. From then on, MacGinty had an eat-sleep-rugby mentality. “After every day you’d be training, Monday through Friday,” he said. From schools rugby with Blackrock College to the club game with Blackrock RFC’s academy, MacGinty grew into a prodigious player up through his studies at the National College of Ireland.

His next move, however spontaneous it seemed, would ultimately be the most significant step in his athletic career: moving to New York City on a one-year visa.

A.J., whose full name is Alan MacGinty, Jr. and is only called A.J. because then-NYAC and now-Iona College Coach Bruce McLane called him that, hardly abandoned his passion for rugby stateside, and it didn’t take long for his talent to catch the attention of college scouts. After playing for approximately eight months with NYAC, he received an offer to study and both play and coach rugby at Life University.

It was a complete change of environment,” MacGinty said, recalling his adjustment to classes, a new team and the infamous American college culture. “It took a while to settle in, but then I really enjoyed it. It was one of the best things that happened to me.”

Certainly a major difference the athlete saw between his native country and the US was the sense of sport fandom: surely nothing he experienced in Ireland came close to the excessive fanaticism of the American psyche. “Everyone was crazy for rugby [at Life],” he added. “That was good for me.

He will graduate this September with a Master’s degree in sport health science.

Having qualified to play for the USA Eagles earlier this year under residency rules, the prominent athlete was called into the Eagles’ squad in time to join the 29-man USA Rugby Selects’ three-match South American Tour in April.

AJ MacGinty, shown with coach Mike Tolkin, gets 1st @EaglesXV start.
AJ MacGinty, shown with coach Mike Tolkin, gets 1st @EaglesXV start.

For a rookie, such a tour is crucial for building relationships with the coaches and other players and adjusting to contests more competitive than any he’d previously encountered. To aid his transition, MacGinty sought guidance and support from more experienced teammates, specifically Captain Chris Wyles and flanker Scott LaValla, the latter of whom was actually coached by one of MacGinty’s brothers while studying at Trinity College Dublin. “I can learn a lot from them, asking them questions or just running things by them,” MacGinty said. “[They’re] very approachable and easy to talk to.”

Veteran professional Wyles certainly holds the young star in high regard, saying, “AJ is a great athlete. He isn’t a big guy but is deceptively strong. He’s temperament is also impressive; although he’s relatively young, he’s competitive and confident in his ability.”

The real turning point in MacGinty’s career—in a way, the payoff for sticking through the awkwardness of his introduction to Life University—came in San Jose on July 19, when he was handed the number 10 shirt for the Pacific Nations Cup match against Samoa and made his debut in senior international rugby.

The 6’1” 25-year-old MacGinty played the entire grueling 80 minutes at out-half for the Eagles. He made some questionable clearance choices in the first-half, possibly as a result of nerves and the match’s overwhelming physicality, but displayed far better field vision in the second half, scoring 11 points. Off the tee, he also added a conversion to Titi Lamositele’s 74th-minute try.

MacGinty then contributed 18 points to the Eagles’ 23-18 defeat of Japan on July 25, but his true potential emanated during the Eagles’ final PNC event at Swangard Stadium against rival Canada on Aug. 3. By solely scoring the Eagles’ points by kicking the ball through the posts five times, he demonstrated his skill and the Eagles’ strength, even with three players—including himself—sent to the bin.

MacGinty excelled throughout the match, but no moment parallels to his final kick in the final seconds of the game—a late drop-goal to add to his four first-half penalties that gave the Eagles a 15-13 victory. Viewers held their breath as the young fly-half launched the ball into the air and celebrated upon its successful clearing, but the Eagle himself admits that he honestly did not realize how monumental that kick was until long after the match.

I looked to the clock and was like ‘there’s a minute, a minute thirty…I knew I had to go for this drop…I knew I needed to pull myself into position to make that kick. I thought, ‘I’m going to hit this.’ I remember picking the top of a tree and saying ‘I’m going to aim for that tree.’” He added. “It’s only after, when I got of the pitch, when I realized and I was like, what would have happened if it missed? “I was fortunate, it could have gone the other way.

Countless sports reporters and spectators praised MacGinty’s performance, citing him as a hero of the match, yet the player is quick to dismiss these notions—in fact, he even seems to chuckle at them. He essentially personifies the old idiom, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” His game-changing performance has not spawned excessive confidence or pride but rather has fueled his ever-growing desire for self-improvement. Yes, MacGinty’s boot may be a strength for the Eagles, but his sheer humility and sense of fellowship are even stronger.

The standout continued to impress in the Eagles’ Aug. 22 rematch against Canada in Ottawa. Despite an early wide kick from the boot, MacGinty earned a total of 16 points with ease, assisting the US’s 41-23 victory.

For a newbie, MacGinty has quite an impressive game log: scoring 60 points, breaking off several nice runs, and logging a few more tackles than one might have expected. He even has a yellow card to add to his international resume. But while MacGinty’s skills as a goal kicker unquestionably secure his position on the pitch, he’s also done quite well in other aspects of the game. He’s shown himself to be a strategic runner and an extremely physical fly-half who does not shy away from tackles.

Nevertheless, MacGinty remains extremely humble about his role on the Eagles squad. “I’m just the rookie,” he said of himself. “[My teammates] just think of me as the guy who talks funny.”

Yet, perhaps the most compelling aspect of MacGinty really is his rookie status. There is more skill and charisma to the young athlete than we viewers, let alone his teammates and coaches, have seen in those few, albeit impressive, matches.

Though he jokes that he is “more wild than the other guys,” the Eagle possesses the maturity and composure of an experienced player, rather than an anxious novice. He refuses to become distracted by hypothetical failures or future plays, devoting himself to each and every moment of the match: “[The ball’s] just in my hands before I know it, and I’m striking it.” Even his absorption in calming music to prepare for a match is less “mellow,” as he refers to it than it is a sign of great self-awareness, intelligence and intuition. (Sorry to disappoint, but MacGinty’s pre-game playlist is private, so you just have to imagine what kinds of outlandish, zen-inducing tunes are on it.)

AJ MacGinty Hair
Who needs a barber?!

But aside from his humility and steadfast focus, MacGinty exudes lightheartedness and friendliness that is charming and—dare say it—goofy. Also, make sure you get a good look at his hair in upcoming matches—what might be more entertaining than his playing is his attempt to cut his own hair rather than find a local barber. “I’m winging it,” he explained, so of course his teammates tease him for it. But perhaps they should watch their backs: MacGinty admits that while he watches little television say for Game of Thrones, which is “obviously” his favorite show, he really enjoys the prank show Impractical Jokers.

Though MacGinty’s future role with the Eagles remains officially declared, it is unquestionable that the athlete will continue to develop; and contribute to the team. As Eagles fans are continually awestruck by his growth and talent each match, the team’s coaches and members hold great expectations for the young giant. Head coach Mike Tolkin praised the fly-half as “…a fierce competitor who brings good stepping ability along with a strong kicking game to the Eagles.” He added, “I think that soon he will be a much better play-maker and be able to read defenses better and execute a plan for those reads on a regular basis. Patience and some technical improvements will allow him to set up his teammates effectively. That in turn, will make us more dangerous in attack.

Wyles similarly sees a bright future for MacGinty. “I believe he has the potential to be a fantastic 10 for the Eagles moving forward. On that theme and in terms of untapped potential, I think as he continues to play more test matches you will see him managing games extremely well.

With just four caps to date, MacGinty has grown from intriguing to indispensable, from the nervous rookie to the definite number ten selection. One can only wonder where his talents will take him.

aj3We’ll be watching.

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About Kaitlin McCabe 1 Article
Kaitlin McCabe became an unconventional Jersey girl when she realized she’d rather watch rugby than the Yankees or Giants. A former Sports Illustrated intern, she is probably infamous for preaching about the growing significance and popularity of rugby to the editors of the brand’s magazine and website (but in the end, she won and wrote an article about Carlin Isles and the national sevens team.) Between frequently posting banter on Twitter and watching sports, the senior at Hamilton College typically spends her time practicing yoga, reading old books, or training for marathons she never signs up for.