More stripes for the UCT back rower?
After trading UCT’s navy and white stripes for the stars and stripes of America last year, Ikey Tigers Varsity Cup captain JJ Gagiano now has the opportunity to don stripes of a different kind; the famous Blue and White hoops of Western Province.
Gagiano – who made his USA Test debut in November 2008 – led UCT with aplomb during the 2009 Varsity Cup, having also captained the side during last year’s inaugural tournament when they topped the log.
The hard-working No.8 certainly impressed new Western Province forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot in the process, with the former Pukke mentor inviting Gagiano to train with Western Province’s 2009 Absa Currie Cup squad.
“Matthew Proudfoot spoke to Dobbo (UCT head coach John Dobson) early on in the league season,” explained Gagiano in conversation with the official In-Site Athlete Management (ISAM) website, “he then gave me a call and asked me to go down to the WP practice ground to have a chat.
“Basically, Matthew made no promises, and I told him about my possible USA commitments, but he’s keen to give me an opportunity to prove myself by training with the WP Currie Cup team.
“He obviously watched me during last year’s Varsity Cup, and this year too, and he sees me as a similar player to Pukke captain Willem van der Wal. He wants to give me a chance for WP, but at this stage it all depends on what happens with the USA.”
Whilst Gagiano has played most of his rugby for UCT over the past two seasons at No.8, Proudfoot sees the former Bishops pupil as a ball-carrying blindside flank – a position that he filled in Western Province Super League action for the Ikey Tigers this past weekend.
“Funnily enough, I actually prefer blindside flank (to No.8), as your role is a lot more defined on the side of the scrum,” said the Ikeys star.
“I know this might sound like a cliché, but I would play in any position in order to play Currie Cup rugby for WP. It doesn’t matter where I play, or who I play against, I will simply be doing my best to justify Matthew’s faith in me thus far.”
Gagiano added: “I’ve certainly not done things the ‘normal’ way… I’ve not played any representative rugby thus far and I’m not the biggest guy around; I’ve had to prove a lot of people wrong to make it into the WP training squad.
“(But) I’m lucky that I now have a chance to realise a boyhood dream of mine and I will certainly make sure I take any chance that comes my way over the next few days, weeks or months in order to tick that box in terms of the goals I have set myself.”
For now, however, Gagiano will continue working in the gym with the WP Currie Cup squad, until the rugby specific training begins next week. He then has to report to America by May 24 ahead of their mid-year Tests against Ireland and Wales, before the Eagles take part in the Churchill Cup (a tournament involving the USA Eagles, Canada, England ‘A’, Ireland ‘A’, Argentina ‘A’ and Georgia) in mid-June.
After the Churchill Cup – depending, of course, that he is involved – Gagiano is also hoping to be part of the USA’s final two Rugby World Cup qualifiers against Canada on July 4 and 11; two matches that will decide the 2011 RWC fate of the Americans.
“There is still loads of training to be done and rugby to be played,” said the unassuming Gagiano. “As I’ve said before, I would play every game of rugby if I could – be it for UCT, Western Province or America, but I have to be patient and see how things work out over the next few weeks.
“If I manage to make the US squad for the Tests against Ireland and Wales, the Churchill Cup and the RWC qualifiers, I would have missed just one Currie Cup match – although that would mean missing out on the opportunity of playing for WP against the touring British & Irish Lions.
“At times like this it’s easy for your mind to wander… and you tend to weigh things up in your mind. I really am lucky in that I have some options, but hopefully everything will fall into place over the next few weeks.”
And, most importantly – according to Gagiano, he is also getting all the right advice from his agent; Kevin Foote of In-Site Athlete Management.
“I’m lucky that Kev has experienced a lot as a player, having captained the SA Sevens side, played Currie Cup rugby and also spending time abroad,” said Gagiano.
“As his client, he is able to give me advice based on his first-hand experience, but, more importantly, we have a great one-on-one relationship away from the game and we both know what we want moving ahead.
“In an ideal world, I’d love to play my rugby down here in Cape Town, what with all my friends and family here too, and carry on playing for the USA – but that is out of my hands at the moment. All I can do right now, is keep my head down and impress the people that matter.”
But right now, and despite a potentially busy playing schedule over the next two months, Gagiano is focused on his commitments with UCT – especially ahead of Saturday’s Intervarsity meeting with Stellenbosch, with the game set to be played at Newlands as a curtain-raiser to the Stormers-Force Super 14 clash.
“The guys are all looking forward to Saturday,” he said. “I’m sure a few people will be watching the game with a keen eye and we’d love nothing more than putting one over Stellenbosch after suffering some close losses (to them) of late.
“It’s quite funny, you know,” added Gagiano, “we’ve had guys like Martin (Muller) and Tiger (Bax) making it into the Stormers side this year, virtually straight from the UCT side, so I think that people at the club, and elsewhere, are slowly but surely realising that UCT are indeed a force to be reckoned with.
“But that’s all down to Dobbo (John Dobson) and Fleckie (Robbie Fleck)… As coaches they’ve created a great environment at the club and we’re all very proud to go out there and represent UCT, especially ahead of games against Stellenbosch at Newlands.”