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Peter Jackson column: James Bird swoops into pole position with Eagles

James BirdGoalkicking fly-halves turned out mob-handed for the opening round of the Six Nations, all nine of them. How wonderful to report that a relatively unknown Welshman outpointed every single one during America’s version of the real thing.

James Bird is unique among Test No.10’s for more than one reason, not least because he has taken a road never travelled before – from Hammersmith & Fulham RFC to the Land of the Free, from Hurlingham Park to a Major Soccer League stadium in Houston, Texas.

By wrapping him up in the Stars and Stripes and claiming him as one of their own, the Americans have turned the Welsh Bird into a fully-fledged Eagle, one of their elite taking off on the long haul to the next World Cup in Japan.

Britain’s newest international made a stirring start, outscoring an imposing array of opposite numbers on this side of the pond – Jules Plisson (France), Carlo Canna and Kelly Haimona (Italy), George Ford (England), Finn Russell (Scotland), Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland (Wales), Johnny Sexton and Ian Madigan (Ireland).

Bird soared through his Eagles debut, contributing six goals in their 35-35 draw against an Argentina XV before almost 11,000 in Houston. As due reward, America’s new head coach, the former All Black John Mitchell, picked the 27-year-old rookie for his first capped match in the early hours of this morning, against Canada in central Texas.

How Bird came to be wearing Uncle Sam’s red, white and blue at the Dell Diamond baseball stadium in a town called Round Rock is some story, one the Welshman told the other evening on the coach taking the Eagles along Interstate 10 west of Houston to the team’s overnight base in Austin.

The journey began in his native Cardiff at the same time as Sam Warburton’s, from the same primary school team through the ranks of the same junior club in the same northern suburb, Rhiwbina RFC, aka The Squirrels.

“Sam spent all his time in those early days playing soccer because he wanted to be a footballer,’’ Bird said. “I asked him one day at primary school to come along to a rugby training session, just to give it a try and see what he thought. He and his twin, Ben, played in the centre and from that day on, there was no looking back.

“Sam and I went through the youth teams at Rhiwbina together and the Cardiff Blues set-up until we were 18. At that stage I had a place at Bristol University but took a year out in New Zealand, playing rugby in Otago.

“I came back and did my three years at Bristol. The rugby was of a very high standard but it was still university rugby and by then I’d kind of given up on the idea of rugby as a full-time career.

“I moved to London to start work in management consultancy with Price Waterhouse Coopers. I played half-a-season with Hammersmith and Fulham in the London/South East Division but it was all pretty casual.

“Then I got the chance of a six-month job in New York with the same company.   I absolutely loved the job and the place.    Six months turned into a year, the year turned into three and I became eligible to play for America last month.

“I’d joined the Old Blue club in New York and before long the Eagles’ high-performance people were asking when I’d be eligible. That happened on the 10th of January and we got going straight away.

“As soon as I got into the Eagles camp, I felt comfortable. I love America. I feel so at home here so it’s only natural that I should make America my home. So to play for my adopted country is such an honour.’’

His first task in Houston last Saturday was to get to grips with the Star Spangled Banner. “That was one of the first questions my brothers asked,’’ he said. “I’d started to learn the words but, luckily, they were up on a big screen for everyone to see.

“To be honest, I got lost in the moment. It was a really emotional day for all the right reasons and now I’m looking forward to another brand new experience of playing in a baseball stadium.

“I mean, this time last year I was having breakfast in a bar in New York and watching Wales at the same time.    Now I can watch the Six Nations over there in the morning and play in our Six Nations in the evening. The whole thing is unique.’’

His old friends, including Warburton and England Sevens captain Tom Mitchell, had gone out of their way to wish him well, to make sure he ‘enjoyed the moment’.

The Squirrel who sprouted wings and became an Eagle ensured that nothing would mar the occasion, not even a missed penalty to win the match from a difficult angle.

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