Palamo buoyed by USA's growing rugby intelligence

The Eagles centre has watched his compatriots develop a deeper understanding of the sport as players discover it at a younger age.

FUKUOKA, 28 Sep – By rights, Thretton Palamo should be playing in his fourth World Cup if he comes off the bench against France on Wednesday. But it will only be his third.

He succumbed to a fit of common sense before Rugby World Cup 2011 and missed the tournament in New Zealand after accepting a college scholarship to play American football and complete his education.

"It's obviously a privilege to get that opportunity and do four, it's just that another opportunity arose at that time so I got my education in," he said.

"I think all athletes are always worried about what's coming next. That's usually the No.1 topic around coffee - what are we doing after rugby? I've got my degree now, so I kind of have a little bit of ease in my mind."

USA centre Palamo was the youngest player at Rugby World Cup 2007 in France. He is one of just 15 players from that tournament who have made it to Japan 12 years later.

Palamo was 19 when he played in the USA's first RWC 2007 match against South Africa, which the Eagles lost 64-15. He has just turned 31 and says understanding of the game has grown in the USA side over the years.

"I grew up knowing the game from watching it, so in 2007 it was a little weird seeing a lot of my team-mates who were a little unsure of the rules," he said.

"That plays a huge part in the game because your reaction time is only with what you know. We had athletes - that was never an issue - but the rugby intelligence was a little bit behind.

"Definitely you're seeing the change now. A lot of kids are getting a lot more game time at a younger age. You can see that their bodies are a lot more fluent in the movement of the game. It is different to, say, American football or basketball."

Palamo puts the speed of learning in other countries down to an increased frequency of matches at club level.

"It's repetition. Overseas they play week in and week out. You see certain things so much that it becomes second nature.

"You see a play that's happened over and over again and you can almost anticipate what’s going to happen next. Whereas in the States, we're still trying to get that game time."

Palamo featured in RWC 2015, below, when the US finished bottom of their pool without registering a point. But his inclusion in the 2019 USA squad was anything but a foregone conclusion. Two years ago, he was considering life after rugby having broken his foot several times.

"To be called into the World Cup squad, that caught me off-guard. I wasn’t sure if I was in the running.

"I was approached by the coaches saying, 'would I like to give it a shot'? I thought, 'why not'? Coming to the end of it, you might as well go as hard as you can. I've got older brothers, too, and they're all in the work world and they were all telling me to go for as long as I can. That's what helped me push myself to doing it."

Following their 45-7 defeat by England on Thursday, USA have had to say goodbye to young prop David Ainu'u, who was injured in the third minute of the match. Chance Wenglewski will join the squad in Japan in his place.

Will Hooley and Paul Lasike continue their recoveries after taking knocks in that match, with both still to return to training.

RNS nh/sg/ar/bo