LA Giltinis hero Ryan James (above) is the upbeat example of how far rugby has come for Californian players who can now dream of playing in a Championship final.
The San Diego-born winger, at just 21, will be the youngest player in the Giltinis’ line-up for Sunday’s climax against Rugby ATL at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Just getting to the big dance is all to do with his stunning two-try effort off the bench to help win last weekend’s Western Conference final 17-13 over the Utah Warriors.
“It’s an unreal feeling to be heading to the Championship game,” James said.
“I think if you asked the guys when the Giltinis first came together they would have told you we’d be here. It’s been our goal and our confidence.”
James is the soaring measure of how much the American players on the roster have improved.
Texan John Ryberg (below) barely made a mark from the wing in the opening game in March. Now, he’s skittling five or six tacklers a game, running for big metres and scoring key tries.
James too has been a huge improver.
He won selection in the USA Eagles squad for the first time in July. He showed why with his fast feet to score the game-winner against the Warriors, with superb inter-play with scrumhalf Harrison Goddard on the blindside.
Goddard scooted to the shortside, engaged James with a glance, committed the one Warriors’ defender and set up James with a little space to do his stuff over 30m.
As Giltinis head coach Darren Coleman said: “RJ’s improvement has been amazing since our first pre-season camp in Hawaii.
“He’s got great footwork, he soaks up all the information around him and he’s made a mark at the end of the season when it really counts.”
Blending experience with youthful potential was always part of the Giltinis' plan when assembling the playing roster. James is a beneficiary every day he trains with Canada's four-time World Cup star DTH van der Merwe.
"The biggest improvements I've made have been in my defensive game. DTH is always in my ear at training. If my line as a runner is half a metre too wide he'll tell me," a grateful James said.
Rugby has always been in James' Samoan-American heritage because mother Sonya was raised in rugby-mad New Zealand.
James found the game at 12 but needed perseverance just to pursue the different football code and find his home at the Giltinis.
“It was actually my cousin Kyle (Schuster) who introduced me to the game in 2012 but there were just three of us at the first training. We formed the San Diego Young Aztec Warriors,” James said.
“It was pretty cool for Kyle to be in the stands at the Coliseum for the Western Conference final. Mum and my sisters drove up to be there too.”
The 6’ 0” (1.83m), 190lb (86kg) winger played for the USA Under-20s in 2019 but his Major League Rugby ride was unsettled.
The Giltinis picked up James in this year’s Dispersal Draft of players from the stalled Dallas Jackals lift-off.
“I was in shock when Dallas pulled out of this season because I couldn’t believe it was happening again after the same experience with the Colorado Raptors last year,” James said.
“LA and the west coast is where I wanted to be after spending too much time being cold (in Colorado).”
James is heat on the wing right now for the biggest game in the LA Giltinis’ short history.
The big one! The LA Giltinis face Rugby ATL in Sunday’s Championship final from 1pm (PT) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Tickets start at $10 + service fees.
The match will be broadcast live on CBS in USA and can also be viewed live on The Rugby Network internationally.