Where Eagles dare
Like a cat stretching out on a veranda, ironing out the kinks and the creases, New Zealand is slowly easing off the last vestiges of winter, so that when I opened my curtains this morning I was greeted by a blazing sun and uninterrupted blue skies - not a single long white cloud in sight. I'm not sure if Dulux do a colour called 'screamer', but surely this would be it.
From Nelson's Tahunanui Beach, speckled with families wielding buckets and spades, you can look out across Tasman Bay and see the white-peaked Arthur Range. To this Englishman, at least, it is a view that scrambles the senses - golden beaches and snow-capped mountains do not belong in the same view together. At least not in Romford.
Opposite Trafalgar Park in the middle of town is Club Italia, the centre of the Italian community in Nelson. The Italians have been here for more than a hundred years, lured by fertile soil and a climate similar to that back in their native land. Out front, two old boys do what old Italians do, drink coffee and wave their hands. When they speak, they do so in a mixture of Italian and Kiwi, so that God only knows how they pronounce 'grissini'.
Tahunanui Beach and Tasman Bay provide a mesmerising backdrop for visitors to Nelson. Picture: Ben Dirs
Strolling down Haven Road, I happen across a member of the Italian squad having a chinwag with a couple of United States Eagles. It is a sweet snapshot of an intimate World Cup but another slightly incongruous scene: on Tuesday, these three will be doing battle back over at Trafalgar, shaking up a cocktail made from each others' blood, sweat and tears.
"That's pretty much the way of USA rugby," says Eagles flanker Inaki Basauri, "you don't know how you end up there but you somehow do. Practically every day I ask myself that question: what the hell am I doing here?"
While it is true the route into the United States rugby team is a circuitous one for many, Basauri's story is more curious, and for that reason more inspiring, than most.
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Basauri moved to Washington DC when he was eight, where the rapidly-expanding kid learned to play American Football at Walt Whitman High School - shoe-horned into the team's defensive line, or as Basauri puts it, "just clogging up a hole".
Aged 15, an Italian friend - Italians are a recurring theme in this story - dragged Basauri along to training with Maryland Exiles, where the hulking but awkward teenager - shock of shocks - was allowed to run with the ball.
"It was very confusing and I was lost," says Basauri, now 26. "All I knew is they wanted me to run with the ball and hit as many people as possible. But going from clogging up a hole to running over people and jumping in the line-out, all while wearing just a pair of shorts and a jersey, it was very liberating, and much more enjoyable."
While Basauri could handle the knocks, the fitness aspect scared him - and, like many of us when we first take up a sport, he thought he was "horrible". "That was the first time I'd even seen anyone play the game," he says. "I was really out of shape and didn't even know how to pass the ball."
USA flanker Inaki Basauri revels at running with the ball: "Anyone can play this sport!" Photo: Getty
Enter that Hollywood staple, the hard-bitten sports coach with an eye for kids from the wrong side of the tracks. "Dan Soso was very good at getting the right players playing the game," says Basauri. "So he'd call at my house, come and pick me up for practice in the morning, he was a pretty persistent guy."
Basauri could not have been as horrible as he thought, because within a year of first picking up a rugby ball he found himself training with current skipper Todd Clever as part of the United States under-19s squad. "Mark Bullock, the coach at the time, recruited me and asked if I wanted to go and play in the world championships in Italy," says Basauri. "And that's when I started to think, 'I could do something with this'."
A year later, Basauri played in the under-19s world championships in France, where he was spotted by third division Parisian feeder club Massy. "I didn't speak any French, and nobody spoke English at the club, so I had to pick up the language very quick," says Basauri.
"The game was a lot faster, they were very dynamic in the forwards and I was still learning how to handle the ball and run good lines and play defence. But it wasn't until I went overseas to France that I started getting confident in my game."
After Massy, Basauri had stints at Agen and CA Lannemezan and made his debut for the full United States team in 2007, before being selected for that year's World Cup. And now, having just switched from Italian side L'Aquila to French D2 team Perigueux, he is back with the big boys in New Zealand. Not really knowing how he ended up here, but at least knowing he was right: that he could do something with this once mysterious game.
"It just goes to show, anyone can play this sport, no matter where you are from or at what age you pick up the ball," says Basauri. "And there's no other sport better to teach you how to become a man and a responsible human being.
"You can travel, learn about new cultures, pick up new languages, meet new people. I know if I go to any club in the world they'll have a bed for me and a cold pint. It's a beautiful game and if you're passionate about it and work hard, you can end up playing in a World Cup for your country."