Hayden Smith aims high in rugby return

Bullaburra native Hayden Smith tackles a Canadian opponent during the USA Eagles 38-35 Test match win in Sacramento, California on June 21. Photo: Kelley L Cox (KLC fotos)

Bullaburra native Hayden Smith tackles a Canadian opponent during the USA Eagles 38-35 Test match win in Sacramento, California on June 21. Photo: Kelley L Cox (KLC fotos)

Hayden Smith believes he is not far from reaching the form he showed for powerhouse London-based rugby club Saracens and the USA Eagles prior to his headline-generating 2012-13 season playing American Football for the New York Jets.

The 28-year-old Bullaburra native told the Gazette last week the hardest part of switching back from the stop-start rhythm of NFL to running rugby was regaining fitness and endurance levels.

"It takes time to do that - slowly but surely I've been increasing my fitness to where it needs to be and it's definitely becoming easier," he said.

"I was fortunate to get back into both squads (Saracens and USA Eagles) as quickly as I did and play in a handful of premiership games and three Tests in the last few months, which was pleasing."

The 202cm second-rower earned his 20th cap for his adopted homeland for the Eagles' 27-all draw against Uruguay in Montevideo on March 22.

And last month he played in two out of three of America's home summer Test series - a 24-6 loss to Scotland in front of 20,000 fans in Houston and a thrilling 38-35 victory in scorching conditions over arch-rivals Canada at a packed Bonney Field in Sacramento - drawing praise from head coach Mike Tolkin.

"It was great to have him back - Hayden brings a lot to the table in ability, knowledge and pride," Tolkin said.

Smith said there were big celebrations in the Eagles' camp after their triumph over Canada.

"The team was on a high because it's been eight Tests since we'd beaten them. The last time was in 2009 and I played in that, so it was really special."

Smith said rugby is growing in popularity in America, especially at the grass roots and he takes great pride in wearing the Eagles' jersey.

"I feel very lucky to be able to represent America because it has played a big part in my life.

"I lived there for eight years and it's where m story - my professional career - all started."

"The next game I play for the Eagles will be in November against the All Blacks at Soldier Field, the home ground of the NFL's Chicago Bears.

"I'm pumped - that ground can fit 60,000 people and will be a sell-out, so it will be the biggest crowd to watch a rugby game in America."

Smith said Saracens had a very successful season in 2013-14 (they were Aviva Premiership and Heineken Cup finalists) with a disappointing end.

His goal for next season (which starts in September) is "to play as many games for them as possible.

"The club has a very strong squad, so I'll be working as hard as I can to do that.

"I'm also looking forward to playing in the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and Wales and I think we (USA) are capable of winning a couple of games in our pool."

When asked if his longer term plans included playing for an Australian-based Super Rugby club, Smith said "I'm currently contracted to Saracens, so that's my focus (for 2014-15).

"But you never know what will happen in the future."

That's an attitude that continues to serve him well.

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