Facing France has extra importance for US prop Eric Fry

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              The United States players bow to the crowd following the Rugby World Cup Pool C game at Kobe Misaki Stadium against England in Kobe, Japan, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. England won 45-7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) — Facing France at the Rugby World Cup on Wednesday has extra importance for veteran United States prop Eric Fry.

The 32-year-old from California has been playing his club rugby in the second-tier Pro D2 league in France with Brittany-based team Vannes since 2016.

“It’s a very special game for me. I’ve been immersed in the culture there,” he said Tuesday. “Going back in three or four weeks, I want to look those guys in the eyes and show them I gave everything I got (and) gave France a run for their money.”

Three-time runner-up France won its opening Pool C match, a 23-21 thriller against Argentina, and is seeking to gain momentum. True to form France still made 12 changes for its second group game — including the entire pack — but Fry is not expecting a lesser challenge.

“Regardless of the front row they’ve put out, they’re always going to be testing us in the scrums. Same with the lineout mauls. It’s something we’re preparing for and we’re going to meet it head on,” he said. “I think they’re a very dangerous team. When they’re on, they’re extremely good. They can play from all parts of the field, have a great set piece and I’m sure they drew a lot of confidence from the last game.”

Fry, who also played in the 2011 World Cup, wins his 46th test cap on Wednesday. He’s unlikely to be fazed by the challenge, considering how topsy-turvy his career path has taken him since the early days playing rugby for the University of California in Berkeley.

“I attended Cal Berkeley and then a short stint in Las Vegas. Went to New Zealand, played there, which gave me enough credibility to go to England. And then from England back to the States for a little bit,” he said. “At the end of my stint in England I was looking to play in France, so I had my agents looking there and Saint-Nazaire was the only opportunity that showed up. Luckily Vannes had an injury that season right when Saint-Nazaire was going bankrupt (so) I was able to pick up a contract at Vannes.”

Fry had to learn the language.

Actually make that two languages because in Vannes — a small coastal town of 56,000 inhabitants — they also speak local Breton.

“That was a big goal of mine, one of the reasons I wanted to go to France was to experience a different culture — inside and outside of rugby — and learn another language,” Fry said. “They even threw in the Brittany language a bit on the lineout calls, so there was a little bit of (another) language in there … I loved it and I found my way, it’s made me a much better player.”

The U.S. Eagles landed in a very tough World Cup group, losing their opening game 45-7 to 2003 champion England and with two-time semifinalist Argentina to follow, then tough-tackling Tonga.

But the team is embracing a wider goal of developing rugby back home, where Major League Rugby is just beginning.

There are 12 teams split into two the Western and Eastern conference. The Seattle Seawolves have won the two championships so far, defeating San Diego Legion this year and the Colorado-based Glendale Raptors last year.

“Our goal is to inspire young people in America to pick up a ball, outside in the front garden like we would have done,” said U.S. assistant coach Greg McWilliams, an Irishman from Dublin.

“Certainly the MLR is a chance for us to showcase the game, so if you’re able to inspire young people with your attitude and energy out on the field that’s the most important thing,” he added. “How these boys wear the jersey, how they carry themselves, how they play with a smile is so important for that young kid to want to be the next Bryce Campbell or the next Eric Fry.”

Campbell, who scored a late consolation try against England, starts the game at center.

“I was a young kid in the US where I wasn’t able to see a rugby match, and once I did I feel in love with it,” he said. “I just want kids, like I was, to see us and hopefully be where we are one day and do even better things.”