WHANGANUI, 4 Sept. - USA players battled up the Whanganui River in Maori waka (canoes) on Sunday as they received a traditional welcoming ceremony from the North Island community.
Earlier security concerns were washed away when about 5,000 locals lined the river to cheer their adopted team. (The Eagles were initially scheduled to partake in the boating welcoming, but canceled last week due to security concerns.)
The crowd waved USA flags to welcome their guests, some sported "I love NY" T-shirts and a band even managed a few bars of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama before the Eagles landed at the Union Boat Club.
The gathering was all the more remarkable as Whanganui has a population of just 45,000, and prop Mike McDonald could not wipe the smile from his face as he emerged, soaking wet, from the waka.
"To see what it means to these people is amazing," he said. "I had no idea what to expect, and we're just overwhelmed."
His equally wet-looking teammate Hayden Smith was happy to be back on solid ground. "We were just trying to stay on top of our rowing performance," he said. "It was a bit all over the place at the beginning."
No change of sport
Despite the successful river outing, he is not about to consider swapping rugby for rowing. "Not a chance," he said. "That would be a disgrace for rowing."
Being "chucked out by one of my teammates" would still be more comfortable than having to squeeze into a narrow waka, he added.
Mike McDonald, who will become the USA's most-capped player if he takes the field against Ireland on September 11 in their Pool C opening match, said he would always remember the people of Whanganui.
"I just appreciate everything the community has done for us," he said. "It's somewhere I can really feel at home."
Earlier in the afternoon, the Eagles took part in a traditional Maori welcome ceremony at the Putaki Marae (meeting area), where they mingled with locals and posed for photographs.
The feel-good nature of the afternoon was lauded by RWC 2011 director Oregan Hoskins, who urged the USA players to make the most of their time in rugby-mad Whanganui.
“Being at a function like this allows us to see the real New Zealand, it’s really fantastic," he said. "Enjoy your stay, play to the best of your ability - which is what Americans always do. This experience will be etched on your hearts for the rest of your lives.”