After the final whistle went in the USA’s hard-bitten 13-6 win over Russia last Thursday, Eagle players threw their arms in the air, some jumped on each other. Lock John van der Giessen, who had put in as much physical effort as anyone, dropped to the ground, and stayed there, staring at the grass, overwhelmed.
The whistle came just moments after van der Giessen chased down Victor Gresev to help stop a possible disaster at the end. The lock simply didn’t have anything left.
“Playing Ireland four days prior on a very important day and then bringing the same amount of emotion and physicality to the Russia match took its toll,” van der Giessen told RUGBYMag.com. “Dropping down to my knees for a few moments was a reflection of what I was feeling after the final whistle.”
What he should have been feeling was pride. Van der Giessen was a tower of strength in the game. He stole several lineouts, often without a lifter - instead launching himself skyward to deny Russia precious possession. He made a pile of tackles, including that last one on Gresev, but usually more in tight. And he was simply an inspiration.
The lineouts were hugely important, as several came when the Eagles were deep in their own zone. His jumps were remeniscient of USA stalwarts Alec Parker and Luke Gross, and in fact van der Giessen has taken some pointers from those players.
“Competing in the lineout is very important to the US pack,” the current Utah Warrior said. “We feel we can compete with world class lineouts and we train accordingly. As a second row, I pride myself in being a pest in the lineout and I want to take every ball that the opposition throws in. Alec and Luke have worked with me over the years. [But] I have picked up little things from dozens of top flight second rows through teammates, opposition and video analysis.”
He’s picked up a few other things, too, namely a few pounds. Van der Giessen, who has played in New Zealand, Australia, France, and the UK as well as the USA, could have been described as skinny, or possibly rangy, when he first started with the Eagles. But now he is significantly bulkier, and on a team that prides itself on presenting a tough, physical defensive front.
“My time at Bath was the beginning of a new era for me physically,” explained van der Giessen. “Dave Williams has also been a major influence on improving my conditioning since being with the US team. I checked in at 220 for my first camp in 2007.”
He’s now over 250, and almost all of that muscle, especially concentrated in his arms and shoulders, where he just flat looks different.
“There is always something new to learn in strength and conditioning,” added the lock, who claimed his 20th cap last Thursday. “For me, nutrition was a major focus and in my opinion is the most important component of training. You can train until you are blue in the face but if you are not eating the right things at the right times you have lost most of what you have been working for.”
That strength comes to full use in the defense van der Giessen and others have shown this World Cup, and in the scrum and lineout. But the mind is important, as well
“It is attitudinal for us,” he said. “We want to put people on their backs. As far as not over-committing, we train hard to recognize opportunities and when to be patient. Smart defense goes a long way. Scrum time is another attitudinal thing [too] where all eight have to front up. If one person takes a scrum off, we all suffer. We are a tight-knit group and there isn't a guy in the pack that will take a rest in a scrum when seven others are working hard on the job.”