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'They already love rugby': Former Ulster star David Busby on falling for Seattle and seeing his American dream put on hold

 

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Former Ulster player David Busby has kept a hold of his kit bag. Credit:Quinn Width/Seattle Seawolves

Former Ulster player David Busby has kept a hold of his kit bag. Credit:Quinn Width/Seattle Seawolves

Former Ulster player David Busby has kept a hold of his kit bag. Credit:Quinn Width/Seattle Seawolves

As he boarded the flight for Seattle this winter David Busby had with him only as much rugby gear as he could stuff into his old Ulster kit bag.

Anything else, he figured, could be picked up on the other side. The Portadown native and now former Ulster player had good reason to figure it would all take care of itself. After all, it had to this point.

Back then, only those carefully monitoring events in China had heard of Covid-19.

Rewind some 12 months or so and he could have been forgiven for feeling like the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

A torn ACL in the pre-season of 2018 - the second of his career - could have hardly come at a worse time. An injury the mere mention of which is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any player was set to rule him out for at least nine months, worse still he was in the last year of his contract at Kingspan Stadium.

An age-grade Irish international, who played in an under-20s Six Nations alongside the likes of Garry Ringrose and Dan Leavy, he’d made a try-scoring debut for Les Kiss's Ulster in 2017 but only three appearances had followed since. Now, it wasn’t clear whether there’d be another.

“It was scary times,” he recalls. “It’s a really difficult thing, all that uncertainty.

“I suppose what I tried to do - all you can do - is take the attitude that I’ll deal with things the best way I can, whatever happens, happens.”

What did happen was enough to make the long and arduous road of rehabilitation alongside Luke Marshall, himself an ACL victim about a month prior, seem worthwhile. Returning to fitness ahead of schedule in the colours of Ballynahinch was enough to ensure a farewell appearance in an Ulster jersey against Leinster in the final game of last season. More exciting still, there was the offer of a new challenge in the United States with the Seattle Seawolves.

 

“Being able to play that last game of last season against Leinster after being out for so long, that was pretty emotional for me," says the 26-year-old.

“My Ulster career was pretty frustrating really with injuries and whatnot but that was special and something I’ll always remember, especially to get back with Luke Marshall playing too.

“Lukey, he’ll not admit to it but I’d say we’re pretty good friends now after going through something like that together and spending all that time together. That’s one positive I suppose.”

After waving goodbye to his native province, like many who’d gone before him a move to England was on the cards before he got wind of the opportunity in Seattle where the two-time Major League Rugby champions have Fermanagh native Adrian Balfour in place as general manager.

“It was through Bryn (Cunningham, Ulster Operations Director), he had the contact,” says Busby.

“There was the thing in England but when I got the interest here it just felt like something that I couldn’t turn down.

“I met the team last May for a training week and I got on really well with the lads and that really made my mind up.

“I've settled in really quickly, living with a few players who are just a good bunch of people.”

Having spent a gap year in Australia, Busby had experience of being far from his nearest and dearest but had never set foot in Seattle before venturing out to join his new club. Quickly though, he felt at home.

The city that gave us Starbucks and the original java snobs Niles and Frasier Crane has plenty of spots to sit for a cup of coffee and watch the world go by, while the Pacific Northwest has proven a perfect blend of bustling metropolis and the great outdoors.

“Where we are, we’re so close to the city but also the lakes, and the mountains, and all these hiking trails," he says.

“For me I just like cycling around or even heading downtown, there’s loads of places to just sit and chill and see a bit of the city.

“It’s been such an easy transition to make. There’s not a single complaint I could have about life over here. I mean, the weather is obviously pretty bad, in January it rained every day, but even that made it feel a lot like Belfast.”

Home never felt too far away with former team-mates and familiar faces like Andy Warwick, Alan O'Connor and Dave Shanahan still in regular contact, while his parents had visited just before flights were grounded two weeks ago, getting to take in two Seawolves home games as well as the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and the Boeing Factory.

While there were a few early visa hiccups and bouts of jet-lag to contend with, on the playing side too, things had been going as hoped as game upon game was stacked back-to-back. While a record of four losses compared to one win is not what the burgeoning fan-base at Starfire Stadium has become accustomed to, already Busby has managed as many games for his new side as he ever did for Ulster.

There’s been a sprinkling of stardust too, leading to his “surreal” experience of lining up against legendary All Black Ma’a Nonu on his Seawolves debut, while Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira has been an opponent too. A trip to New York and Mathieu Bastareaud was meant to be next.

"For me, I just wanted to play as much as I can," he says. "The travel was something that really attracted me, we've been to San Diego and Washington D.C already and it's been good to experience a different style of rugby. It's a league that is very physical, there's a lot of big boys. We only got through five games so it wasn't a lot but it was great."

He's been impressed by the local passion too. The Seawolves sell out their season tickets while an average crowd of 4,000 is greater than some in the lower reaches in the PRO14. A squad that boasts six Canadian internationals - Busby's former Ulster team-mate Pete Nelson was due to be a seventh - has caught the imagination, the hometown paper in a city famed for birthing the likes of Amazon dubbing the organisation "Seattle's hottest new start-up."

"When you think of sports here, rugby wouldn't be first but I was told that we had the best fans in the league and you can definitely see it.

"There's a lot of people who already love it. There's probably a lot of people too that don't have a clue what's going on half the time but there's something about the intensity of it all that has them hooked. The atmosphere where we play at Starfire is great compared to the other grounds and meeting the fans after the games, even though it's all new, they invest so much and they already love the sport."

Last week, though, everything changed. As virus became pandemic and concern became a state of emergency, Busby watched on as things in his new home screeched to a halt. The state of Washington was viewed as the epicentre of the outbreak in the USA and, as of the last announcement, the death toll there stood at 95 from almost 2,000 cases. The first place in the country to make moves to limit large gatherings and close schools, Seattle has taken on an eerie feel, those same attractions that were bustling just two weeks ago when Busby brought his parents now left virtually undisturbed.

“It’s been strange," he says." For us, none of the team have got it or anything thankfully.

"But downtown in the city just became a ghost town like overnight. It’s something else.

“All the bars have been shut, all the shops. There’s nobody around. It's crazy times. I guess it's just about trying to stay safe and stay healthy.

"The advice that we were given as a team was to stay indoors and stay away from public places.”

Such isolation was to become much more straightforward last week when the squad were informed that the MLR was to be put in lockdown. The 2020 campaign was over. For players such as Busby in the still nascent league, the abrupt stoppage feels akin to limbo.

"It's still fresh, I still haven't really got my head around it," he says. "It's still a case of trying to figure out what I'm going to do. At first it was a 30-day stoppage and even that was a big shock originally.

"But we had planned to keep training, keep things ticking over, and then all of a sudden the whole thing is cancelled too.

"It's all happened so quickly over here, things really did start to change so fast and when they did it was a different picture daily. That's been hard to adjust to. As soon as you get your head around one thing, then something else happens."

Flights home have been cancelled but Busby is content to stay state-side for the time being. While he’ll return to this part of the world when he can, he’s already thinking about when he’ll be back in Seattle.

“I’ll get home eventually but I’ll be here for a bit longer,” he says. “Hopefully there’ll be a plan soon for next season, the pre-season, what’s going to happen, that sort of thing.

“But I suppose we just have to wait and see, time will tell and we’ll see what happens.

“But it's something I know that I definitely want to be a part of again.”

His American dream not over, merely on hold.

Belfast Telegraph