Abdull Patterson, 19, who picked up a rugby ball for the first time a year ago, has been selected to represent the Cayman Islands at the iconic Hong Kong Rugby Sevens Tournament.
Crowds of 40,000 will witness the skills of a young Caymanian on the same stage that has seen such greats of the game as Jonah Lomu, George Gregan and Lawrence Dallaglio.
The youngest of eight siblings, Patterson was always an outstanding athlete. His first loves were soccer (he represented West Bay Select Under-17s when only 15) and swimming, where he excelled in freestyle and backstroke. But in February 2015, he was looking for a new challenge, together with his friend Maurice McLaughlin.
“Maurice had a cousin who was playing women’s rugby and mentioned that the Under-19 team was looking for players,” said Patterson. “We turned up to a session. Everyone else there had played before, but it just felt great. I loved the stepping and the passing.”
Patterson was familiar with American football, so the lack of padding made tackling daunting at first, but Richard Adams, coach of the Borrelli Walsh Cayman National Sevens, said Patterson’s tackling in the recent tournament in Las Vegas is one of his strongest suits.
“He’s the quickest guy we have selected for Hong Kong, but his bravery in the tackle really stood out,” Adams said.
Patterson lives with his brother in West Bay, so reaching training at the Rugby Club in South Sound has presented a challenge, but Patterson caught rides from friends or, within a short period, teammates.
“Initially, if Maurice couldn’t give me a lift to a session, I couldn’t train,” Patterson said. “But then everyone at the Rugby Club helped out so much.”
After training three times a week, it was a blow when Patterson rolled his ankle and had to miss the first competitive game for which he had been selected. However, he quickly bounced back and made his debut for Cayman Under-19s against a touring side from Bishop Shanahan High School in Pennsylvania, playing on the wing where he could use his quick pace to devastating effect.
Within weeks he had been selected to travel to the Bahamas on a Cayman youth tour. The only problem was funding the trip as the Cayman Rugby Union has limited financial resources. Patterson, though, was determined to make it happen.
“I made personal sponsorship sheets and went around collecting. A lot of the other rugby parents helped out, particularly Stuart Bostock of The Security Centre. I was so grateful because the tour helped me to meet lots of guys and understand the social side of rugby.”
Patterson is in his final year of an associate degree in electrical engineering at the University College of the Cayman Islands, and by the time his course finishes in the summer, rugby will have taken him to many destinations.
Shortly after the tour to the Bahamas, the Cayman Under-19s traveled to Orlando for the North America and Caribbean Championships and Patterson went with them.
In the first half of the first game, Cayman were overwhelmed by Trinidad and Tobago.
“It was really fast-paced rugby,” Patterson said, “and we had to learn very quickly.”
They did, and won not only the second half (though, not by enough to take the game), but every subsequent match of the tournament.
The pace of Patterson’s own development was such that Justin Wight, youth development manager at the Cayman Rugby Football Union, suggested that he should attend training for the Borrelli Walsh National Sevens.
“The first sevens training sessions were way harder than 15-a-side,” said Patterson. The only thing more difficult for him has been the fitness regime imposed by strength and conditioning coach Dave Clancy in the lead-up to Las Vegas. The training featured regular sessions at World Gym where his membership was sponsored by the Rugby Union’s treasurer, Guy Major.
“The worst thing was trying to do sprints while wearing an altitude training mask [Las Vegas is at an altitude of 2,000 feet],” Patterson said, the memory of the pain enough to draw a grimace. “But it has been worth it and I’m so thankful. I’m faster and fitter now than ever.”
The final hurdle before Hong Kong was the trip to Las Vegas for which individual sponsorship came from Kramer Bell and Dave Sherwin.
“It was so exciting to see the best teams and players in the world,” Patterson said.
“Watching Perry Baker, Carlin Isles and Bryan Habana just made me want to be even quicker.”
Given that USA’s Isles hopes to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio as a 100-meter sprinter, Patterson is setting himself the same high standards in his sport as he does in life.
“I plan to work for a year after finishing school and then do a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering,” he said.
Before that, though, he is looking forward to playing the 15-a-side game over the summer and hopes to be selected for the RHSW National Men’s XV in their World Cup qualifiers against Bahamas, Bermuda and Mexico.