By Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Recently, USA Rugby announced the sevens squad for the last two World Series stops in London and Edinburgh. This sevens squad press release, combined with the published U.S. national team 2011 Churchill Cup squad officially confirms the return of Mike Palefau to international rugby. What isn’t stated in these two communications is the entire Palefau story. In the summer of 2004, as a recently reduced national team staff, we were stretched thin but determined to continue to seek out the best players in domestic club competitions capable of representing the United States. As the national team head coach, scheduling demands required me to deputize former Eagle and trusted friend Gary Hein. He travelled to Park City, Utah to observe and videotape a sevens competition on behalf of the national team.
As was our standard practice, after Gary’s return, I pored over hours of match video, aligning playing rosters to matches that had been captured on tape. It was then, in a fairly ordinary sevens pool match, that I witnessed a young, athletic looking unknown player get around a defender in a space no bigger than a phone booth. I was shocked by how quick and explosive this player was and rewound the moment a dozen times to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me after hours of video review.
It was in that moment that I found Mike Palefau.
Mike’s rise to the national team, both as a sevens player and full capped international, isn’t unique per se, but is noteworthy. Here was Palefau, a young division one double A college defensive back with above average athleticism playing on an otherwise unremarkable team in a fairly unimpressive weekend competition. How did he progress from this beginning to scoring three tries in his first five test matches?
There was a convergence of two significant factors. The first was that Mike joined a mature national team squad, where he was surrounded by a culture populated with fellow national team players that were very professional in their preparations and performance.
The second significant factor was that because Mike was such a good athlete, he improved dramatically when placed within a systematic approach to the game. This approach helped to exploit his athletic prowess while minimizing his lack of experience. These two factors, combined with Mike’s willingness to learn and work hard, led to his opportunity to become a professional rugby player.
Palefau’s rugby career hasn’t been seamless. He has had to make the difficult decisions that many American internationals have had to make regarding his availability for selection. I have a lot of admiration for Mike and the decisions that he has made. He was honest with himself and made decisions based on what was best for his family, not his ego.
Now back in both national team camps, Mike has a chance to push himself into selection consideration for the upcoming Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. If selected to the thirty-man World Cup roster, this experienced wing could provide valuable professional rugby experience to young players on the squad.
In addition, Mike would bring his maturity and life experiences to the team, promoting the same kind of professional team culture that he was first exposed to six years ago.
I hope he makes it. I will be rooting for that young, evasive player I first watched play six years ago.
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