by Tom Billups
It is interesting to hear claims that players do not receive a fair “shot “ at making the National Team. I couldn’t disagree more. I have always thought speaking about yourself is boring, but I have been encouraged to share my journey over the past 22 years with you because it speaks to our selection process and my belief in the integrity of that process.
Mine was a typical Midwest rugby upbringing I am sure. The rugby was competitive, but social. The seven - hour each direction road trips to the Twin Cities for a league match were time to explain the rules and it was not unusual to travel up with only 12-13 players, as some found it difficult to make the 4:30 am departure from Denny’s parking lot.
An international match in Chicago sparked my desire to play representative level rugby. The Midwest Thunderbirds played Japan at Winnemac Stadium. It was a hard and skilled match, played faster than anything I had ever seen. I had a new standard to aspire to.
Eagles were extremely rare in the Midwest. You could find them everywhere along the Mississippi River, but not on the rugby field. Fred Schofield was the first player I ever heard referred to as an Eagle. I never met him, but I have forever in my memory the black and white photo that was on the cover of an old Irish touring program
Emil Signes was the USA men’s sevens coach, and he held a trials weekend in Arizona each January. The prize was making the Eagle team to Hong Kong, then the only truly international sevens event. It was the Big Show. I ran outside everyday through the Midwest winter in hopes of not embarrassing myself at the camp. I could count on one hand the number of Midwest players that had played in Hong Kong. During that first camp in ’88 I was clearly in over my head, and in awe to a certain degree. I wasn’t selected to the national team, but did earn an invitation to my first international tournament, the Melrose Sevens.
Melrose is a single elimination tournament, and I wasn’t selected for the first match or second match, which we lost. I had crossed an ocean, and not played a minute of rugby. But my experience in Scotland gave me even more fuel to train harder and to become a student of 7’s. When the invitation to the 7’s camp came around again after playing for my Irish club, and the Midwest at the 7’s ITT’s, I was better prepared.
The selectors would huddle in a hotel room after the final trials match on Sunday afternoon. The players would wait in the lobby bar for the squad announcement. As the team list was read, and my name called, my screen went blank. I called my parents from the airport, and although they had no idea what the Hong Kong 7’s was, or why I was so emotional, I think they understood that it was important to me.
I didn’t make the 7’s team in 1990. I wasn’t as good as some of the other players there, especially Jim Burgett. He was a tremendously gifted rugby player, who played a game similar to mine, but he had a better swerve and chip kick. I never had a chip kick. I was gutted, but knew that I had to continue to improve if I ever wanted to go back to Hong Kong. I remember telling my rugby novice folks from Southeast Iowa that I had quit my job, and wanted to store what few worldly possessions I owned in their basement. I was moving to New Zealand for the year to get better as a rugby player, to which my parents responded, “Oh“
I returned home to Iowa from the Bay of Plenty still believing that if I was ever to play test rugby, I needed to continue improving. After the 7’s trials in 1991, (not selected again) I travelled to the Bay Area in search of a job and a team. In 1992 I trialed for the 7’s team, and although I did play in smaller tournaments, there was no room for me in the Hong Kong squad and 1993 was the last year I was invited to an Emil Signes camp.
It was worth it. Going to all those 7’s trials and not getting selected to go to Hong Kong (1 for 6), leaving home to go get better. I missed many family events, coming home from most of those 7’s trials on late Sunday nights to try and find my car in the parking lot, buried in snow. It was all part of the journey for me. Through it all, I always felt I got a fair shot at making the team.
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