Sacrificial prey relish every minute of the big time

Undeterred Billups leads his US Eagles into battle knowing Ireland will be formidable opposition.
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The Independent Online

Tom Billups was waiting for them in Atlanta International Airport yesterday, 22 rugby players from all over the country - San Francisco and Seattle, Chicago and Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

When they check in at their Dublin Airport hotel this afternoon, six Europe-based professionals will be waiting for them. Very few of them will have seen each other since July, but there won't be much time for chat.

"We'll have to hit the ground running in Dublin on Sunday afternoon," says Billups, the US Eagles' coach. "We won't have had any domestic build-up [to their Tests against Ireland and Italy]. If the boys want to have any jet-lag, they're going to have to have it on their own time. We're going to get stuck in." As ever, the theme for Billups is Against All Odds. The 39-year-old Iowan is something of a pioneer in American rugby. The first of their players to write away to Europe looking for a job, he was also the first to experience the insecurity of professional rugby's early days. When Blackheath offered him a two-year contract, he chucked in his job as a fitness coach, sold all his worldly possessions and hopped on a flight. A few weeks in, the club told him they couldn't pay him.

Speaking from San Francisco, he recalled turning up for night trials at Harlequins, of the doubts he felt on the long train journeys across London, of the determination to make an impression on Quins' famously volatile coach Dick Best. "Looking back on it now, it was a very important moment in my life," he says. "I had to succeed as a rugby player or go back across the Atlantic with my tail between my legs. I was fighting for my livelihood at training on those evenings at Harlequins. It was rugby or bust.

"I remember making my first-team debut against Auckland, who were over on an off-season tour. I was No 42, and I didn't have my name on the back of my shirt. So I don't think they planned on me sticking around for very long.

"It was a special time, as an American, to be alongside Will Carling, Laurent Cabannes and Keith Wood," he continues. In fact, Wood was the first friendly face to emerge from the darkness at The Stoop. They had played opposite each other three years earlier at Lansdowne Road, and now Billups was called in as back-up after Wood hurt his shoulder playing against France. They were fierce rivals and became friends. As Wood fought to get fit for the Lions tour to South Africa, Billups became his de facto personal trainer. When Wood went on honeymoon to San Francisco following another Lions tour four years later, Billups organised the trip to Yosemite National Park.

Wood isn't his only close Irish friend. He got to know Eddie O'Sullivan when O'Sullivan prepared the Eagles' forwards for the 1999 World Cup, and they have kept in close contact since. While he sees O'Sullivan as a mentor, he would like to think the Ireland coach benefited from his time spent with the Eagles.

"We're a very detail-oriented group of athletes. If you grew up playing sport at university level in America, you were very aware of time management, statistical analysis and scouting the opposition in a great level of detail. Those were all things that Eddie really took to. He's even got a few of our expressions. It's very flattering that he still uses our language."

Billups was O'Sullivan's ideal choice as a strength and conditioning coach when the Irishman took over the Ireland job in late 2001. It was at this point that Duncan Hall stepped down as the Eagles coach, however. As Billups puts it: "My country needed me more."

With 10 wins from 26 games, he is what his countrymen would call the Eagles' "winningest" coach. The victory over Japan in Gosford last October was their first World Cup win in 20 years, and there would have been another had Mike Hercus not missed a conversion against Fiji, who won 19-18. Key players have since retired, but performances have been encouraging. The two three-point defeats by Canada this year have had more than a little to do with place-kicking deficiencies, while there was almost a sensational win against France in Connec- ticut in July, the tourists escaping 39-31.

This was an extraordinary achievement, given the hoops American players have to jump through to play their chosen sport. It is not unknown for a club in California to make same-day flights to and from Chicago for league games, with players paying their own way. Just coming on this tour means a few of Billups's players are putting their jobs in danger.

"We're throwbacks, I guess," says Billups. "The guys are still tearing their neckties off on a Tuesday night and going to club training, hoping one of the other guys remembers to bring the rugby balls in the boot of his car. We used to be fairly competitive before rugby became professional, but now we're still stuck in this amateur time-warp.

"The guys know they're going to be up against it against Ireland and Italy, but I'm not sure that they know any other way. And it's a sacrifice in other ways. In the case of Mark Wyatt, our starting hooker, we're crossing our fingers. His boss has told him if he goes on tour not to bother coming back, but I think we've convinced the boss that it's a legitimate sport and he's representing his country."

Days like the French game make it worthwhile. On the eve of Independence Day, a strongish touring side almost suffered an enormous embarrassment. "That's what we can do - overachieve, ask some questions of the opposition and represent ourselves well in spite of some pretty stiff challenges," Billups says. So stand by, rugby fans.