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An alternative definition is, “extravagantly wasteful,” and one could argue that also applies to Palefau, who has always had the door open to play for the Eagles, but not always chosen to make himself available.
Rewind back to the spring of 2007. Mike Palefau, a 25-year-old newlywed and first-time father, has been on the international rugby scene for two years, made numerous 7s and 15s appearances, had an unsuccessful stint with French Narbonne, and he’s on the heels of two IRB 7s World Series tours and the Churchill Cup in England.
He’s also staring down the barrel of a World Cup year, which means more assemblies, more warm-ups, and of course, the actual World Cup. To a young, fledgling family man, that meant more time away from his loved ones and less money to provide for them.
“By the time I got back to the States from the Churchill Cup, we’d just finished a long season, I’d just had a baby, and it was tough to be away. Pretty much, my first week on (the Churchill Cup) tour I was already thinking, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ Just because I missed my family, and I was sick of it. I wasn’t really enjoying it,” recalled Palefau.
“And also the situation with the per diem. It’s a pretty big sacrifice, because you’ve got to almost take a pay cut, and pretty much that’s what I’m doing to come play.”
Palefau, at the time, was not an entrenched member of an established American club. He’d played with Park City and dabbled a little with Aspen, but he wasn’t in the position to be backed by a club the way some are fortunate enough to be. He couldn’t necessarily expect to be gone weeks at a time and have the groceries bought and bills paid. He couldn’t take care of his family on the road as well as he could at home.
“If you’re not in it for the right reasons. If your heart’s not in it, then it’s really tough, and that’s how mine was,” he recounted. “I was thinking alright, I’m here, but I could be making more money at home, and for me it wasn’t worth the sacrifice to be away from my family and to lose money to play.”
So Palefau stopped going to camps. In a World Cup year, one of the brightest young Eagle prospects decided it wasn’t worth it. Palefau wanted to spend time with his family, he wanted to provide for his family, as it was in its infantile stage and needed constant nourishment. But, Palefau isn’t the first Eagle prospect to have a kid, a wife and bills to pay. He’s not the first who faced sacrifices, or, as USA 7s coach Al Caravelli calls it, choices.
Others have successfully balanced school, work, family, and international rugby, and perhaps some resentment at a player turning away from the Eagles simmered; but he’s not the only one to walk away. Chris Osentowski did it. So did Brian Howard. Dozens of others have been told the time commitment required to be an Eagle and said, “thanks, but not thanks.” Palefau was one of just a few to test the waters and then climb back out of the pool.
No longer a candidate for the 2007 World Cup, through his own volition, Palefau signed on with a pro Italian club, Petrarca. Instead of playing in the World Cup, he watched it with his wife on Italian television.
“It was weird watching it on TV,” said Palefau. “When it’s game time and the game’s going on, then you kind of miss it, but other than that I didn’t really miss it too bad. I was alright with it until you’re watching the game, then kind of sinks in; ‘I wish I was there.’
Palefau continued to play for USA 7s in 2007 and 2008, and he appeared in two tournaments in 2009. After the ’07 Churchill Cup, though, he’d only make one more 15s appearance, in the ’08 Churchill Cup. He hasn’t represented the United States in 15s in nearly three years, or in 7s in the better part of two.
In the spring of ’09 he started with the Las Vegas Blackjacks and played that summer on the Aspen 7s team that lost in the national title game to Belmont Shore. He committed to the Blackjacks for the 2009-2010 season, which ended in a DI national championship, but abstained from Eagles camps. This spring he starred at fullback for the upstart Utah Warriors, the new kid on the block in the Super League.
Palefau, who said he wasn’t enjoying the game in 2007, when he was seeing the world, playing internationally and between pro contracts, needed the American club game to make it fun again.
“Last season with the Blackjacks and this season with the Warriors, I’ve just had a lot of fun. I’ve really been enjoying my rugby lately,” said Palefau. “I wasn’t ready to be done with the season, and I’ve spoke with Eddie the past two years, and he’s kind of let me know when I want to come back the door’s always open, and I talked to him maybe a month ago, and I just decided I’ll do it.”
Palefau says his Warrior coaches and teammates (of which Matt Byrd, Ryan Chapman and John van der Giessen are also going to camp) coaxed him into reconsidering international play, but it was the ultimate stamp of approval from someone else that made his decision final.
“My coaches and teammates kind of planted the seed in my head, and so I started thinking about it and came home and told my wife, ‘Coach is trying to tell me I should go and play,’ and surprisingly she came back and told me to do it, and she was like, ‘Yeah go for it. I don’t want you to be an old man saying, what if I went to the World Cup?’” said Palefau, whose wife recalled watching the ’07 RWC with her husband on TV.
“She could tell that I wanted to be playing, and she didn’t want me to feel like that again.”
Palefau is not the only person excited he’s back in camp.
“He’s pretty much a guy that’s been on our radar, and I’ve always wanted to look at him up close, because if he plays to form he’s got something to bring,” Eagles head coach Eddie O’Sullivan said of the talented speedster.
“I’ve kept in touch with him over the past couple years, and the relation from Mike has been that he’s just been unavailable through a combination of work and family commitments, and that’s OK. This happens to a lot of guys who are trying to make the Eagles…Mike is just one of those guys I’ve kept up with, and I told him if he’s available to let me know, and fortunately he’s available to come to camp, so it’s a starting point.”
Palefau has a lot of fans. Among them is Utah teammate Jason Pye, a fellow 7s Eagle, who has called him the best rugby player in America. Count O’Sullivan, who’s seen plenty of tape on the Warrior, as another.
“He’s been very good (this season). He’s had big moments for the Warriors. He’s been a game changer for them, so he’s playing pretty well. I’m happy with his form. I’m looking forward to working with him,” said O’Sullivan.
“He’s fast. He’s got good evasion skills. He’s a very good footballer. He reads the game very well, and he can make line breaks. He can pass. He’s a good defender. He pretty much ticks a lot of boxes you would want, and he can play anywhere in the back three. He can play on the wing or he can play at fullback, and he’s experienced as well.”
The Eagles, outside of Chris Wyles, Taku Ngwenya and Kevin Swiryn, do not have a wealth of back three players with significant international experience, especially fullbacks. For that reason, Palefau has as good a shot as anyone to make the World Cup roster.
Asked if his decision to come back to the Eagles was an attempt to have one last hoorah, to be able to say he made a World Cup before his career ended, Palefau, who will be 33 when the 2015 World Cup in England rolls around, replied, “I still got another year in my 20s. I’m 29, but feel like 22. I’ll still be fresh. If I’m 22 now, I’ll be 26 in the next World Cup.”
Unfortunately for Palefau, he won’t be able to dive head first into the 15s Eagles upcoming schedule.
Because of an accelerated class, Palefau’s last to complete his masters in sports science, he is unavailable for the final two weeks of the Churchill Cup, a key part of the Eagles preparation for New Zealand. However, he is attending Al Caravelli’s 7s camp next week, and he hopes to make the roster for London and Edinburgh.
“I figured I’ll go and play some 7s. That way I’ll get some good, high-level rugby, too,” he said. “7s ends the week before the Churchill Cup. We’re (he and O’Sullivan) are going to talk more about it at camp, but I was thinking just stay there right after 7s, meet the team, and maybe do a week of Churchill Cup and then go to school.”
O’Sullivan says he won’t punish Palefau for missing a large chunk of the Churchill Cup.
“I’ve never put a gun to a player’s head and said, ‘You’ve got to be somewhere, or you’re out of the pool.’ I’ve never done that. I think it’s a bad strategy, it’s bad for the player and it’s bad for USA Rugby.”
What’s good for USA Rugby is the return of Mike Palefau.