USA 7s team Head Coach Al Caravelli had to switch up his squad just before the team left the USA for New Zealand, as Matt Hawkins has come down with the flu.
Hawkins took ill while at camp and doctors concluded he would probably be ready to join the team on Tuesday. With the long flight, not to mention the International Date Line, between Southern California and Wellington, NZ, Hawkins wouldn’t be able to join the team until Thursday, a day before they play in the New Zealand 7s.
So Caravelli chose to leave Hawkins at home and take debutant Garrett Bender, thus also taking the precaution that Hawkins would not make anyone else on the team sick.
One man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity, and Bender, said Caravelli, will have the opportunity to earn minutes with the team. However, the Eagles do lose a ton of experience with Hawkins, who has appeared in more IRB World Series tournaments than any USA player.
Meanwhile, Caravelli is pleased with the balance of his team, as well as the versatility, noting that most of his players can line up at two, three or more positions. He also noted before Hawkins took ill that Bender was “knocking on the door, hard” to get into the squad.
Bender has been a rugby player since he was 15, playing for the Southside U19 program in Minneapolis, and leading them to a state title in 2010, when he won the league MVP. He was also playing with the Eastside Banshees and 7s with the YoungBloodz.
A middle linebacker in football, he entered St St. Cloud State University in the fall of 2010. There he played football, but was drawn back to rugby in the spring. After his freshman year he left school in order to pursue his rugby career. He attended the Serevi Camp last summer and helped the YoungBloodz to the national tournament, where Caravelli scouted him.
He has moved to San Diego and signed a contract with USA Rugby as a resident 7s player.
“Moving to San Diego was a huge decision for Garrett,” said Sue Barrett, his mother and biggest fan. “He is very dedicated to this sport. This sport taught Garrett so much about teamwork, collaboration and also a respect for all teams, which I do not see in any other sport.”
It’s all happened so fast for Bender, who turned 20 in December. Now he has a chance to play in one of the biggest 7s stages in the world.