All roads lead to Manly Oval for globetrotting International James Hilterbrand
For a “fat, freckly ranger who grew up in Adelaide,” James Hilterbrand has done alright out of rugby.
The 29-year old has created a new a life for himself in Manly, played professionally in Australia and abroad and is on track to play for the USA at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
But according to the chatty hooker, none of those experiences would even come close to winning a Shute Shield premiership with his adopted but beloved Marlins.
“To see the community get to celebrate that, it’d be amazing,” Hilterbrand told Rugby News.
“It’s worth so much to so many people, not just the players. It means so much to the community, to the junior clubs, to our fans that religiously watch our games.
“Turtle (Damien Cummins) told me that when they won the comp (in 1997), the whole of Sydney Road was blocked, not because it was closed down officially but there were just so many people around that you physically couldn’t drive down it.”
Hilterbrand’s rugby journey is one of the more unique tales you’ll hear.
His father, an American who played College Football, moved to Adelaide and wanted to play a sport similar to NFL.
He soon found rugby and years later young James followed in his footsteps at the Brighton Tigers.
After switching from flyhalf to the forward pack, Hilterbrand excelled in several South Australian junior rep sides and was spotted while playing at a carnival by former Manly forwards coach Damien Cummins.
As an 18-year old with dreams of playing professional rugby, Hilterbrand packed up and moved to Sydney on his own, where he quickly fell in love with his new club and its surroundings.
“The club is sort of a bi-product of the area. Manly is a bubble and once you move here, most people don’t leave and I think that’s why the club is such a tight knit community.
“Most other clubs have people travelling in or out of the area to play with them, or they have a choice between two clubs, but if you live in Manly, you play for Manly because it’s too hard to get anywhere else.”
The front rowers gets giddy when he talks about $4 schooners and two steaks for $12 at Manly Bowling Club, which sponsors the club and sits next to Manly Oval.
“I think that’s the big difference between our club and others,” he said.
“There’s just a lot of opportunity to spend time with guys outside of rugby. At other clubs, you train during the week and play on the weekend whereas at Manly if you walk down the Corso, you almost always run into someone to have a coffee or a beer with.”
After starring on and off the field at Manly, Hilterbrand set his sights on earning a professional rugby contract and in 2013 began what quickly became an up and down journey, that took him to most corners of the world.
He signed with the Western Force in 2013 and was shown the ropes by the likes of Richard Brown and Matt Hodgson, but made just two appearances that season.
Armed with a Scottish passport through his mother’s family, Hilterbrand signed with the Edinburgh Knights later that year and spent two seasons playing Pro 12 and European Cup rugby.
He made 26 caps for the Knights but ran into visa troubles towards the end of that season and was unable to extend his stay in Scotland.
In 2015, Hilterbrand returned to Australia and helped the Marlins play their way into the Shute Shield grand final, a match they lost 15-12 to Eastwood in heartbreaking fashion.
He also spent time in South Africa with Super Rugby side Southern Kings, but when they fell into financial trouble, Hilterbrand was without a contract again.
“I was unemployed in South Africa with no money to my name and fortunately the bloke I was living with, Nick Cummins, paid for a flight to get me home to Adelaide,” Hilterbrand reflected.
“I spent a few months down in the dumps, living in the back room of my parents house before Manly asked if I wanted to come back.”
Hilterbrand returned and couch surfed initially before picking up a short term contract with the Waratahs, who he played one match for against the Rebels in 2016.
That year he also earned his first International cap for USA and was recently named in their 40-man squad to play at this year’s World Cup.
It’s a career that’s taken him around the world and Hilterbrand tells tales better than most.
Like the time he almost played a Test match against Argentina after a big night on the town or when he punched Alun Wyn Jones in the face and got thanked for it.
But his best memories and the best matches he says he’s ever played in, have been those between Manly and their arch rivals Warringah.
“There’s a lot more tribalism and a lot more animosity but I think it really comes down to the playing group. Guys that are playing professionally are getting paid to do it,” he said.
“Guys playing for Manly or Warringah are there because they want to be. The only reason you’re going to do that is if you have the drive, have the desire, have a link to the club’s history.
“It means every player playing for Manly is doing it because they hate Warringah. And every player playing for Warringah hates Manly.
“Actually, I don’t think they can hate, they’re too soft so they probably just slightly dislike us.
“But It means you’ve got 30 blokes on the field that have plenty of other better things that they could be doing, but they choose to try and bash each other up because they desperately want to win.”
While victories over Warringah are one thing, Hilterbrand said the ultimate goal is a Shute Shield premiership, something Manly haven’t won in over 20 years.
The Marlins fell just short against competition leaders Norths last Saturday in a match the hooker said was well within his side’s grasps.
But he remains confident that coach Billy Melrose has the men he needs to break Manly’s premiership drought, a journey they’ll continue on Saturday when they host Southern Districts on Ladies Day at Manly Oval.
“We’ve just been so close, so many times. Every year we have the right group at the start of the year but it just hasn’t all come together.
“There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, with injuries and selections. Guys coming in and out of the club. But we’ve got everything we need to win the competition, we just have to go out there and make it happen.”
A premiership would be the perfect way to cap a remarkable rugby tale but even if it doesn’t happen, you get the feeling Hilterbrand will be around the place for many more years to come.
In his eyes, all roads now really do lead to Manly Oval.