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Rugby rising in the islands

The U.S. national coach believes Hawaii is an untapped resource of talent for his squad

By Cindy Luis

LAST UPDATED: 1:54 a.m. HST, Dec 3, 2010

A number of sports recently have been touted as "the fastest growing in America."

Rugby just might be able to claim that spot in Hawaii. It has been played in the islands since the 1880s, with the Hawaii Harlequins -- founded in 1964 -- hosting one of the top international tournaments annually in October.

But there's been an explosion of interest in the sport here in the past few months.

Wendell Sailor, one of Australia's top players in both Rugby League and Rugby Union -- there are two codes or types -- headlined an exhibition last month at Kapiolani Park. There is hope that Hawaii could have a team in the Rugby League in America, which is moving toward becoming a pro league.

Next week, U.S. national team coach Eddie O'Sullivan and NZ Maori captain Liam Meesam are featured coaches at Game Plan Academy on the Brigham Young-Hawaii campus. Seven youth players and one coach will be awarded a scholarship to attend a rugby academy in New Zealand.

On the Web

» (Game Plan Academy)







GPA also will provide information to parents about colleges that offer rugby scholarships.

"Rugby's World Cup is the second biggest tournament in the world next to soccer," said Seamus Fitzgerald, GPA program director. "It's going to be an Olympic sport (in 2016).

"There is so much talent here in Hawaii and you have the USA national coach (O'Sullivan) showing interest that no other national team coach has. He said he believed this is where the future of the American team is."

Former University of Hawaii football players Leonard Peters and Tala Esera, and Vai Notoa, who played at College of the Sequoias, are part of that future. Peters has played professionally with the USA Eagles 7s and 15s, and Esera and Notoa were on the USA Select XV that competed at the October Americas Rugby Championship in Argentina.

Peters and Esera work out together daily at Kahuku High and have played for the Tama Laie Lions. Both will be involved with next week's Game Plan Academy.

"At 28, I'm old to play football but not to play rugby," said Peters, who plays winger and prop. "It's not big in the States, but in a couple of years, it's going to open people's eyes. It's the only game that any body type can find a position to play.

"Half the U.S. team is Polynesian and (O'Sullivan) knows there's a lot of talent in Hawaii."

"It's been an awesome experience," said the 26-year-old Esera, who plays prop. "It's very physical. What I like is you get to use all the skills, play defense, make tackles, run, pass, catch.

"I was an offensive lineman, didn't do all those things. My dad played rugby in Samoa and I always wanted to. I hope to get more opportunities to play."

The sport isn't just for men. There is a women's league in Hawaii and several island players are in the USA Eagles pipeline, including former Kahuku basketball player Mereani Lewenilovo.

"I got into it because my dad (Jope) played," Lewinilovo said. "I didn't realize how big it was until I went to (a national team tryout) in Santa Barbara (Calif.).

"What I like about the sport is it is very similar to basketball and soccer but there's more full contact. You really have to be in shape."

Former Kalani three-sport athlete Dusten Umeda has also attended a national tryout. He plays in both the local touch and traditional leagues.

"In rugby, it doesn't matter what size you are," he said. "If you have the heart, you can play.

"I prefer full contact, but the touch league gives more people a chance to play."

Other opportunities include:

» Rugby Hawaii Union: The season runs from February through May.

» Maui Rugby: Offers play in 7s, Rugby Union, Rugby League and Lightfoot (barefoot touch).

Two Maui Rugby players competed for the USA Tomahawks -- the national team of the U.S. Rugby League -- in last month's Atlantic Cup Rugby League.

» Hawaii Youth Rugby: Formed in 2004, teams are in Hilo, Kona and Waimea.

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