Feature

Pacifica on the Pitch

Island athletes dominate in Rugby Sevens
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Elyse Butler.

In Las Vegas, a town usually known for glittering lights and showgirls, seven is considered the luckiest number. Every March, that number gets a new meaning as the USA Sevens and the Las Vegas Invitational (LVI) international rugby tournaments storm into town, taking over Sam Boyd Stadium and twenty-five additional fields nearby for four days of mayhem on the grass.

The “sevens” format is a variant of rugby that uses only seven players per team, with shortened game times of just seven minutes per half. Compared with the traditional Rugby Union format of fifteen-person teams and full eighty-minute games, the sevens format offers a far faster pace and more space on the field for action. But it doesn’t spare any of the intensity. Thousands of cheering fans turn the stadium grounds into a gigantic party every year, celebrating a sport that has a reputation for being brutal but also for building bonds of friendship that span continents and last lifetimes. 

No pads, no helmets, no holding back: The face of a rugby player says it all. Members of the Fijian national Rugby Sevens team (in white jerseys) demonstrate why they’re known as the “Flying Fijians” and why they took home the gold medal for rugby at the last Olympics. Here they’re seen at the Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, playing in the 2019 USA Sevens International rugby tournament.

Across the street from the stadium, Las Vegas Invitational amateur matches play out in the days leading up to the main USA Sevens event. The LVI features nearly three hundred men’s and women’s teams, including high school, college and club levels, making it North America’s largest amateur rugby tournament. In one field the Brigham Young University men’s team stampedes the pitch as it takes on the University of Arizona. In the next field over, a women’s club team plays a pickup game in bare feet, just for fun. The most extreme action happens inside the stadium, where the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament pits top professional men’s teams from sixteen countries against each other in a points race to qualify for top seeding at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Las Vegas is just one stop among ten tournaments in the series, hosted in major cities around the world including Hong Kong, Sydney and Dubai. Powerful nations like England, Australia and the United States field ferocious squads, but some of the top teams and players come from tiny Pacific Island countries.

Fiji fans at the tournament make themselves seen (and heard) throughout the stadium. In Fiji, Tonga, Sāmoa and many other Pacific Island nations, rugby is considered the national sport.

Rugby is said to have originated in the mid-nineteenth century at the Rugby School in England, evolving from soccer-style games, allowing players to pick up the ball and run with it, pass laterally and tackle opponents to the ground to halt their progress. The game became popular across the United Kingdom, making its way throughout the British Empire to Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific islands, where it was heartily embraced. Eventually rugby rose to prominence as the national sport for countries like Sāmoa, Tonga and Fiji. 

The international crowd likes to party and sings along as Britpop music booms through the stadium loudspeakers. Everyone is energized when the announcer declares an epic matchup: Fiji versus Scotland. Players take the field, ready to demonstrate what happens when unstoppable forces meet immovable objects. In a flash the game is under way and Olympic athletes are running and tackling at breakneck speed, careening off each other like tops. Fans go wild, with entire sections of the stadium wearing blue wigs, blue shirts and waving the blue flag of Fiji. The proud Scotsmen pound their opponents relentlessly but just aren’t able to stop the lightning-fast Fijians from overpowering virtually everything in their path. 

Hawai‘i’s own Martin Iosefo is one of many players with Pacific Island roots on the 2019 championship USA Eagles team.

The crowd’s collective, empathetic grunts echo every major impact as bodies slam into bodies on the pitch. It’s an incredibly physical sport, to be sure—but players, coaches and organizers also take precautions to minimize injuries; from the press box a team of doctors closely monitors the action, watching replays to detect fouls after the fact and penalize players or teams who violate the rules. As a contest of tackling and breaking tackles, rugby sevens highlights strength, speed, endurance and broken-field running comparable with the best of American football—but in rugby the participants wear no pads and no helmets. While American football players are rendered virtually anonymous by all their gear, rugby players are fully visible, exposed for fans to see every bit of emotion expended in the frenzy. When teammates converge on a breakaway runner, we see muscles straining and veins bulging as they give chase. Without a helmet obscuring facial expressions, we see the ball carrier’s eyes search frantically for openings as he charges downfield, dodging men built like MMA fighters. Slow-motion replays reveal faces contorted by emotion: the earnestness of effort, the agony of impact, the triumph of scoring.

As match after match plays out, blue-clad Fiji fans aren’t alone in showing their spirit: Other sections of the stands go all out in themed attire to represent their teams and their countries, wearing wigs, wings, crazy hats, animal suits and all manner of colorful getup, and their antics aren’t limited to the bleachers. The USA Sevens event transforms Sam Boyd Stadium into a multicultural festival with food, music and thousands of costumed spectators whose silliness offsets the intensity of the games. It’s hard to imagine another sport that achieves such a balance between violence and whimsy.

At the international fair behind the stadium, booths serve regional specialties and sell local products and crafts. Hungry fans in all shapes, sizes and disguises queue up for goat curry at the Fiji food booth, Japanese yakisoba noodles, British meat pies or traditional South African biltong (a jerky-like dried spiced meat). Kenyans gather for an impromptu drum circle. Everyone seems to be tuned in to a common wavelength that celebrates the sporting competition and embraces fun and frolic. 

Members of the Lady Vipers, a women’s rugby team from Utah, prepare for a match at the Las Vegas Invitational, the largest amateur rugby tournament in North America.

On the sidelines at one of the LVI fields next to the stadium, the Lady Vipers wait for their next match. The club team for women 18 and over is from Utah, and most of the players have Pacific Island roots. They’re joined by friends and relatives who make the gathering feel like a weekend picnic. Babies are napping while some of the smaller kids and siblings dance in a circle, chanting, “Get … the ball. Get, get … the ball!” 

Shalysa Sua, a Lady Viper originally from Lā‘ie, Hawai‘i, says the women on the team are like her sisters. “Rugby has given me a purpose and something to work toward,” Sua says. “Especially with us kids from the Islands. We all come from very humble backgrounds, but once we’re on the field it’s like our stage. It teaches us self-discipline and hard work.” Sua’s teammate Mele Salakielu agrees. She’s another Hawai‘i transplant to Utah, and her father and uncles all played and coached rugby. “I always had family members in the game, and I was told I’m a girl so I shouldn’t play,” she recalls. “But rugby has helped me push my limits and realize what I’m physically capable of, and I’ve developed, not only in the sport but as a family with these girls on the field. It’s become pretty special to me.”

Lady Vipers coach David Shelledy is busy wrapping a knee for one of the women, whose last game took its toll. “We have players on this team as young as 20 and as old as 45, and all of them love it,” Shelledy says. “It’s such a good sport because you can play as long as your body will hold up. And in the rugby culture, once you’ve gone out and beaten each other up on the field, it’s over with, and you’re best friends and then you can go out for dinner or for beers after.”

The “sevens” format is a variant of rugby that uses seven players per team instead of the standard fifteen, with shortened game times of seven minutes per half. Compared with traditional eighty-minute games, sevens offers a far faster pace ideal for tournaments.

Pacific Islanders are everywhere in these tournaments. Playing, coaching, cheering from the sidelines. In line at concession stands, in bleachers draped with flags and banners, in small circles singing, chanting, laughing, praying. Extended families meet and mingle with relatives and fellow islanders, all eager to cheer for their home teams and favorite players. Sometimes fans have a hard time choosing whom to root for: Sāmoa, Tonga and Fiji all field national Rugby Sevens teams, but players whose families come from those and other island nations are now spread throughout the international rugby community, playing for England, France, Japan, the United States and other teams. There may be no other group of people so disproportionately represented in the game. Island nations with minute populations have produced some of the world’s greatest rugby players, and the possibility of recruitment into international teams provides island youth with inspiration and economic opportunity. By some accounts the money now coming into Tonga from players abroad makes rugby players the country’s second-biggest export (after vegetables). The fact that rugby can be played just about anywhere, by just about anyone, with virtually no equipment required other than whatever can be improvised for a ball, is part of what has helped it gain such a strong foothold in Pacific Island cultures.  

“It’s really the lifeblood of all the island villages and communities,” says Gareth Baber, coach of the Fiji Sevens team. “Rugby is the national sport in Fiji; it’s hugely important. And a large number of Fijians are playing overseas on other teams and leagues around the world as well. Wherever they play, in America and in Europe and Australia and New Zealand, you can feel the love they have for each other and for their teams and for the game. It’s communicated through this sport and it’s powerful.”

Folau Niua of the USA Eagles manages to keep the ball despite a tackle by a New Zealand All Blacks opponent. The Eagles went on to win the tournament cup at the 2019 USA Sevens International, adding points to their ranking at the 2020 Olympics.

Fiji’s passion for rugby led the country to its first-ever Olympic medal when Rugby Sevens debuted as a summer sport in 2016 and the Fijian men’s team defeated some of the most powerful nations in the world to bring home the gold. For countries like Fiji and Sāmoa to field teams that can compete with the likes of England and the United States means they’ve been hard at work for a long time, and it shows. As the bruised but victorious Fijian team leaves the stadium field after its win over Scotland, it’s hard to believe the level of athleticism the players have attained; island teams often have far fewer resources than teams from larger countries, but they don’t let that intimidate them. 

“Rugby is a huge part of Samoan culture,” says Sāmoa Sevens player David Afamasaga. “It’s everywhere. As little kids we play rugby on the front yard, before and after school. Even if you don’t have a ball, just use a coconut or whatever’s handy and you’ve got a game. And getting to this level, rugby gives our people a chance to explore and visit all these other parts of the world. I feel really fortunate to play in the series and represent our country year-round.”

On the last day of the Vegas event, fans cheer as quarterfinals give way to semifinals. Eventually the final tournament match comes down to a contest between the United States Eagles Sevens and Manu Samoa Sevens, an imposing team of highly skilled islanders, which has won ten World Rugby Series tournaments since 2007. The Eagles are the defending champions for this tournament, after winning last year’s USA Sevens final against Argentina. The US team’s diverse lineup features several American players of Polynesian and Pacific Island descent, including Marcus Tupuola, Matai Letua, Hawai‘i-born Martin Iosefo and Folau Niua, a California-born rugby star of Tongan heritage, whose fierce style and wild, wavy hair make him a crowd favorite.

Iosefo signs autographs and talks to young fans after the championship match. Rugby is said to have originated at the Rugby School in England during the mid-nineteenth century as a soccer-style game for students.

“The islanders are strong and smart and hard to take down, built like tree trunks and just as solid. And their sense of community and family is a perfect fit with the spirit of rugby,” says longtime fan Mike Galvin, a British expat living in San Francisco, who played rugby through high school and college in Liverpool. “It’s a brotherhood of people from different parts of the planet who are connected through this game, and I find that inspirational.” 

Both teams play hard, but team USA dominates the final match, beating Sāmoa 27–0. Even in defeat, Sāmoa’s fans find solace. “I was cheering the homeland, but we’re happy either way,” says Lini Latuo‘o, a native Samoan now living in California, who was attending the event with his wife and kids. “Because whoever wins, most likely there’s a Samoan on that team. So we’re represented no matter what!” 

After the final game, with spectators spilling onto the field and a crush of fans thronging his team, Folau Niua takes a moment to give advice to young kids who are just starting out. “Put God first, and then your parents.” Niua says. Fresh grass stains cover his uniform, elbows and knees.“But if you want to play rugby, you gotta work for it. If you want it really bad, it’s up to you. There’s no excuse. Don’t say, ‘There’s no gym, there’s nothing.’ The gym is your body. Just work hard.”  HH