Pacific Islanders Impact On USA Rugby Culture
When we look at the USA National Teams and cast our eyes around rugby powerhouses in USA championships, we cannot help but notice a strong Pacific Island influence. However, this is not something just in the USA. Look closer at the All Blacks, Australia, France, Wales and the Olympic Gold Winners, Fiji.
The Pacific Islands, although they have small populations, have a formidable reputation for producing some of the best players in the world. So what are the contributing factors for such a dominant impact in our rugby world? Where can we begin to understand and advance this influence? More over, how does understanding Pacific Island cultures make us better as coaches and players in the areas of high performance and club rugby?
“Pacific Island rugby has a massive influence not only in the USA, but also worldwide. Pacific Islanders bring flair, creativity and physicality to the sport. They add a different dimension in every team they’re in.” – American Samoan, Nese Malifa – USA 15s & 7s former Eagle
While we see this every weekend, we must look beyond the physical ability as their talent has much more to do with the cultural make up of a community of people that pride themselves on their origins and an ability to represent their culture. We also have populations that have a very strong instinctual tribal DNA. And no, I am not referring to just being warriors. I am referring to a culture of healers, agriculturalists, chiefs and navigators of fierce oceans; tribes that over many generations have conquered and dominated an array of obstacles. Those who have thrived and created races of survivalists, have now converted into modern day athletic rugby potential. The various small island cultures of people who are intelligent, spiritual, determined, adaptable and proud of their roots but most importantly benevolent, which flows through rugby culture like a main artery. Now we are seeing them as rugby super stars and with it comes the price of adaptation to other cultures and responsibilities.
“Without knowing it, you influence cultures and different communities with your status as a professional rugby player, and you show that the dream is possible for others out there.
Growing up in Fiji, then having the opportunity to represent the USA has certainly impacted a lot of the communities that I represent. Fijian’s back home look forward to seeing you do well in other national teams. Kids in Fiji aspire to not only play for Fiji, but beyond that, they have dreams of playing overseas or for other national teams like the All Blacks, Wallabies, France, England and so on. Kids and rugby fans in the community look up to you not only as a role model, but as a leader.
On a broader cultural scale, if people can relate to you, then they can see themselves in your shoes. It could be a kid from Asia, or as far as Africa that has dreams of making it to the Olympics or playing at the Rugby World Cup,” says Fijian born USA Rugby Sevens Olympian, Andrew Durutalo.
Photo: Marcas Satavu, former USA Rugby Sevens player.
With this being said, we can see the transcending influence of successful players from the Pacific Islands that echos inspiration throughout the world, and for good reason! Watching Fiji is like watching the Harlem Globe Trotters in their element. It is a sense of instinct and generations of sevens rugby players who have passed on an essence of a game style that perhaps even Ben Ryan simply reaped the reward for. We have to look at this honestly, if rugby had been included in the Olympics 20 years ago, how many times would Fiji and Samoa be in medal contention? We cannot deny the many decades of rugby flare, innovation, and inspiration that has been passed down. In saying this, we cannot exclude the likes of Kenya whose back bone of players and local coaches have extended themselves beyond the political tribulations and opened up pathways for the younger generation of Kenyan rugby players.
Futhermore, when we shape the importance of rugby in the Pacific Islands it becomes even more evident that global recognition plays a part of the picture. Similar to the story of David and Goliath with the small taking on the big, and not unlike the early history of The All Blacks, where they took on the world in the early 1900’s and influenced rugby on a global scale which was an amazing accomplishment for such a small country.
As stated in the 2016 Olympic Games Men’s Rugby Sevens Game analysis report of the Olympic Final of England versus Fiji.
“It was the final, however, which epitomised the appeal of rugby sevens. This was a match between Fiji, with a playing population of 65,980 players in a country of 899,277 inhabitants, playing against Great Britain, with a playing population of 463,096 players in a state of 65,238,727 inhabitants, where the smaller country produced a performance of such pace, skill and strength that it could constitute a benchmark for the game of sevens.”
When the small takes down the big it makes for exceptional stories, and not just for an article but for the communities seated around the weaved mats. Families talk excitedly through the play by play, and without even realizing it those words fall on many young ears sculpting and molding their minds of what it means to be recognized as a “hero.” This installation of talking personally with each other drives emotion and is essential to what forms dreams of being legends, in a way that perhaps YouTube and Facebook do not quite provide. And it makes sense. Within the Pacific Island culture, sitting in groups of friends and family, sharing food and telling stories is something that is of great importance and is very influential. In fact, this culture of surrounding yourself with friends and family is being spread throughout rugby in the USA. We see the circled communities extending to all types of different upbringings, and with some for the first time taking in two hands the precious Kava Cup.
“When I was growing up in Fiji, we would sit and eat together, our team would all sleep in the same room on mattresses creating a bond like no other place I have ever known. Fiji is a humble place to learn about togetherness. In primary school the boys would sit together and share each other’s lunch on the rugby field because some of us couldn’t afford lunch. Everyone would sit in a big circle and throw their lunch boxes in the middle of the group and everyone shared evenly. We would scoff the food down quickly just so we could play rugby during lunchtime. Those were moments I will never forget. It’s an awesome feeling and blessed to have that kind of bond with my friends!” -Bertie Quai Hoi, Air Force Rugby
The culture of rugby is always growing and adapting its personality but what is most important is that we have an understanding of these cultures. In the Pacific Islands, rugby is family, and on a deeper level some consider tribal. Rugby represents the very core of good stories, and a culture that carries with it the heritage and a dominent history. While others can identify with sport culture simply as what we experience in a high performance environment, we need to add further sport cultures into the melting pot of American football, baseball, wrestling, basketball and so on. The list goes on to cultures that form throughout the vastness of the USA. Then to top it off, we have the influences from coaches and players that derive from many rugby nations such as South Africa, England, France, Argentina and New Zealand to name a few. These combine to create unique environments and influence the growing culture of rugby. All of these cultures create what feels familiar to some and not to others. In other words, we can find a home away from home, or feel further from our core than we expected.
So it is often found, while a young Pacific Islander may feel at home on the field and perhaps have all the right attributes to be a great player, there could well be other factors outside the game that they lack and miss such as guidance and family support. There are many young Islanders and Maori that leave New Zealand at a young age to play in other countries and many simply miss the inclusivity and the ‘whole culture’ of family, as well as the way of life that has been instilled in them. Unfortunately, they often recluse and find little comfort around the game and in the past, some players’ performances and confidence has suffered because of it. This results in them leaving amazing opportunities for more valued relationships. However today, newer generations throughout the world have settled and adapted bringing about players whom have a larger perspective and immersion into the complexities of the world of cultures.
“Before, coaches saw Pacific Islanders as just big bodied athletes with just brute strength and aggression. Now, you add that with the skills set and natural ability they possess to implement game plans coaches are asking for. Pacific Islanders bring a different approach in attitude towards a successful team culture. That being they’re from humble upbringings and respect. They are willing to put the team first. The downside to this is that Pacific Islanders sometimes find it hard adapting to other environments, like with loud music and the hype within teams.” -Nese Malifa, USA 15s & 7s former Eagle
Photo – Nese Malifa, USA 15s & 7s former Eagle
Any good team values the relationships with each other and rugby, at whatever level, is no exception. Rugby creates environments in the game where we become exposed, we make mistakes, and we are forced to resolve our differences for the sake of the team. It shapes our capacity to tolerate and accept things beyond our control, and it all requires honesty and hard work. If not, rugby would not exist and would not be the fastest growing sport in the USA. In this way, we need to understand the diverse cultures we come across. The cultural divide is wide, but with the modern game we are becoming more aware of these divides and understand how we can bridge the gaps that differences create initially. For someone to be better than their past mistakes, they need to comfortable to admit they need to work and feel supported to get better. They need to be valued as a person and know where they belong.
One of the greatest Rugby League coaches, Australia born Wayne Bennett, often directed his initial speeches to the “guy sitting in the back of the room.” The quiet bloke who maybe bigger or smaller, maybe new or always has been there, the guy who is looking for his chance to belong to new opportunities and new moments. Coach Bennett has a way of making players that are on the fringe feel at home and gives them a place to belong, and remarkably some of those players have turned out to be some of the best in the game.
The key to the modern culture of rugby is recognizing the players, as well as their origins, when joining our teams. Modern rugby is not about “one way,” it is about ‘”all ways” and inclusivity of different cultures and heritages, which is often different from the high performance sport culture requirements. High performance cultures require a baseline performance and is agreeable. However, when developing the melting pot of rugby in the USA, the culture of belonging is where we need to work the most. We need to be giving, and allowing space and time for players to express their cultural needs. Not unlike the All Blacks with their exceptional ability to approach these areas with sensibility and importance.
We cannot underestimate the importance of Pacific Islanders influence in the game nor how it enables small populations an ability to express themselves. In many ways, our Pacific Island players have always been innovative with the game, and now technology and science are catching on. What we used to know as natural talent are now skills broken down by video analysis, bundled up, and then sold on rapidly growing rugby marketplaces. Still, there are natural advancements of the game beyond coaching that come from an instinctual programing of players based on an ancestry where, not many generations before, the feeling for right and wrong needed to be acted on quickly as a matter of survival. Making decisions on the field is a similar channel of responding to urgency. Supporting at ruck time, freeing the ball to their teammate, and the love of expressing dominance at the point of contact are a few examples.
According to Garrett Bender who is a former USA Sevens and 2016 Olympian he states, “I pride myself on being a hard nosed player and without a doubt some of the hardest players I’ve been around were poly boys, their hits are a thing of beauty to watch. It seems like they have an instinct like no other to be able to line them up!”
With the addition of more televised games through professional rugby there is a common display of cultural recognition from the Pacific Islands, again the small conquering the big, and the less resourceful conquering the blank checks and technological advanced.
Rugby has always been an equalizer. From the small islands in the Pacific, there is an ability to challenge all things great and small. As was the culture of the mighty All Blacks, whose fame has the same line of association in regards to the small building a legacy through rugby and the ability to show how strong they really are. You could say it is reflected in the Haka and its history in Maori ancestry, with similar ancestry of the surrounding islands having similar tones in their representations.
“In Fiji rugby is in our blood and ancestry. It’s all you need for motivation. There is pride of where you’re from and it influences you greatly. We actualize our goals from the moment we hear the history of our roots through faith and rugby, it’s a very strong connection. If you know your roots, you know yourself and what you’re capable of,” says Marcas Satavu, former USA Rugby Sevens player.
Overall, there is more to the game than solely physical talent.) Throughout the Pacific Islands, players are being selected for high performance academies from all over the world, demonstrating an amazing fusion of talented and natural rugby players who are a representing a growing and adapting culture of rugby. Through this looking glass, we see a great number of coaches working on building better relationships with the players they are responsible for as well as following better principles of leadership, empowerment, and nurturement.
While this uptake of players occurs in the Pacific Islands, it reduces the potency of international performance for small countries like Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. It gives opportunities for players from those regions to excel and provide, although sometimes being a detriment for their National Team representation. However, each player has a unique position and makes their own decision depending on what they need to do.
“With the financial state of the game in bigger nations, it takes Pacific Islanders away from playing for their respected countries, without ever giving back is something some to say the least. Most top tier paid Samoans & Fijians would take the paycheck rather than be released for the international test window or represent their own. Teams wouldn’t have the success they have without the influence of Pacific Islanders on their teams,” stated Nese Malifa, USA 15s & 7s former Eagle.
There are expectations to give back and there is now more recognition to the various Pacific Islands influence with one of the Super Rugby games being played in Fiji recently. We hope to see more of that building of Pacific Island rugby and communities in the future, as it is long over due in many opinions.
As the game of rugby is being molded by all who participate in it, we cannot doubt the influence playing alongside a Pacific Island rugby player has on another teammate. Pacific Islander rugby players give a confident boost for many and provide a base of physicality and culture to the teams they are a part of. There is also the mateship that comes with it, a connection and the trust that when things get tight there will be some sort of x-factor there to pull from. This comes from forming deep meaningful friendships and bonds, not just passing a ball to the Island player, or any other player for that matter. It is in these bonds we find the grit to get out of tough situations and do it for the guy next to you. Thus, we improve the rugby culture as a whole.
“I feel very fortunate to have shared the pitch with teammates of Pacific Islander descent. I’ve learned many things from them on and off the pitch that has made me a better player and person. I’ve had the opportunity to train and play with some of the best rugby athletes in the US, a lot of whom are of Polynesian backgrounds, and I’ve tried to take as much from their game as I could. The Polynesian style of play is very open (in sevens) and it seems like when they are at their best they are just having fun and letting their natural athletic abilities and amazing rugby instincts flow freely. I’ve found myself also playing my best rugby when I’m just having fun and playing free, probably because my main mentor in rugby, Sam Robinson of Samoan decent, implemented the idea of always having fun with it very early in my career. Not to mention that any kind of step I have is from watching and studying countless videos on the best steppers in the world, majority of whom are Pacific Islanders.
Off the field the poly boys have shown me a whole new type of brotherhood; in that they look after the people they care about to a point I’ve never experienced until my time around my teammates. If you need a car to use they will give you their car, if you’re hungry they will make sure you eat, if you need help in almost any way they will go out of their way to help you without hesitation. It’s a version of selflessness that I’ve looked up to from my first experience with the Pacific Islander culture and something I will always be working to get better at because I truly believe that is the best way for people to be.” – Garrett Bender, former USA Sevens and 2016 Olympian
There is a giving and family way about Pacific Island rugby culture, a happiness and the willingness to challenge the status quo through our beloved sport.
If there is one thing you can do for any Pacific Island rugby player, whether you are a coach, player, or administrator, it is to be a good friend, say less, listen more, and most importantly bring food. As the Pacific Island communities can attest to, a family that eats together stays together.
Article: Theo Bennett, Rugby Coach