Scrumdown in the South Pacific

Apia Park Stadium

Alright, let’s talk sports.

Except, when I say that, I don’t mean catching up on the latest baseball stats or discussing the Kings’ chance at the Stanley Cup. A self-proclaimed sports nerd, when I really get going it’s not about “Tim Tebow: Savant or Flop” but sport as a sociological lens. What I love is discussing sports as an expression of gender, body politics, group identity, capitalism, and oh-so-much more.

So, sports in Samoa. In spite of their reputation for being rather hefty people, Samoans are also known as great sportsmen. In the United States, this can be seen in the disproportionate number of Samoan football players—these Samoan Americans are usually from American Samoan families (take a minute to think that through), and seem to possess an uncanny athleticism despite, or perhaps in addition to, their large frames. While Samoa doesn’t share the passion for football that is evident in their eastern cousins, they do have a passion for just about every other sport. Cricket and volleyball are played in the evenings in almost every village across the country. Soccer and netball are widely embraced by schoolchildren; weightlifting and boxing have brought much national pride to this country, and it’s not uncommon to see rudimentary weight bench set-ups outside in communal field areas. And, of course, there is rugby.

1. Rugby in Samoa.

No, that’s not the haka. It’s the siva tau.

For those who are unaware, Samoans love rugby with a passion and appetite that is hard to overstate. To be specific, Samoans love their national team, Manu Samoa, with all the rabid fanaticism of the NFL, NBA and MLB combined. When Manu lands back in Samoa after a successful stint, there is a parade of well-wishers to greet them, no matter if the flight lands at 4am. If they play in a tournament overseas, the Samoan diaspora emerges in full force to stun any other spectators who may have doubted this small island nation . Television stations don’t just cut programming to air their games, they devote hours to re-running their wins. Coming from a place where the words “national team” usually translate to controversial “Dream Teams” that demand pay for playing, or a few rounds of patriotism-inspired daytime television watching, it’s hard not to catch their passion for Manu Samoa.

Of course, for me, it was even easier because I already love rugby. And to be honest, Manu is pretty easy to love. There’s no argument about it: Samoans are great rugby players. Whether it’s the fact that they start playing from what seems like the minute they start walking, or the magic formula of solid frame + athleticism that is perfect for rugby and seems to be hereditary, Samoa (among other Pacific island nations) just seems destined to produced rugby greats.

2. Rugby sevens in Samoa.

In sevens, you see lots of sweet moments like this.

Now, for the rugby uninitiated, I will pause for a small lesson. Rugby union, which is the mainstream version of the sport (or as mainstream as it gets), consists of 15 players on each team with 40-minute halves. Rugby sevens is an abbreviated version of the game, which has 7 players on each team playing 7-minute halves. Sevens, as it is called, is played on the same field with almost identical rules, resulting in a fast-paced, high-scoring game, perfect for spectators. In addition to non-stop action, tournaments can be staged in a single weekend, as opposed to 15s tournaments, which take weeks. In fact, sevens was recently approved to become a part of the summer Olympic games, starting in 2016.

Fifteens looks more like this.

“Why sevens and not fifteens?”, you might ask. Samoa is a perfect example of just why. As much as Samoans love rugby, and as skillful and fit as their players might be, it’s almost impossible for such a small country to put up the resources needed to create a powerhouse 15s rugby program to compete with the likes of New Zealand (which in fact has a number of Samoan players), South Africa, Australia, or England. As one might imagine, sevens requires less expenditure of resources—maintaining a smaller player pool, fewer staff–which levels the playing field a bit for the smaller nations. This effect can be directly seen as small Pacific countries like Samoa and Fiji are extremely successful on the sevens circuit, but struggle to achieve the same heights in fifteens. Thus, Manu Samoa is a phenomenal sevens team, undisputedly one of the best—but in fifteens, they have yet to crack the quarterfinals stage at the Rugby World Cup.

3. Me in Rugby Sevens in Samoa.

Initially, I had few doubts I would find a team, but as the weeks wore on, it became the Holy Grail of my time here. Upon arrival, I immediately began inquiries hoping to find a team I could play with. This ranged from dropping strong hints to every Samoan I met (“I’d really like to find a women’s rugby team to play with”) to accosting athletic-looking girls in the street (“Oh, soccer? That’s cool…”). Responses were varied and confusing–no teams existed in the area, they only play touch rugby, the season was not underway, or their trainings were happening but eluding me. It was all very unclear. A couple days after I finally confirmed that a women’s rugby team existed, I saw a small group of what could only be rugby players (there’s just something about them…) walking towards the field. I scampered after my prey and…success! I live in a village/neighborhood called Vaiala, and lo and behold–the Vaiala club has a women’s team.

It’s been six weeks now and I’m done with my Samoan rugby career. They will be starting another six-week block of competition next week, but I’ll be on not-so-direct way home (passing through Hong Kong and Poland) by then. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried…well not really. But there have definitely been challenges as well as highlights.

Rugby girls are rugby girls, no matter where you are.

The Challenges

Language: I figured, I may not know Samoan, but I know rugby. How hard could it be? During halftimes, post-game talks, or practice, it’s common to be berated for lack of communication. Normally this is evident by a pervasive silence during play, but in my case the point was driven home by simply not understanding a word my teammates said. It was one part a matter of learning new vocabulary (fafo=outside, lalo=down, etc.), and the other part about de-Samoanizing words. Like many other languages, Samoan sometimes adopts English words–but the transformation of the pronunciation can make English words just as vexing as unknown Samoan ones. For example, the words for scrum, lineout, and ruck: sikalamu, laina auti, and laku. Sound it out.

This is further complicated by the Samoan alphabet, where ‘r’ is not usually written (l is often substituted), ‘t’ and ‘k’ are interchangeable, and there is no ‘b’ (instead, ‘p’). That means “forward” is translated as “foueti” but could be said as “foueki”.

Names: I am a firm believer in the power of sports to connect people. Of course, the ability to connect can be seriously hampered when you can’t remember anyone’s name. Although not generally a whiz at names, I consider myself pretty good about it, especially when it’s a group of girls that you’re stepping onto the pitch with. Samoan names can be extremely long (Taumainuumau, 8 syllables), chock full of vowels (Faaotaota), and often then abbreviated to a random snippet of name. Of course, none of my teammates took it easy on me by introducing themselves by these shorter nicknames. And remember the pronunciation issues? My teammate Lepeta–her name is Rebecca. People alternately call her Peta or Becca.

The physicality: I was originally pretty nervous at the thought of playing rugby here, picturing being crushed beneath a pile of behemoth Samoan girls. Luckily sevens is much less physical than fifteens–and Samoan rugby girls are not nearly as big as you might think they would be. In fact, since I’m used to being undersized for rugby in the States, their size ended up being the last thing I worried about. So when I say that the physicality was a challenge, I don’t mean that they were big, I mean they were straight up physical. No holds barred, jersey-grabbing, to-the-ground-tossing, physical. Not only was I probably the only person in the whole country to wear a mouth guard as I played, I was definitely the only one to raise a complaint at the practice of grabbing players by the collar of their jerseys and yanking. Case in point: I saw my first-ever, full-on fistfight in women’s rugby.

Luckily, I made it through with all my teeth, and generally intact.

Basic skills: Alright, this is really on me as a rugby player, but given that I had no chance really of playing rugby before I started university, it’s a pretty serious challenge to play with girls who have been chucking the ball around since they were kids. Not to mention, being trained 3 days a week by the High Performance Unit program of the Samoa Rugby Union. My rugby knowledge is just fine, but a 15-yard spin pass I cannot throw.

Not the worst view I’ve ever had while playing rugby…

The Highlights

Fitting in: In a country with fewer than 200,000 people, almost all of whom belong to the same ethnic group, there was never a chance of me truly fitting in. But aside from work, where they are kind to me but I clearly don’t belong, rugby was the one way I could be out with Samoans and feel like…business as normal. It’s not about being here to volunteer, or ‘learning about your culture’, or being taken in as a foreigner. This was about rugby, straight up. This is one of the beautiful things about sports–it can be a platform for connection and understanding independent of other social factors. I’m not going to say it’s the great equalizer–not when I’m out there in cleats playing barefoot girls–but it creates a circumstance where, at least for a short time, things are simple. There is a ball, and we both want it. Everything else is besides the point.

Vaiala A after clinching the tournament win.

Good rugby: I love rugby. I got to play, and learn about sevens. No matter where I am, that will always be a highlight in itself. Most of the teams definitely were not playing good sevens–a testament to the lack of resources/popularity for women’s rugby here, not surprising given how dominantly masculine the sport is–but I managed to randomly pick and join the winning team. The A-side for the Vaiala women’s team had an undefeated record while I was there. Although I mostly played for the B-side, which definitely could qualify as a ‘challenge’, it was still so fun to practice and play with some of Samoa’s best.

Small world: One of the best things about the women’s rugby world (although sometimes inconvenient) is that it’s pretty small. In the States, networking and playing the ‘name game’ is very easy with women’s rugby teams. The purpose of the six-week tournament I just played–each week was a round robin with mostly the same teams–was to select players for Manu Sina, the national women’s team. Because of this, and the fact that I played with the best team in the country, I truly hope that in the future I will see some of these girls again in international women’s sevens and get the chance to cheer them on from the stands.

Playing rugby defined me as an athlete, shaped my image of being a woman, and brought me friends & family for life. It turns out, there’s yet another thing I have to thank rugby for because playing here was the best part of my time in Samoa. So worth the blood, sweat, and tears–thank you rugby! 

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