There were two distinct factors that stood out about the Hilo Reign on Saturday at Malama Park, which felt like a frying pan with an overbearing sun, that separated the Under 19 rugby team from its competitors.
For one thing, Hilo’s passing can overcome any physical disadvantage, even against an opponent slightly bigger like Westside, a combination of the Waimea Boars and Pacific Rim, from Kailua-Kona.
But what’s also obvious is that the Reign aren’t immune to exhaustion, and that came into play, as well as limited depth, against the Kahuku Red Raiders in the state championship, which looked like a physical game of hot potato.
The Red Raiders, with a roster full of the school’s physically imposing football players, defeated defending champion Hilo 14-0, showing that vital gridiron skills like tackling and power running can compensate for inexperience.
Earlier in the day, Alexander Tacuban scored a try, for five points, to get the momentum going, and Hilo passed the ball around better and pushed aside Westside 26-0. Then there was about 20 minutes of rest before the championship.
The sun was no less forgiving throughout the 1 hour and 20 minutes of game time, and Kahuku had the benefit of relaxing after posting a 2-0 record on Friday. The Red Raiders beat Hilo 24-19 and Westside 21-7; Hilo blanked Westside 27-0.
“I thought our boys did good. We stood up against Kahuku,” Hilo coach Lawrence Fong said. “We were able to bang heads with them, but silly mistakes cost us. It was draining playing two games, and endurance hurt us.”
Hilo had a roster of 18, with several younger players called up. Kahuku had a roster of 23, all from the football team. From one Red Raider to the next, there wasn’t much drop-off in size, speed and strength — nice building blocks for a greenhorn squad, which loudly chanted the school’s haka.
“It was a hard game to the end, playing against a very experienced team,” Kahuku coach Nusi Tukuafu said. “They’re all football players learning the sport. I think we’ll be a lot better next year. Emotion played a big part.”
The state championship is 15 players a side, and it’s much easier to bottle up one star player by covering every gap, and putting a few defenders in the back for reinforcements. Defense sits atop the totem pole of priorities, and right below is execution (doing the little things, like not dropping a pass for a turnover and gift score).
The Aloha World championship 7s will be held this week on Oahu, where Hilo, Waimea, Pacific Rim and Kahuku will enter seven-a-side teams. With fewer players on the field, speed and sure-handed tackling are premium assets.
In the 15-player field, the better rugby teams pick up a few valuable traits from both soccer and football. Much like soccer, the team that passes with precision controls ball possession and creates more scoring opportunities, a reason Hilo sent home Westside early.
If there’s one thing the Kahuku Red Raiders are well-known for across the state in football, it’s being able to tackle. It’s also helpful that the players look like they eat concrete for breakfast. Whenever someone in a yellow Hilo Reign jersey shot through a gap, a large-looking Red Raider and a few of his friends were waiting.
Kahuku’s football team might not have the most imaginative offensive playbook, but that power-running style works just fine in rugby, where forward passes aren’t allowed, but bull-dozing over defenders is welcomed with open arms.
In the first half, the Red Raiders worked the ball down the right sideline with a few juke moves, before reversing field and handing off to Polikapo Liua, who’s built like a tank at 5 feet 9 and 219 pounds and punched in for a try. No surprise, on the football team he played fullback.
The second half was a battle of field position and a defensive stalemate until the Reign had a late costly turnover. Celcius Tara Whiti took the gift, scored five points, and after the two-point conversion kick it was 14-0, punting Hilo’s comeback hopes out of Malama Park.
The Reign couldn’t manage any formidable attacks, and the clock slowly ticked down under a punishing sun that had the 30 players looking for water as soon as the final horn sounded.
Hilo Reign forward Suwaiter Poch didn’t score against Kahuku. But the 2014 Hilo graduate still stood out and flashed the fundamentally sound skill-set that marks him as a USA High School All-American. The 6-foot, 225-pound former linebacker tackles and passes well, and plays with a consistent balance on both sides of the ball.
USA High School All-American is the youngest age group under the umbrella of USA Rugby, which oversees the 7s national team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He’s tried out, qualified each time and been on five tours.
“Being a USA High School All-American is never guaranteed,” he said. “After every tour, you have to try out again. But I’m pretty luck to get picked again and again.”
Poch could try out for the USA national under-20 team in the winter in Arizona or pursue his dream of a professional career. He’s being scouted by London academies, which play semi-pro matches to prepare their players for the big leagues or England’s national team.
Meanwhile, the USA Rugby people are sticklers for attention to detail. It’s not like Poch can kick back and hit the beach and take it easy.
“When you’re traveling with the USA team, it’s people from all over the country, and before you go to the tryout, you have to send in your test scores,” he said. “Every day you have to work out. You have to be self-motivated and work out on your own. If you don’t meet the test scores, they’ll send you home before the tryouts.”
Poch played football for the Vikings, and paddled during the Moku O Hawaii season with Hui O Waa Waiakea, winning four consecutive age group titles. But he’s made a career decision with rugby.
“I’m more committed to rugby. I can’t do paddling,” he said. “I’ve gone a lot farther with rugby. That’s my future. I can always do paddling when I come back. My dream is to play in England. That’s like their football. They’ve only got rugby and cricket.”
Pono Auwae, an upcoming Waiakea junior, never thought that a college scholarship for rugby was possible.
“It was always football, football, football,” he said. “Keala Fong (2014 Waiakea graduate) asked me to play. I was already thinking about it before he asked, and his dad (Lawrence Fong) told me I could get a scholarship for rugby. What I like about rugby is it’s about teamwork and the conditioning will help me for football.”
Earlier in the season, Auwae was named the MVP of the Aloha 7s tournament. The Aloha World 7s will be another opportunity to showcase himself.
Tukuafu said three of his players are being scouted by Lindenwood University in Missouri for rugby scholarships.
“It’s another avenue post high school for the kids,” he said. “It’s not just football but there are scholarships available for rugby, too.”