Griffins Help Rugby Make a Comeback in the East Bay

Aldrin Bulayo

Natalia Aldana

Sixteen-year-old Pio Vatuvie (left) has been playing rugby with the Hayward Griffins for three years. The Patterson High School student was offered a full scholarship to play American football at Washington State.

The Hayward Griffins Rugby team aims to embody brotherhood and strong physical character as they attempt to win the Northern California Gold Division High School Age Championships once more.

As the current defending champions, this undefeated team of high school boys says they know the road to success will be challenging, but they want nothing more than to win.

Because the team functions as a non-profit, it is not associated with any school or sponsorship,. They lack the funding and support other teams in their league have, but, as Coach Blane Warhurst said, “When they see a challenge, they hone in on it.”

Most of the boys are from tough neighborhoods in Oakland and Hayward and feel that rugby gave them an opportunity to leave the streets and make something of their lives.

“Rugby definitely helped me—I used to be bad,” said 19-year-old team captain Tony Sunia. His wake up call came when his cousin was recently murdered in Oakland, because it forced him to refocus on his future.

“Rugby teaches you to be a man,” he said.

“In rugby, we are all brothers.”

Although rugby occupies a small, albeit growing place in the American sporting landscape, this team’s players are predominantly of Tongan and Polynesian descent.

“We’re just trying to make the ‘poly’ name stand out,” said Bill Pua.

Pua, like many of his teammates, sees rugby as a means of upward mobility, opening the doors to a college education and ability to compete at the college level.

“They’re all natural athletes, and they’re constantly getting better,” said Coach Warhurst, who says rugby gave them a place to go when they sometimes had no safe alternatives.

“I tell them, ‘this is your chance. This can make you disciplined for the rest of your life.’”

16-year-old Anthony Fotu says he plans to be a lawyer, hoping to help people who are struggling and make an impact in their lives.

Without the lessons he learned from playing rugby, he says, he would have probably resorted to joining a gang instead.

“Rugby keeps me focused,” said Fotu. “Without it, I would be on the streets.”

For 17-year-old captain, Ea Alaki Okusi, being recruited for UC Berkeley’s Rugby team, one of the top tier rugby teams in the country, is something he said he would have never thought possible without the opportunities that playing for this team gave him.

“Rugby is one team focused, one mind,” said the Castlemont High School student. “Rugby taught me to be a leader and to have the courage to be a man. I love everything about it.”

Coach Warhurst, a former professional rugby player with a master’s degree in Kinesiology from CSUEB, drives his white van to pick up a majority of the players for games and practices, knowing that many of them do not have the resources that other teams might.

Warhurst says he started the team with fellow dads and players to get their kids to start playing rugby. Slowly, the team started growing, and started to take a new face.

“These kids have the strongest family support,” said Warhurst. “It’s embedded in their culture.”

As the national sport in Tonga, rugby is both a solid cultural presence and a form of economic stimulus.

The money coming back from Tongan players who played rugby abroad is Tonga’s second biggest source of income after sugar, according to the World Bank.

In 2002, according to the World Bank, remittances from those citizens abroad totaled about $62 million.

“My parents are really proud of me,” said 16-year-old Pio Vatuvie, who has been offered a full-ride football scholarship to Washington State, as well as offers from UCLA, Oregon State, Alabama and Nebraska.

As the son of a former rugby player in Tonga who severely hurt his ankle, Vatuvie says he knew the physical dangers, but his love and flair for the sport gave him and his family the faith that it would change his future.

Vatuvie hopes to work in sports medicine or became a trainer, saying that through the sport he loves, he has learned to become a good person on and off the field.

The team hopes to bring their fervent and zealous passion along with an evident physical intimidation to the next four games leading up to the state finals.

Their next match will be against De La Salle High School, a Catholic all boys’ school known for its highly successful football program with an up-and-coming rugby presence.

Coach Warhurst says he has confidence in his team, as he says they have beaten De La Salle for the past five years.

“De La Salle has all the money and time that we don’t,” said Warhurst. “But I’m confident in a win.”

The Hayward Griffins Rugby team will host De La Salle Friday, April 15 at Pepsi Field, also known as Alden Oliver Sports Park at 8 p.m. in Hayward.

“We were underdogs last year,” said Ralph Bunche student Pua.

“Now, we’re going to show that we will win that championship again, no matter what.”