Hayward Rugby Team Heads to Championship

Aldrin Bulayo

Natalia Aldana

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The Hayward Griffins ended their 2011 season undefeated and kicked off the road to the Northern California Rugby Championship with high ambitions and resilient determination.

The Griffins ended their season with a 46-34 win against De La Salle High School Friday, proving what Coach Blane Warhurst said—that money can’t always win games.

“They were real studs out there,” said Warhurst. “They ran hard and didn’t quit, and that’s all we really needed.”

The Griffins, who are players of predominantly Polynesian descent, towered over the De La Salle players both in height and build.

While the De La Salle players were hardly comparable in size, they were more uniform in fitness and agility, and found their responsiveness as their greatest asset throughout the game.

But speed was not enough to break the towering strength of the Hayward players, whose robust figures offered great defense and sound pushes.

The Griffins used their strength to their advantage as they tackled De La Salle in ways that had players flipped onto their heads and tumbling across the field.

“I have never seen anything so intense,” said Union City native Joanne Renton, who was attending a soccer game on the opposite field.

“Those guys are huge, but can definitely move,” said Renton.

“I’m just so amazed at how rugby is played. It’s fascinating.”

The Griffins caught the ball at kick off, and with it began a solid momentum that would see them score the first three points.

De La Salle seemed to be afraid of the towering Tongans, as they preferred punting the ball upfield, appearing to try and avoid any agonizing tackles from the Hayward team.

Hayward had the advantages in the scrum and running, but as some De La Salle fans noted, they lacked endurance and seemed to get tired easily.

Coach Warhurst attributes that to the lack of discipline many players have, and addressed his team on their need to appreciate the opportunities rugby has presented them and to take their roles seriously.

De La Salle seemed to be playing more catch-up than rugby in the first 30 minutes of the game. They began gaining possession of the ball with tactful steals, resulting in a lead of 24-17 in the first half.

Yet, steals were not enough to win, as the Griffins scored 29 to De La Salle’s 10 in the second half.

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Finau was the key player of the night, performing with a broken metacarpal but still scoring four of Hayward’s seven tries through precise passes and powerful strides down the field.

The Hayward High student says he dedicates each try and each game to his cousin Will Vatuvei, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Hayward last January, and says he plays whole-heartedly for his family.

“I win because I play with my heart and soul every game,” said Finau. “I miss my cousin, and I play for his memory.”

Pio Vatuvie was the second leading scorer, whose colossal physique and staggering ability to push through opposing tackles proves why he is scouted by multiple college football teams.

In rugby, contrary to football, the biggest player is often the fastest, and Vatuvie was easily one of the swiftest players on the field.

As a sport that is both unfamiliar and unpopular in the United States, cultures such as those from Polynesia are slowly assimilating their national sport with talented teams such as Hayward’s.

The cultural presence behind rugby was extremely evident throughout the game, as fans on the sidelines, as well as two players who were injured, watched the game while playing ukuleles and chanting in native tongues.

“Rugby is Tongan!” shouted some Hayward fans towards the end of the game. “Rugby is all us. De La Salle, you didn’t stand a chance.”

The game started with the Hayward team huddled in prayer, asking God for strength and intelligence, and praying that both teams do not experience injuries.

At the end of the game, both teams huddled around each other as captains from each team acknowledged a player from the opposite team, ending with De La Salle’s coach offering congratulations and good luck to the Hayward team as they embark on the road to a championship once more.

The rugby players seemed to have a great respect for one another, as when one player tackled the other to the ground, he quickly offered him a hand up, showing that what most people conceive as a violent sport has players of great dignity and respect.

Reliford Bowoo played with the Hayward team four years ago, and says he’s impressed by how natural they play, as well as how much a group of boys from poor neighborhoods in Oakland and Hayward have accomplished.

“I miss playing the game, and it was great to see them play so well,” said Bowoo. “It was a well-fought game, and I’m definitely looking forward to them winning the championship.”

The Griffins face two more opponents before they can attempt to win the Nor-Cal Championships for the second consecutive year, which can take them into larger arenas such as the California State Cup and United States Rugby Football Union Championships in Utah.

“Play with some heart guys; play with everything you’ve got,” Cocah Warhurst told his players before the game. “This is for the championship and for you. Make yourselves proud.”