Rugby isn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s a full-contact sport similar to American football, but rugby plays continue even after a player has been tackled, and players don’t wear pads or helmets like in football.
So, the Federal Way Warriors had to fight hard Saturday, kicking off their season with a home game at Saghalie against the Rainier Highlanders. Some players had little-to-no experience competing in rugby before the game.
But team captain Jamie Oloapu, 12, said they still play hard and do their best.
“It’s a fun game to play with all these kids,” Jamie said. “… I just keep thinking about people that get hurt, and play for them.”
William Rasileka, 13, said it’s a fun game to play with friends and a chance to get to know new people, too.
And head coach Sania Leuelu, who founded the team last spring, knows it’s an opportunity to break stereotypes, develop life skills and expose the kids to a sport that could take them around the world.
LOVE AND RESPECT
Leuelu grew up in West Seattle and played Rugby at Seattle Pacific University, building a love for the culture and teamwork inherent to the sport.
“The culture of rugby is totally different,” Leuelu said. “It’s all competition on the field. But it’s always love and respect afterward.”
Leuelu continued playing rugby in the U.S. Army, where he served 8 years. It was a chance to build friendships in new places and even compete on the All Army rugby team in 2015 in Las Vegas.
“It was the first thing I did when I got out of basic training,” he said. “The next day, when I landed, when I got to Fort Stewart, Georgia, somebody was knocking on my door, asking me to come out to play some rugby.”
He came home in 2020 with a desire to serve youth in the area, eventually putting on free rugby camps weekly to teach kids the game. Leuelu coached Auburn’s Rainier Highlanders for a while and eventually decided to promote youth rugby in Federal Way.
In fall 2021, the Federal Way Warriors held its first Halloween touch game with the Eastside Lions and the Seattle Panthers, and the next year Leuelu made the team an official nonprofit.
A year later, the Warriors are now in the second season, with around 70 kids from ages 5 to 14. The kids are split into several age groups and the team has another five or so coaches helping Leuelu.
Rugby is a sport that imparts life lessons and helps the kids grow into better adults — and those are benefits that stick around whether they keep playing rugby or not, Leuelu said.
“It’s not just limited to one gender,” he said. “It’s not limited to one size. You don’t have to be the fastest guy on the field or the slowest guy. It’s for everybody, you know?”
Coaches Dion Crowder and William Rasileka (father of the Warriors athlete by the same name) both play high-level rugby and now want to give some of their time back to train the next generation.
The game teaches life lessons and helps the kids foster connections, Crowder said, and on the team: “it’s one big family.”
“We’re trying to build something special for these kids,” Crowder said. “Quite a few of them are new-ish to rugby, so we’re trying to get them out into this beautiful culture, great game, where they can express themselves on the field and have some fun with their friends.”
Now they’re entering their second year building a youth rugby team for Federal Way (the Rainier Highlanders have also played locally in the past), and Rasileka stressed how it’s a sport played around the world, creating opportunities for the youth to pursue the sport no matter where they go.
“Rugby’s for everyone,” coach Rasileka said. “It doesn’t count anyone out.”
THE ISLAND BOWL
As a coach, Leuelu found his responsibilities also included confronting stereotypes and insults toward the Pacific Islander community — one of the fastest-growing demographics in the Federal Way area.
“Me being an Islander, I tend to play rugby with everybody,” Leuelu said. “But while I’m out there, you know, there’s stereotypical comments about Islanders just not being disciplined, or (that they) don’t have respect for other players … (and) I got tired of it. Once I heard it at the high school level, that’s when I felt like something needs to be done. Even the kids are hearing it, telling us all about it.”
It’s a communication barrier, he said, a challenge that plays out across class privilege and social status in different countries and places.
The only way he knew how to break that barrier was by showcasing the culture for what it really is, putting on an “Island Bowl” rugby celebration in SeaTac last year to show how Islanders and folks from the mainland can all show love and respect to each other.
It was about “showcasing how islanders come together, show respect, you know, the food, the music, you know, just everybody coming together, showing that they’re not duds,” Leuelu said. “They’re not hoodlums. … It’s just a communication barrier that needs to be shown for those who are privileged and those who are not.”
Now the Island Bowl is coming to Federal Way, featuring food, music, vendors, a job fair and of course, rugby.
The second annual Island Bowl is May 27-28 at Saghalie Middle School (33914 19th Avenue SW). May is also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Main event runs 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. that Saturday. Contact Sania Leuelu at 253-374-1398 or email@example.com.
The Warriors compete next on April 22 and 29.