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One of the hardest acts these players have to balance and tolerate during their rugby days is how to manage their time away from families and loved ones and secondly, how to maintain their composure in the face of criticism from those that are close to them.


Take the case of Iakopo Atonio. He is one of Talavalu’s reliable players. He spends a lot of his time away from home, camping and training with the Talavalu squad, while leaving behind his wife, Stephanie and their two young children, Charity (3) and Jesaih (1). 


He sees them early in the morning when he leaves the team camp at Tafuna to come home to prepare for work. After a full day on the job at Samoa Tuna Processors in Atu’u, he goes home, hugs each one of them and then heads off for squad training at the Veterans Stadium in Tafuna and then goes and spends the night with the team at their Tafuna camp.


“It’s a demanding schedule for me and for my wife and children. They have sacrificed a lot for me. I wish I could find ways to make things easier for us to spend more time together. It is hard to live so close and yet so far from each other. It is beginning to affect our relationship,” Atonio ponders.


According to him, when he is at home his wife of three years, sometimes tries to discourage him from being a member of the American Samoa rugby team. “She would say things like, ‘E amai lega lakapi e a’ai ai le aiga,’ (Does rugby put food on the table?).


“It hurts me because she has every right to say that but I wish she would understand that rugby has been my life before I met her. Other than those bursts of frustrations from time to time, we would just shrug the hurt aside and proclaim our love for each other and for our children. God has blessed us with a beautiful daughter and a handsome boy. What more can you ask for?”


Can he give up his rugby for the sake of his family? “I will play until the coach and American Samoa don’t want me in the national team. The window of opportunity is slowly shutting down, as I’m not young anymore. I’m 30 years old and the body can’t take this kind of hard training and beating much longer. 


“So I’m begging my wife and children to please bear with me and pray for our trip to Hong Kong. We were picked for a purpose and with God’s help and your support, our team will make American Samoa proud,” Atonio pleaded.


Atonio assures this correspondent that his wife and family in Tafuna, Nu’uuli and Faga’ima support his being in the Talavalu team and are proud of his representing them and the territory to international competitions.


Atonio is six feet tall and was born in Vailima, Samoa. He was educated at Avele College where he started his rugby in the wing position. He represented his college in secondary rugby tournaments during his playing days at Avele from 1999 to 2003. After graduating from Samoa’s agricultural college, Atonio enrolled at the Technical College in Vaivase where he was trained as an electrician.


Atonio played senior A rugby for the I’avai club at Tanugamanono for one year. In 2009, he was awarded a one -year contract to play rugby league for the Warriors club in Brisbane, Australia.


When he returned to Apia in 2011, he then visited American Samoa through a sponsorship his mom, who lives here secured from one of her friends, Meriama Pese.


Atonio says that during that visit, he met Pese’s daughter, Stephanie and they fell in love. Soon afterward they were married at the Assembly of God church in Nu’uuli. Their second baby Jesaih is a combined name they made up from the biblical character; Jesus/Messiah.


Atonio has four brothers and a sister. Two of them are in Apia while his mom; Vaoita Se’elua lives in American Samoa with one of his brothers and sister. His dad, Atonio Koli Tovia passed away 14 years ago.


Atonio joined the Marist Sports club three years ago and became one of its best players. The American Samoa Rugby Union also noticed his skills and selected him to the territorial team. He has played for the Talavalu in New Caledonia, Samoa, Australia, and Fiji. In a couple of weeks, Atonio will head to Hong Kong with the rest of the territorial squad.


“I give thanks to God for the talent He has blessed me with. I would also like to thank my mom Vaoita for her prayers and advice, my wife Stephanie for her endless support and patience as we struggle together with our precious children, Charity and Jesaih through these hard trying times.


“I also would like to extend my gratitude to my family in Nu’uuli, Faga’ima, and Samoa and for the Marist Sports club for your messages of comfort and encouragement. I leave for Hong Kong filled with your love, prayers and best wishes. 


“Thank you again American Samoa for the opportunity to serve you through rugby. We will strive to do our best in Hong Kong for the supporters at home,” Atonio concludes.