The Hong Kong Experience: A history-making Journey
Picture this: Two teams running onto the rugby pitch in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Sevens 2014 Rugby tournament.
One team, a previous core member team fighting their way back into core status, made up of seasoned more experienced players, trained in state of the art gyms and coached by seasoned, experienced coaches in the game. They run in and immediately get into position to play.
Now imagine the other team. A long way from home — American Samoa — whose most notable win was at the Oceania qualifying leg for the Hong Kong Qualifier world series. 12 players who have trained in what ever gym is made available to them. Practice at a stadium that seats a maximum crowd of 2,000 and are lucky if they play in any rugby tournament 2-3 times a year.
What do they do as soon as they get on the pitch?
They look up into the crowd with awe and amazement, while being assaulted by a noise level that sounded like the roar of a rushing train coming straight at you. Yes, American Samoa. Imagine that. This was the first game for the American Samoa Talavau team on Hong Kong soil.
What did they do?
They gulped down the anxiety, swallowed the fear, tuned out the noise, (or at least tried to) and after that first unbelievable glance up at the overwhelming crowd, remembered the reason they were standing on that pitch and got down to business.
They played rugby, handicapped by the assault of all these 'first time' experiences and made sure they did not leave that field scoreless. They scored two tries. Yes, Two Tries. Talavalu vs Italy in their first game.
Now imagine the 2nd game just 2 hours later against the home team Hong Kong. If they thought the noise level from the first game was bad, this time was 10 times worse.
The stadium was almost to its full capacity. The crowd is buzzing with excitement for its home team. Chants of "Hong Kong! Hong kong! could be felt. Yes FELT — not just heard resonating through the stadium. The air was electric with the noise level being so high.
According to some of the Talavalu players, you didn't know what to feel. All you could hear was a buzzing sound. Even the ball being passed traveled with sound. And yet. The Talavalu managed to claw, push, shove and crawl their way close enough to get one of their players to dive to that goal line with a try against another seasoned team — filled with experienced players from all over Hong Kong. We scored. Talavalu vs Hong Kong.
Singing Samoan church hymns on the bus on the way back to the hotel after the first day;s games were to help calm down their nerves, get over the jet lag settling in, and to remember families and friends back home. It was therapeutic.
The team talk after the team prayer service held in one of the hotel rooms, had each player say something — to Faamalosi (Stay strong), Focus, Taumafai mai (Keep trying), Remember our island, our families, Tune out the noise. Fai se 'ai. Words of encouragement from one player to the other. And then the Coach: “Remember, no Regrets”.
Day 2, Game 3. An even bigger crowd. A more accelerated noise level. And against a team, who were physically, and mentally more fit, more experienced and more ready for the game. Talavalu is now a little bit more used to the noise, the crowd, and the energy level of the spectators. They have been strapped of their injuries, and Prayer has been said and some comfort was derived by that. They band in before running out to the pitch. "1,2,3 USO!" they chant.
This was it. Their last chance to bring home a win for American Samoa.
In their hearts they believed in themselves and their desire to prove that a tiny island that has been named the maker of American Football players (Football Island) can also produce talented rugby players. It was not about personal goals anymore. It was about representing American Samoa.
The crowd was tuned out, the plays were called albeit not heard because of the constant hum of noise. They ran, they tackled, they punched, shoved, hit, got hit, and finally managed to cross the goal line yet one more time in Hong Kong before the final whistle blew to a flutter before it flickered out, the flame of hope of bringing home a win to their tiny island territory, family and friends. Talavalu vs Tunisia
They again sang Samoan songs on the way back to the hotel after their final game. On the bus were also teams from Chile, Tunisia, Trinidad and other countries. The singing had an effect on the rest of the other players from other countries that joined in with the “Pati, Po" (hand clapping) that by the time the bus got to the hotel, the competitive spirit of rugby was forgotten and taken over by the camaraderie spirit of the players.
At the final get together Sunday night after the Trophy and awards presentation, a chance was given to any country team or player to come up and perform an item or sing a song. After a few items were performed individually, Talavalu along with some of our local fans went up together and sang “Tofa my Feleni” (Goodbye my friend) and then performed a taualuga that moved the crowd of players and managers and created a feeling of togetherness among everyone present.
Yes, our tiny island territory. By the end of the night, everyone recognized the blue Talavalu BlueSky shirt. "American Samoa" was heard called out from every corner of the hotel when they met up with players from another country. Another impact.
Talavalu has had a quite a journey — to Hong Kong.
From a car wash in the summer so they could buy matching t-shirts to train and practice in the Fiji regionals because they didn't want to be embarrassed again on the field by coming out looking like a 'christmas tree' — while all the other teams were in uniform; to struggling to find somewhere to camp and train; to holding small fundraisers and soliciting help to provide cooking equipment, food items; and families providing meals.
From families, friends, businesses donating uniforms and training gear for Talavalu to use, From finally soliciting a sponsor (Bluesky), to the over-whelming support of our territory by way of the telethon/radiothon and the much appreciated support from our government and private sector during the farewell function before heading to Hong Kong.
To watching with overwhelming emotion and pride our Talavalu Team Captain taking the podium along with the rest of the qualifier and Core team captains to represent American Samoa for the first time, to the game day appearances on the pitch, down to the final notes of "Oh I never will forget you”…it has indeed been a memorable — history making journey.
The sacrifice of each and everyone of coaching staff and players, government, church leaders, businesses, families and friends was worth the effort.
For this Talavalu Team, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience and contacts that have been made, and hopefully will be utilized by the union.
There’s head coach, Leota Setefano Fata, who had a chance to rub elbows, talk development and discuss strategy, rugby calendars with some of the best coaches in rugby; Assistant coach/team manager Tommy Elisara, who was able to mingle with team managers from all over the world and work with the top movers and shakers in IRB Rugby tournaments and there’s physio Monique Daria Solofa, who watched with envy other teams being strapped and treated with the latest in sports medical equipment, First Aid kits and flexible strapping tape — hoping one day all this will be available for our own athletes. A coaching staff made up of our own local residents.
And then you have the 12 Players: Capt. Feite Okesene, Kamilo Soi, Iakopo Atonio, Pentateuch Vaki, Maugalei Veavea, Tesimale Fatitauai, Tali Gau Tauese, Niki Kata Lua, Ryan Pa’aga, Joseph Poyer, Tavita Silva, and Patrick Taisamoa NgLam. And, not forgotten: the 3 reserves Taeao Pa’aga, James Iosefo Venasio, and Ross Poyer. Aua e le sili le ta'i i lo'o le tapua'i.
Maybe not the same 12 guys who brought home the chance from Oceania to be represented in Hong Kong, but these are the 12 guys who took the chance and made sure, they would leave a positive impression in Hong Kong of the future of Rugby and it’s players in American Samoa.
Well done Talavalu. Bruised, broken, exhausted, overwhelmed, emotional and slightly dazed, yet still intact as a team, you showed up, you played, and you made us all proud.
Lets hope that the development of rugby in American Samoa will move forward with confidence that American Samoa has talent in the sport of rugby and confidence to play on the world stage.
Welcome back. Malo le ta'aalo fa'atamali'i. Ua malie mata e va'ai.