We expect [New Zealand rugby players] to be a level or two above, and that rubs off on the other players. They use that skill level to teach the others. —Wayne Tarawhiti, BYU rugby assistant coach
Paul Lasike's legs.
Jonny Linehan's foot.
Ray Forrester's back.
All things that come from New Zealand.
All things that will help decide if the Brigham Young University Cougars take home another national championship this Saturday.
With rugby being their country's national sport, and being the current World Cup champions, New Zealanders expect a certain amount of skill from their players. BYU assistant coach Wayne Tarawhiti, also from New Zealand, says, "We expect them to be a level or two above, and that rubs off on the other players. They use that skill level to teach the others."
Lasike, BYU's star, doesn't quite see it that way.
"We have a good diversity, culture and brotherhood on the team, but we don't take it like New Zealanders are the best," he says. "We're all coaches here."
Most BYU fans would recognize Lasike in a helmet and shoulder pads over at Lavell Edwards Stadium, but those fans might want to wander over to South Field to get a glimpse of him in his more natural surroundings. Having played rugby since he was 8 or 9 reminds him more of home. "In American football, I'm a lot more hyped and nervous. There are so many plays to remember." But, he adds, "I just freakin' love running the ball — in football and rugby."
He's too humble to say it himself, but Central Washington coach Tony Pacheco says Lasike is "as good a center back as I've seen. He and Seki (Kofe) are the best center pairing in college rugby."
Lasike is quick to point out: "It's not just us two. Whenever one person succeeds, there's always others setting us up." He definitely enjoys his role though. "I love getting it in the open field. Our counterattack is one of the strengths of our team. I just know I'm not fast enough to go all the way myself." In his team's semifinal game versus Central Washington, Lasike started two breakaways in the second half with his speed, power and elusiveness. They turned a close match into a 53-20 blowout.
It wasn't all good for Lasike in that game, though, as he missed a conversion kick near the end — and will undoubtedly get razzed by teammates about it this week.
Lucky for him, there's another Kiwi the Cougars can rely on for those.
Eighteen points off of kicks by Linehan helped the Cougars Saturday, and he savors the role as the team's main kicker. "It really fires the crowd up when the kick goes in," and even though it is more nerve-wracking in front of his hometown crowd, he adds: "I'd rather be the one to win the game or lose the game."
As the fly halfback, he also plays a pivotal role in starting the offense and getting the ball out to the wings. Pacheco says, "His boot is fantastic, and he does big cut-off passes." Linehan says, "We have fast wings. Chris (Wernli) can burn anyone, any day. Those passes can be risky, but when we're on, they work great."
Linehan wasn't even at BYU until Jan. 9 of this year. Anyone out of the bidding for Ziggy Ansah's film rights might want to consider Linehan's story. After encouragement from one of his mission companions got him dreaming of playing for BYU, a trip to general conference last October with his mother and sister helped turn that dream into reality. He came, cleats in hand, for a tryout with the team. They couldn't get him here fast enough.
Forrester remembers that visit, and he remembers telling Linehan, "Sometimes the Lord has a different plan for us." He knows the course of his life would be very different if it wasn't for BYU rugby. "I'd probably be in a fish factory or packing boxes somewhere." Instead, he's starting his master's degree in social work this September.
Having played rugby since he was 5 years old, Forrester admits, "Every New Zealand boy wants to be an All Black." One LDS athlete who lived that dream was Sid Going, and Forrester's dad would use him as an example for his young son. "Sid Going never played on Sundays, so I never played on Sundays growing up."
Forrester's position isn't the flashy one like the others. His position is similar to a football lineman. As the tighthead prop, he's on the front line in the scrums. Who knows what goes on in there sometimes? "We call it the engine room. We do the small yards and set it up well for the backs."
Forrester also has the privilege to lead the team in its haka, a traditional war cry or challenge. "As a Maori from New Zealand, I take great pride in it. It's awesome for me to do it with guys from South Africa, England, the Pacific Islands. We all have this common connection."
The All Blacks are famous for their haka. The BYU football team performed the haka for a few years, but the BYU rugby team does a version that's unique to them. Tarawhiti's brother, Jason Tarawhiti, wrote it, and it is about another group of young men: the Stripling Warriors from the Book of Mormon. With everyone on the team being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tarawhiti points out: "They don't have to be Polynesian to own it. They know there are certain values they stand for, and every one of them could tell you what the haka means." After all, as Forrester puts it, "Every young boy dreams of being a Stripling Warrior."
Not all of the opposing players recognize that the haka is a sign of respect. "Some of them look down and are going like, 'What the heck?' But you can see the ones who get it 'cause some will hold their head up high."
This Saturday, when the Cougars face Cal, expect more of the latter. "We know how big our next match is," says Forrester, and what's cool to him, the Cal players are "great dudes. They're not stuck up or anything. They're like us. They play hard, and they work hard. But if we play as good as we can, we can beat anyone."
Todd Hougaard is a graduate of Brigham Young University and a Utah native. He watched his first rugby match in New Zealand with the All Blacks beating Australia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org