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Dick Harmon: BYU football: Two Kiwi rugby players giving Cougar football a shot

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 3:43 a.m. MDT

BYU's first day of spring football practice Monday, March 5, 2012, in Provo, Utah.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) BYU's first day of spring football practice Monday, March 5, 2012, in Provo, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

PROVO — They've donned pads and helmets and stepped into a whole new world.

Two decorated rugby players from New Zealand are trying to find a spot on BYU's football team in spring practice.

Ray Forrester is a 5-foot-11, 255-pound defensive tackle and Paul Lasike is a 6-0, 225-pound running back.

Both came to the United States as exchange students and played rugby for Highland High in Salt Lake before enrolling at BYU and going on LDS missions.

Both are collegiate rugby All-Americans.

Both are tough as nails.

Neither has played American football.

And after a week of spring ball with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and the Cougars, they'll play rugby with the 7-0 Cougars against Air Force on Saturday at 1 p.m. on South Field.

Both Forrester, who is part Maori, and Lasike, a Tongan, have had their moments this week in spring football camp. It could be a while until either they or their coaches can fully judge what impact, if any, they could make on the football team.

"Ray is a great kid, a very hard worker," said BYU rugby coach David Smyth. "He is exceptionally strong, humble and teachable and an excellent athlete. He has played rugby for us for three years and served on a mission to Australia."

Lasike, who just returned from a mission to Alabama, is fast and strong enough to play running back, according to Smyth.

"He is a great athlete and has all the tools, speed, athletic ability that's pretty much phenomenal. If he could use that and put on a helmet, he should do pretty well," said Smyth.

Because BYU's rugby season is in the winter, Smyth expects both Forrester and Lasike to play in games on Saturdays, but he's given permission for them to "check out the football scene" as long as he can get them a couple of days a week.

Smyth has talked to both Lasike and Forrester since spring football began on Monday.

"It's pretty tough, very tiring and challenging and they have school work to take care of," said Smyth.

Ironically, a football policy prevents reporters from interviewing first-year players, but as rugby players, either one could be interviewed by the media on Saturday.

Smyth says the adjustment from ruby to football is great.

"For these two fellows, it is huge because they've never done it before," he said. "As athletes, they have all the tools. As rugby players, they are exceptional, but it will be a challenge to transform to football. They can do it, but it will take a little time."

One of the most famous local rugby players to make this transition is former Highland and Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who now plays with the Baltimore Ravens.

Former Cougar Fahu Tahi, a five-year NFL veteran, also played rugby at Granger High. His father Manu was one of the fastest and famous Tongan rugby players of all-time. He agrees with Smyth.

Tahi points to Utah's Thretton Palamo this past season for the Utes.

"I heard from some of the staff and players how big a challenge it was for him to make reads, understand what his blockers were doing. In rugby you don't have that," said Tahi.

The challenge is tougher for rugby guys playing offense than defense, said Tahi.

"In football, a ball carrier has 10 other guys working for and with him. In rugby, you have guys spread out that you can pitch the ball to and you run on your own. In football you have to use your blockers, read gaps, get your timing down with footwork and understand plays and what the defense is doing. In rugby, the closest thing you have to blockers is the forwards who mainly block in scrums."

But what if a guy like Lasike is used primarily as a lead blocker in BYU's offense.

Same thing, says Tahi. There is a lot to learn.

"People think being a lead blocker is just to run into people, but there is a lot more to that as far as technique and covering up a defender. It has to do with pad level, hand placement and footwork. I spent five years in the NFL learning to be a lead blocker after playing running back in college and it was a tough position to learn."

Once a ball carrier gets the ball, it's a matter of reading his blockers, reading defensive linemen, linebackers and safeties. Also, ball security is huge, he can't just lateral the ball away and you carry the football different in rugby than in football.

Tahi says Forrester, or a rugby player playing on the defensive line, needs to learn the plays, schemes, how to come out of a three-point stance and work with other linemen, but it is an easier adjustment because rugby players do know how to tackle with their arms because they're trained to grab without pads.

"Rugby players are always very good tacklers," he said.

So, there you have it.

In a 2012 BYU spring practice that looks to be a "teaching" exercise with so many players sitting out with injuries and rehabbing from surgeries, the rugby duo is an interesting angle.

The two may or may not make an impact.

But they will be playing Saturday against Air Force in a rugby game that counts.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

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