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Inoke Funaki
Latter-day Saint members of the Under-20 Tongan rugby team stand with sister missionaries while visiting Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. There are eight Mormons on the Tongan team. The team is in Utah to compete in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy tournament in Murray.

MURRAY – Before Wilson Lavelua and his Tongan teammates traveled from the South Pacific to Utah to play in an international rugby tournament, the Salt Lake LDS Temple only existed on paper.

“I had only ever seen it in the Duty to God pamphlet,” the 18-year-old said. “But to see it in real life for the first time, I was amazed. To learn about the history, the pioneers and story behind it makes it just that much more special.”

Visiting Temple Square is just one perk for several Latter-day Saint athletes from around the world as they participate in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy tournament in Murray during the last two weeks of June. The tournament, which involves teams from Japan, Chile, Russia, Zimbabwe, Georgia, Canada, Tonga and the United States, concludes with four matches Saturday at Murray Park Rugby Stadium. The action starts at noon and runs the rest of the day.

There are eight members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the Under-20 team from Tonga, including Lavelua, Siaosi Manu, Filimone Moala, Amanaki Leaatoa, Manisela Tuitupou, Viliami Fatafeai, Sione Makaafi and Latiume Fosita.

Michael Fualiefau, the son of a Samoan father and a Canadian mother, is the only Mormon on team Canada.

Andries Van Heerden, another LDS member, plays for Zimbabwe. He plans to submit his mission papers when he returns home. His parents made the three-day trip from Africa to join other family and friends in waving their country’s green flag.

“It’s awesome,” Van Heerden said following a 66-45 loss to Canada. “To come to Utah, play here, see the temple and meet some new friends, it’s great; it’s good fun.”

Lavelua, who was raised in a strong LDS home, is also planning on a mission. “It’s on the checklist,” he said.

Lavelua’s grandmother was the first in his family to be taught by missionaries, and both of his parents are converts to the church.

“We always credit our grandmother for having the courage to speak with the missionaries and become converted,” said Lavelua. “We’re not perfect, but we’ve been going strong since then.”

Lavelua’s parents were sealed in the Hamilton New Zealand LDS Temple. He has two older brothers and several cousins currently serving missions. One brother is in Melbourne, Australia, teaching the gospel in Chinese, while the other is serving in the Marshall Islands. Wilson looks up to his father, Tukala, because of the good example he has set for him and his siblings.

“He wasn’t really a good boy when he was young, so he always reminds us of things to avoid,” said Lavelua, who plays in the No. 1 position on Tonga’s front line. “He’s always there for me, encourages me and helps me whenever I need it.”

Lavelua admitted he has been greatly influenced by the stories of New Zealand rugby legend Sid Going and Australian star Will Hopoate. Both left the game to serve missions. Going served in Canada in the 1960s. Hopoate is currently preaching the gospel in Brisbane, Australia. Lavelua has watched their Mormon Messages more than once.

“Knowing there are members out there who have the same values and beliefs, who were willing to sacrifice and give up a lot of money for something of greater worth, it’s really affected us. Seeing Will go on a mission was huge,” Lavelua said. “It clears up some doubts in your head and really helps in motivating you to go on a mission.”

Being a member of the church has also helped Lavelua to be a better rugby player. It’s taught him to carry a positive attitude and fight through adversity. It’s helped him to develop character and discipline. It helps him maintain a healthy lifestyle and good standards. And he appreciates the brotherly bond he shares with his teammates.

“Most importantly, go have fun; be happy and win,” he said with a smile.

Lavelua and Team Tonga play their final game against Georgia for third place on Saturday at 4 p.m. The tournament can be watched online at DeseretNews.com.

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