We all know that one of the great things that comes about from playing rugby is the friendships, camaraderie and brotherhood that forms with your teammates and all rugggers. That brotherhood often becomes a life long bond, but what if you are actually brothers, siblings from the same family? What is that like?
Well we had an opportunity to find out first hand from a family who all play together, but in addition to being a great group of sibling who play rugby; they are standout players who perform at a high level.
We are talking about the Sakalia brothers who hail from East Palo Alto (EPA) and play for NorCal DI’s top side, the EPA Razorbacks. While there are several rugby playing brothers in this family, we are focusing on three who currently play together for the EPA Razorbacks. The oldest of the three playing for the Razorbacks is Siupeli (Steve), there is Etika and Alofanga (aka Junior). There is an older brother Paula who was part of the Razorbacks National Championship team of 2009, a younger brother Allen (6’4” 288lbs) brother who plays for Metropolis and the youngest Demetri who is now in high school playing for the Razorbacks high school side. Needless to say they are an athletic rugby playing family.
Siupeli, the oldest of the Sakalia brothers currently playing for the Razorbacks, is also the oldest player for the Razorbacks at just 28ys old. He was one of youngest players on the Razorbacks side that won the D2 National Championship back in 2009. Etika, who is 27, has been playing with Siupeli since they where kids as both started out with Peninsula Green (Penn-Green) before the establishment of the Razorbacks High School program at which time they moved to the Razorbacks. Etika also logged in a three seasons at Central Washington University playing rugby for the Wildcats.
Both Siupeli and Etika are starters for the Razorback, but also All-Star selections for the NorCal Pelicans, (NorCal’s Selects Sides/Provincial side). Siupeli started out as a Center with the Razorbacks and in the past few years has transition to playing 8-Man (which he also plays for the Pelicans). Etika has also moved around in the backline and currently plays Fly Half for both the Razorbacks and Pelicans.
The youngest of the Sakalia brothers playing for the Razorbacks is Junior, who himself has a impressive rugby resume. Junior started play with the Razorbacks youth sides in 2007. In high school, Junior was selected to the NorCal U-17 Grizzly side that toured Hawaii. He then made the USA U-18 All American side and had the opportunity to go on tour in South Africa! He now is a starter for an excellent DI Razorbacks side as either wing or fullback. He’s also contending for a Pelican’s selection soon!
The three have been playing together for the DI Razorbacks side for the past three seasons. They are excellent players who play the game hard, but fair. Side note Siupeli is one of the hardest hitters in NorCal and his hits/tackles are all clean. Last year the Razorbacks made it to the NorCal DI semifinals and this year they went 12-0-1 in NorCal’s DI (including playoffs), represented NorCal in the Inaugural California Cup vs Belmont Shore. The Razorbacks were the NorCal representatives in USA Rugby Club Playoffs (Nationals).
We wanted to know what it’s like playing with your actual brothers and Siupeli said “When you play rugby, or on our team, everyone is close so its like you are all brothers. But, with my actual brothers, it’s a bit different”. Siupeli said playing with his two brothers two years ago was different than this year. At first he felt he needed to be the “older brother” to look out for his brothers, be more protective. This season he said “I had to tell them you have to play your game, you can’t be focused on who did what your brother, you need to play your game, and let them handle their own business. Sometime I have to tell them get over what happened and just play”. Siupeli said that as the oldest player and the oldest brother out there he has a much higher expectations from Etika and Junior and has no reservations to tell them if they need to step it up, work harder, or to focus. Siupeli shared with us that it’s gone from him and his brothers feeling like they need to “protect” each other to now it being an out right competition. They are trying to now out work and out play each other. “As the old man, I have to take the competition seriously and show I still got it” says Siupeli with a laugh. Siupeli says his role now is more to set the tone for the Sakalia brothers and in the games make sure they are staying on track. He says “sometimes one of us (brothers) may feel that we a got cheap shot, and I just tell them it happens, don’t worry about what someone did to you, focus on the game and what you need to do”. This is one of the biggest things that time has changed for the Sakalia brothers and that is while they still care for each other, they feel that each can take care of themselves on the pitch.
One of the biggest things for the Razorbacks this year was winning NorCal and making it to nationals. Etika said, “I remember when the Razorbacks won nationals. Then a few years later we were at the bottom with seasons where we won just 1-2 games, but to make it back to the top and make nationals, that’s one of the best experiences for me this season”. Etika and Siupeli both have been around to see the glory days and the hard times for the Razorbacks, but they have persevered to make it back on top.
Etika shared that he went from being one of the youngest players to now being one of the oldest, and seeing the change over the past few seasons. Etika said “we have such a young team and I think this season was great because it gave them a feel for what success is and what it takes”. The Razorbacks who if you saw them this year would easily say they could win the National Championships fell short at Nationals. Junior credited the Dallas RFC (Reds) for their solid play which led to the defeat of the Razorbacks. Junior said “we suffered a lot of injuries in the California Cup and lost a few players for nationals. A lot of guys had to play with injuries and/or out of position to try and adjust for the losses”. Junior played with a swollen knee, his brother Siupeli had to move from 8 and fill in at Center; Etika had a meniscus tear and all still played. Etika said that “Injuries played a factor at nationals, but that’s not an excuse, you have to play, and Dallas brought it”! The Razorbacks took the loss in stride, not making excused, but rather looking at the loss at nationals as a great learning lesson. “We know what to expect at nationals now” said Junior.
So what’s next for the Sakalia brothers and the Razorbacks? Junior feels its simple, the younger players now know what needs to be done to get to the next level and the summer should be used to prep for next year. The Razorbacks are a young side, but they have two great older players (Siupeli and Etika) who have been to the top and know what it takes to get back, now the rest of the players understand what it takes. The Razorbacks will be running in the NorCal 7s Qualifier this summer, while focused on the coming season and another shot at nationals. All three feel that everyone now understands that at Nationals the tone is different, “its next level and you have to step your game up. I’ll be pushing my brothers to do so, and they’ll be pushing Me.” said Siupeli.
In several years the Razorbacks have turned their club around. Of the three Sakalia brothers two are Pelicans (EPA Razorbacks have 7 players on the Pelicans side). Junior is hopeful with continued work to make the side next year and have all three brothers be Pelicans. However, more than the individual achievements all three brothers are focused on taking their club back to nationals and another crack at that DI Championship.
Left to Right- Etkia , Junior and Siupeli (Steve)