For Siupeli (Steve for those who can’t pronounce his name) Sakalia, the opportunity to play rugby professionally has been the chance he’s been waiting for most his adult life. Siupeli has been playing rugby since he was a child, as has most his family, he’s played at a high level and always wanted to chance to play at the next level, but here in the states until this season there really wasn’t an realistic option.
When PRO Rugby came about, it opened a window for Siupeli (6’2” 240-lb), a forward to play professionally. This was an opportunity of a life time. Currently, Siupeli has started at #8, flanker and lock for the professional club in San Francisco, but long before he was a starting forward for a PRO Rugby San Francisco, Siupeli was a back. That’s right for years he played in the backs for the East Palo Alto Razorbacks. He was the youngest player on their 2009 team that won the D2 National Championship! He’s been one of the oldest players on the resurgent EPA Razorback team that has been one of the teams to beat in NorCal’s D1 over the last three years. Last summer he was a part of the EPA Razorback 7s side that made it to nationals and he’s also been a stalwart on the NorCal Selects/All Stars the Pelicans.
We asked Siupeli if him being a standout on the Pelican’s led to him landing the professional contract, but for Siupeli it didn’t. Siupeli believes it did bring him to the attention of coaches and scouts at PRO Rugby, however he was invited to the initial PRO Rugby combine to tryout with the rest. He was told he’d have to perform there to have a shot. Siupeli is the quite type, not flashy, not boastful, just a silent assassin who puts in the work methodically. So Siupeli did attend the initial combine. “I was one of 5 players who as the combine ended was told that we would be selected. They told us that we were in, and would be getting contracts” he says with just a slight hint of pride (but not boastful).
Now for those have that have followed PRO Rugby, and specifically San Francisco, will recall that Siupeli was a last minute signing (the week of the initial game). “The contract took a long time to finalize, even thought I was one of the early players to get an contact offer” says Siupeli. He explained that having a family for him changed some of the options, and one of the things for him was to have the medical coverage he needed to be able to play full-time. One of his two sons has Type 1 Diabetes and so ensuring that his family had medical coverage was key. “The contract and the coverage would take care of me, but it couldn’t cover my son, and so that was an issue, I couldn’t leave my job with the insurance. Steve Lewis (of PRO Rugby) tried to negotiate that for a long time, but in the end we couldn’t get it done and that was one of the biggest delays,” explained Siupeli.
So Siupeli who has been a starter for PRO Rugby’s San Francisco and has started every game so far, is still working full-time, primarily for the insurance to cover his family and his son’s condition. While the opportunity is great, its not a lucrative contract at this point in the league's early existence, and some players have needed to maintaining other work to offset costs of living and playing.
For Siupeli getting signed to play for San Francisco was the ideal situation, as it kept him close to home and so there really was no change for his family. In this case he was able to maintain his day job and still train with the team due to the proximity of his job, home and the team. Best of all, playing up the road in San Francisco allow for his family and two sons to watch him play. He would also continue to play for coaches Keeler and Ferris (both coaches for the NorCal Pelicans).
Siupeli a proud father of two boys (Luke and Alofangia) said that one of the best things about this opportunity has been for his sons to see him play professionally. They are both old enough to understand that he’s a pro and have an grasp of rugby. One is even serving as ambassador for the league. Siupeli shared “My oldest loves to tell people that I’m a professional rugby player. It’s the first thing he tells people. Then people start to say they didn’t know there was professional rugby here in America and so they start to learn about the league, and just the level of rugby we have here in America”. He shared that his son was extremely upset when the gave against Denver was not streamed for him to watch, sounds like he’s a true fan.
Siupeli and all his family have played rugby (see a story we did on him and several brothers last year) and so rugby is naturally something that his boys are gravitating toward. With their father as a pro Luke and Alofangia are already taking about starting to play rugby and building their game for the future.
For Siupeli’s family the desire to play professionally is not limited to his to sons anymore. Initially one of his younger brothers who had played last with Metropolis (he has two other standouts who play for the Razorbacks as well) was invited to attend one of the combines, but he was skeptical as many where at the onset with the effort to establish PRO Rugby. Today he says “Man, now everyone is asking me about PRO Rugby, and a lot of my family, friends, etc see that its real, they see that I’m playing and made it and so they are all wanting to get involved next season. I think that’s good for everyone”.
Siupeli admits that it’s been a bit of work to balance everything; working full-time, playing professionally, training, and still having his family time. As a dedicated family man, that has been one of the biggest challenges to balance the time demands, get it all done and still make sure he has time for this family and boys. Siupeli said the fact that his wife stays home and is able to focus on their sons, does give him the time, but he is still way a lot of time. “We are making it work for now,” says Siupeli “so its all good”.
Do to the fact he works (work schedule) and some of the commute (bay area traffic) to trainings he does miss a deal of important work the team is doing, but he reported that he’s supplemented that on his own. “I’ve had to do the fitness and the gym work on my own. I’ve been able to work with a Crossfit Gym in Santa Clara and that has really helped. I mean that crossfit has been ideal for me in terms of training, conditioning and getting the fitness in for rugby that I can’t get with the team all the time” explained Siupeli.
When we were chatting with Siupeli we asked what really helped prepare him for not only playing professionally but allowing him to be a starter still not being able to commit full-time to the team. We tried to focus on his level of talent being a key, but a humble Siupeli wouldn’t acknowledge that even though he’s been a standout for years. Instead Siupeli credits things like the NorCal Pelican’s Program. “That system allows you to play with the best players in NorCal, and also face other top select sides” explained Siupeli. “We really got to see some of the best as Pelicans in games versus SoCal Griffins, versus Texas All Stars and we have stood out against the competition”.
He goes on to say “Orene Ai’I who was an All Black and is now our fly-half has been surprised by the level and quality of the talent here in America, and seeking how a number of the players in the league are from here in California”. Siupeli has played against the topside competition most of his career, and that has paid off. He’s been able to hold his own for the first half of the PRO season. He goes on to credit the competition in NorCal that forced him to become a better player by citing the following, “You know Mil Muliaina just got here this week, and he’s another professional and All Black. In the short time he has been here he’s seen training and seeing footage of rugby in the bay area, he has been shocked by the amount of talent here in the bay area and NorCal. Youth, club, college, pro, we do have a lot of talent, and that makes a lot of us become better”.
We asked Siupeli why he felt his team has not had the results many had expected with the level and depth of talent on the San Francisco team going into Sunday’s game against Ohio? Siupeli noted that the team has had some injuries that has impacted their ability to gel and build cohesion, but there is also just the fact that they haven’t played as much together. “We have guys who are familiar with each other but we haven’t had an entire team play together until now” Siupeli points out. “I think we are almost there, I think we’ll be different the second half of the season, and if you look at the scores, we are one of the top scoring teams”. The issue with San Francisco hasn’t been talent as Siupeli notes, which has to be frustration, but for him its just a matter of working harder and keeping positive. The PRO Rugby San Francisco has been able to compete in nearly all of its games, just hasn't been able to finish.
We pointed out to Siupeli that he’s now played every position in the pack except for front row. With some laughter he did acknowledge that he’s been in several different spots in the pack, but that wherever he is playing he feels he can contribute and is happy the coaches have him on the field. What Siupeli did admit to, was that if and it was only a “if” …he had a preference it would be playing at #8 and that’s only because it gives him more opportunity to have the ball in hand. As a long time #8 and before that a center, moving with the ball in hand is just more natural for him.
In the end Siupeli believes he’s fortunate to be a part of the inaugural PRO Rugby season, and that he’s now been able to live out a dream to play professional rugby. He said he still catches himself going “I’m really out here with these pros, with these internationally capped players, and that I am actually holding my own. Sometimes it feels unreal”.
With his breaking into the professional ranks Siupeli, feels his work other than playing it to be an example for others. To demonstrate to the young kids, to his sons, siblings, teammates, former opponents that they too can make it and have an option to take their rugby to another level. “I want the young players to see that I did it, and they can too, to show them it can be done” shares Siupeli. For him that’s the best part of playing PRO Rugby, to show others they can do it too!
We want to thank Siupeli (and his brother Junior for setting up the interview) for making time in his very busy schedule to chat with us, and for really holding a great example of a professional.