Getting A Global Perspective On Rugby In California

Orene Ai'i of the SF Rush with the ball against Denver Stampede. Photo by  Broadfootography  2016.

Orene Ai'i of the SF Rush with the ball against Denver Stampede. Photo by Broadfootography 2016.

If you want to get a good perspective of rugby in the Golden State you’d want some someone who has been involved at all levels of rugby to give you their take.   You’d want someone involved with youth level, involved with club rugby (at the various levels), and if possible with sheer luck, someone with professional and even international experience.  Someone like that could provide some great insight and perspective on the state of the game.  

So where can you find such a person?

We happen to have been fortunate enough to find someone who met all that criteria. He is a former All Black, long time professional, World Rugby 7s Player of the Year, youth coach, club rugby player and even was involved with the now defunct PRO Rugby.  Of course we are talking about Orene Ai’i!   

We caught up with Orene while he was working at the Rhinos Rugby Academy- Sacramento  training facility where he is the High Performance Coach, working with players from 8 years of age to U-18s. 

Orene had first contemplated coming to the USA back in 2011-2012 when is friend Andy Katoa who was USA Eagles 7s Team Manager suggested he come to California.  At that time Orene was still playing rugby professionally and was playing in New Zealand's ITM Cup competition so that was not an option.  A few years later though when he was through with playing rugby professionally he relocated to California to take up coaching with Granite Bay.  Granite Bay (which is located in the greater Sacramento area) is one of the top youth club and high school rugby programs in the county. 

Orene noted that what makes the Granite Bay program so successful  is they have set up the infrastructure which allows players to excel. “It’s a program” he says “that is about teaching and developing players. That is why so many of those players go on to play in college, because the are not just playing rugby but developed as players”.  Orene also credited the great coaching staff that the program has had as well as the commitment from the families of the players who support the program.

When we had chatted with Orene, he’d just returned from the Great Northwest Challenge in Oregon where the NorCal All-Stars dominated. The Sac Varsity All Stars team went 4-0, the Bay Area Varsity All Stars went 3-1,  the Girls Varsity dropped just one game and the Girls JV went on to win it all. “It’s impressive to see all this talent and to see that the development is happening so much earlier” a reflective Orene shared.

So how did Orene end up with Life West (in the East Bay) a few years ago and help them win a USA Rugby D2 National Championship? “I was having a lot of fun coaching the youth and the games were on Friday nights, so my Saturdays were free. I felt I was still in good shape and my body was rested, so I just posted something on Facebook asking what are some good rugby clubs” says Orene.  One of the people to respond to his post was Adriaan Ferris, who had taken over the Life West programs. Ferris had coached Orene when he played with Northland in the ITC Cup competition back in New Zealand and so he offered for Orene to come play at Life West with him. Now, for Orene it was appealing to rejoin Ferris a prior coach of his, but there was the issue of the commute.  It’s about a two hour drive each way not counting any traffic. 

After discussing the options, Coach Ferris allowed Orene to make it to training once a week, as long as he maintained his own fitness. So each Thursday during the season Orene would finish his coaching duties with Granite Bay, get in the car to make the two hour drive to Hayward to train with Life West and then after that drive the two hours back home to Sacramento.
In his case, this arrangement worked. Orene was still fit and as a former professional and international 7s player he knew how to maintain his own fitness and so he was able to get by with being at Life West’s training once a week. Also his knowledge of the game allowed him to adapt and understand the game plan that Ferris was implementing just being there once a week.  “It was worth the time and effort” recalls Orene “when we won the D2 National Championship!”

Orene was one of the early big name players to become involved with PRO Rugby (specifically the San Francisco Rush).  “Coach Ferris was involved in the early discussions, and he kept telling me that they may be professional rugby starting in the US and if it did that NorCal was one of the places it would start”  Orene recounted.  So when it did come to fruition, Orene had some options. A team was set up in the bay area where he played and a team was set up in Sacramento where he lived, but when Ferris went to be an assistant coach with the SF Rush, Orene opted to continued to play with his coach whom he had experience with and a personal relationship. "When PRO was starting out I felt I was still physically able to play, and I was really excited to be a part of this new opportunity in the USA, and to be a pioneer”  recalls Orene.

Now, Orene has played rugby professionally almost half of this life. He has played in Super Rugby, the HSBC Sevens World Series circuit, for All Blacks, in Japan and with Toulonnais (Toulon) in the French Top 14. Going to play in PRO for him was not unusual and he initially though being one of the older players he could provide some guidance and leadership to the newer players who were getting their first experience at being professionals in the game.

We asked Orene if PRO Rugby was a subject he wanted to talk about, as there were players who have some legal disputes and have opted not to speak about it. Orene laughing says “yeah mate…Well they terminated the contracts right so people can say whatever they want, but I’m fine with talking about the experience”.

When PRO started, Orene found it very promising. He reported that many players were excited about the opportunity to play rugby and get paid for it, to be able to do that full-time was a dream for many, and for Orene, he was more excited that they boys got to experience being a professional rugby player than him playing professionally again.

I’ll tell you there was a lot that we were told to expect, for it to be a real professional setting, but there wasn’t a lot of delivery” noted a disappointed Orene.  He said that he and others were excited to be professionals, but for the Rush the issue early on was with facilities. They were not able to get the training facilities they needed. “I’m not knocking soccer, but you are a professional team and players having to split a field with a social soccer group... that  doesn’t make you feel like a professional” he said. He did note that this was his experience with the Rush, and that the guys in Ohio and other teams seemed to have better set up and access to resources.  “What is frustrating is you are trying to get young guys, new professional guys to get into that mind set, but they didn’t have what they needed to be professionals. We did our best and the coaches and the boys stayed positive and made it work”

Orene, a class act wouldn’t make excuses, but it was clear from the discussion that the inconsistency with being able to train at a set spot/times, the lack of stability and resources available to the Rush did impact one of the more talented teams in the PRO competition.  

We asked him “In the end did PRO help or hurt rugby in the USA”?  He responded instantly with “it was good for rugby. Any time you can have something like that even if it didn’t work out was good. Look at the guys like David Tameilau or Langilangi who got to be seen and make it to Eagles and other professional opportunities”.  Orene goes on saying“I played against Langilangi when he was with EPA and I was with Life West, and without PRO,  national selectors wouldn’t have had a chance to see him. So many guys got to be seen because of PRO. It’s really a pity it didn’t work out as I do think it would have been great for rugby in the USA. I hope the new MLR takes a look at that and can learn from it”.

Orene said from an international standpoint he is concerned that many talented players in NorCal who play D1, who got a chance to be seen with the likes of PRO may not have a way to showcase their abilities now for the Eagles. “I hope if the MLR grows, that the teams do look at some of these guys playing in NorCal’s D1 and give them a shot”.

Orene holding the #10 jersesy with this cousin to the left. 2017

Orene holding the #10 jersesy with this cousin to the left. 2017

This season Orene played with NorCal’s Fresno Rugby Football Club (Fresno FRC) who had just moved back down to D2. We asked him how did he go from PRO to a local D2 club that’s not in his area? Orene said that after PRO and his age, he was getting ready to call it a day. He had the opportunity to play near home (Sac Lions, Sac Blackhawks, and Sac Capitals). Fresno however, is the club where his cousin Rodney Tuisavalalo was playing. They grew up together but really hadn’t played with each other since they were kids back on the islands in Samoa. Orene wanted a chance to play with his cousin as his playing days were winding down so he talked to Rod to see if it could work. “So it was a chance to play with my cousin, and I’d played against the Fresno boys, I knew their coach Frik Fourier from Pelicans/Selects Sides and they are a good group who always played hard. They play most their away games closer to me anyways so it would work” shared Orene. That is how Fresno landed Orene. On a side note Fresno now has had two International 7s players  play for them. The other is former USA 7s Captain Jason Raven who started with them.

So we asked Orene now that he’s worked with youth, local clubs, and professional ranks here in the California what is his take on the state of the game. Orene’s take is that the game is on the right track, especially  with the youth. He does think there needs to be more focus on the youth. He suggested getting more youth players into more select sides to play against other selects, and then pull from there to form a higher level selects, to grow the pool of players that can be seen and evaluated. “I’ll tell you this” said Orene “the top guys with the Eagles won’t be there much longer or after this coming world cup, as most those guys are getting older, that is the nature of the game, so you need to have the next generation getting ready, and the one after that, and the one after that”.

Orene's observations included that the talent and athletes are there and the numbers continue to grow. Where the development needs to happen in his opinion is development of more quality coaches who can then focus on development of players at a younger age and for a longer period. He said a return of a viable professional game in the States would also help a great deal, as it would provide some “career” options for some players. He believes that having that would give players options, and those who wanted to go that path would need to seek out colleges to where they could  develop in college systems or U-20 programs so they can become professionals.  “All these things could help build a broader and clearer path for players to become Eagles”.  Orene is a big supporter of getting more players seen, getting them playing against the other top players to be able to assess and showcase the younger talent.

We asked him what would be his recommendation to USA Rugby and he said “to focus on rugby”. He doesn’t think USA Rugby should put all its efforts into just 7s (even though its now and Olympic sport) and sacrifice 15s, or to just focus on 15s for a world up. He suggested that the USA focus on both. “Yeah guys may be interested in 7s to be Olympians, but I can tell you there are a lot of guys that would be more trilled to be a part of the World Cup or to win a World Cup” notes Orene. 

He noted in some systems the best 15s players develop in the 7s systems and so that can work, but if the game is going to become more specialized (7s vs 15s) then to balance the development and focus of both.

Last we asked Orene if he felt referee development was also important. We really asked him this because of a yellow card he received this past season for arguing with a referee. After chucking he says “on a serious side it’s a big part of the game and so we also need to develop referees. The issue is we need everyone to be trained the same and to really be interpreting the laws the same, its when they don’t that they either confuse and frustrate players, and have an impact on the outcome of a game. No one is perfect but the laws need to be consistent for quality of the games to be good”.

We got some great insight from a true rugby expert with Orene Ai’i. We are grateful for his time and sharing his experiences,  including PRO. We’ll be visiting again with Orene very soon to learn more about the work he is doing with Rhinos Rugby Academy and its efforts and focus with youth. 

Thank you to Orene Ai'i for his time and the introduction by Rodney Tuisavalalo! Cheers.