Luke Graham: Take notice now
July 30, 2007
It was hard not to notice Matekitonga Moeakiola at Saturday’s Ski Town rugby tournament.
The Tonga native stands 6 feet tall and weighs 260 pounds. Moeakiola is like a little tank. His legs are like logs. His chest is like a drum. He’s like a cross between an NFL fullback and a Strongman competitor.
He’s also one of the best rugby players in the country.
Moeakiola came to Steamboat on Saturday to watch the Ski Town tournament after working with the U.S. national team at a team building camp in Aspen the previous few days.
The U.S. team is preparing for the September Rugby World Cup in France.
The United States will be considered heavy underdogs going into the event, with strong teams from New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa expected to win.
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And while Moeakiola’s size and big personality weren’t hard to notice, the sport of rugby – among tons of others – is.
It may be why we’re considered an underdog. In America, rugby’s a fringe sport. Something those crazy foreign boys play.
Americans naturally stick to what they know – baseball, basketball, football, hockey and auto racing.
While television and money have a lot to do with it, for sports to be interesting to the common fans – the ones who aren’t diehard but keep informed – sports that garner our attention all have common traits.
There’s lots of scoring and action. They’re physical, sometimes bordering on violent. They’re fast and feature some of the best athletes in the world. As a nation, we’ve succeeded in them on a global level.
Succeeding and knowing we’re the best might mean the most.
Look what happened when the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the gold medal and World Cup in the 1990s.
They sold out arenas.
Like many sports, rugby hasn’t broken into the spotlight. But unlike a lot of sports that Americans may dub as fringy, rugby has a legitimate shot at making it big.
Not to say other sports aren’t entertaining. Soccer has battled for American attention for years. It’s doing some great things with Major League Soccer and the U-20 team’s showing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup earlier this month.
Still, Americans will never totally embrace soccer when you see 1-0 games, players not using their hands, a lack of physicality and early exits in the World Cup.
But rugby has everything Americans want.
High scoring? Check. In four games Saturday, Steamboat scored 150 points.
Physicality? Absolutely. The injuries Saturday included a ripped-off earlobe, a hole the size of a quarter in a guy’s forehead, a busted ankle and a shoulder dislocation.
Athletes? Check. A quick look at some of the size of the guys Saturday, and it’s easy to tell this isn’t for your average Joe.
But will rugby succeed where so many have failed?
It likely will take a strong showing at a World Cup to do so. That will be tough with the competition and level of play.
But they’ll have the stage to do it. Four-billion fans are expected to watch the televised matches, making the World Cup the third largest worldwide sporting event behind the Olympic games and the FIFA World Cup.
And according to Moeakiola, the gap and level of play is narrowing between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Moeakiola said the difference between the number of quality players in America this year and last year is amazing.
“I can see it in another five to 10 years from now being huge,” Moeakiola said. “It’s going to be big here in the U.S.”
And if that happens – and my guess is yes – Moeakiola won’t be the only U.S. rugby player who’s hard to notice.
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