Sunday, March 1, 2009 | 1 a.m.
The “Clash of the Polynesians” rugby game turned the Desert Breeze Soccer Complex into a tropical storm Saturday when the San Pedro Rhinos rugby club defeated the Las Vegas Silverbacks 37-6.
“I’m going to say it was between the top two Polynesian teams in the division, because we are the only Polynesian teams in the division,” Silverbacks President Dane Ngahuka said.
The Silverbacks are a first-year team in the Southern California Rugby Football Union’s Men’s Open Division. They are the youngest of three rugby clubs in the Las Vegas Valley, but they are the only Polynesian-orientated team in town.
“We’re made up of Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian and pakeha (caucasian) players, but we also have an American boy from Oklahoma and a 6-foot-5 former basketball player from South America,” Ngahuka said. “So it’s a Polynesian club, but not necessarily just Polynesians -- whoever wants to come and play.”
The Silverbacks' membership policies are all-inclusive, but their team culture is very much Polynesian.
For example, after each home game the team invites all in attendance to a post game hangi, which is a traditional Polynesian feast cooked in an underground pit oven similar to a luau.
And the Silverbacks' signature “haka,” a traditional Polynesian war dance, is performed before and after each match.
This combination of rugby and Polynesian culture caught the attention of New Zealand Consul-General John Mataira, who took time away from a joint New Zealand and Australian trade mission for renewable energy technology to attend the “Clash of the Polynesians.”
“I think (rugby) provides a useful meeting point, a sort of touchstone of our culture,” said Mataira, who is a Polynesian of Maori descent. “We can celebrate together, and it brings people together from all walks of life. Rugby is the great equalizer in New Zealand and it’s a sport that has multicultural links throughout the Pacific.”
Rugby is a popular sport in the Pacific, with athletes from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand playing at all levels of the game. Ngahuka estimates there to be 15 to 20 Polynesian-orientated rugby clubs on the West Coast alone.
One such team is the San Pedro Rhinos, coached by 14-year U.S. national rugby team veteran Barry Williams.
Williams’ experience and longevity gave his team the edge in the “Clash of the Polynesians,” as the Rhinos remained the lone undefeated team in the men’s open division with their win over the Silverbacks.
“My advantage was I played with the U.S. team for so long that I picked up quite a few things by traveling and playing with other teams and other countries,” Williams said.
However, the game was not as one-sided as the score suggested as the teams went into the half with the score at 10-6 in favor of the Rhinos.
“In the first half I told my boys to just hold your ground because there’s a hurricane coming to town,” Williams said. “I knew (the Silverbacks) were big boys and they would be up for it in the first half.”
Big is almost an understatement as the Silverback forwards, a group of athletes that could be compared to linemen in football, have an average weight of 270 pounds.
“Our game plan was to just try and wear them down slowly because we knew we were going to get them in the second half,” Williams said.
Rhino player Tyler Williams sparked the second half run using his soccer background to go 7-of-7 in goal kicking and to set up a dazzling try (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown).
“It showed that they were fitter, you know, running our big boys around,” Silverbacks coach Graeme Neil said. “I won’t take it away from us though because we knew that was coming and we put all effort in and gave them a game.”
The Silverbacks now drop to 2-3, but are exceeding expectations for a team in just their first year of competition.
“I think Graeme and the guys in Vegas are doing a pretty good job of promoting the game up there,” Williams said.