Las Vegas Sun

November 15, 2018

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He’s a star, if inconspicuous

Local rugby player lending his skill to the U.S. national team

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Steve Marcus

Life in the Las Vegas Valley: Vahafolau “Vaha” Esikia, his wife, Siva, and sons Leo, 1, and Ami, 4, live in Henderson. In addition to playing for the Las Vegas Blackjacks rugby team, the 28-year-old native of Tonga works for a company that does nonmedical home care. “They’re so happy I’m there,” he says of his clients. “It’s a great joy.”

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Career abroad beckons: Esikia shows a jersey from last year's Rugby World Cup played in France. An agent in France has fielded offers from two teams there and one in Italy.

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  • Vaha Esikia discusses if turning down a football scholarship to Oregon to serve a two-year church mission in Connecticut was the right choice.

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  • Esikia answers whether he feels like one of the top players in the world.

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  • Esikia on marking boyhood idol Mike Catt of England in the World Cup.

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  • Esikia's wife, Siva, describes watching him play against England in the World Cup in France in a packed Crown & Anchor Pub on television.

Vahafolau Esikia

  • Nickname: Vaha
  • Age: 28
  • Birthplace: Neiafu, Tonga
  • Residence: Henderson
  • Height: 5-foot-11
  • Weight: 215 pounds
  • Family: Wife, Siva; sons Ami (4 years old) and Leo (1 year old)
  • Occupation: Nonmedical home care provider
  • Hobby: Has appeared 11 times at inside center on the U.S. national rugby union team, the Eagles. He started all four matches — losses to England, Tonga, Samoa and South Africa — in the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France and hopes to play in the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. His scoring try on the last play of a recent playoff match against White Plains advanced his Las Vegas Blackjacks club team to the quarterfinals. He is in Canada with the Eagles for the Barclays Churchill Cup.

The Eagles

So just how good are the Eagles, the U.S. national rugby team? Here are some of their vital statistics in international play.

Rugby World Cup

The event, inaugurated in 1987, occurs every four years. The Eagles did not qualify for one tourney.

  • 1987:One victory, third in pool
  • 1991: No wins, fourth in pool
  • 1995: Did not qualify
  • 1999: No wins, fourth in pool
  • 2003: One win, fourth in pool
  • 2007: No win, one bonus point, fifth in pool

How they stack up

The Eagles’ overall record in international play.

  • Argentina: 0-9
  • Australia: 0-6
  • Barbados: 1-0
  • Bermuda: 1-0
  • Canada: 11-30-1
  • Chile: 1-1
  • England: 0-5
  • Fiji: 1-3
  • France: 1-6
  • Hong Kong: 3-4
  • Ireland: 0-5
  • Italy: 0-2
  • Japan: 12-3-1
  • New Zealand: 0-2
  • New Zealand Maori: 0-2
  • Portugal: 1-0
  • Romania: 4-1
  • Russia: 1-0
  • Samoa: 0-3
  • Scotland: 0-3
  • South Africa: 0-3
  • USSR: 0-1
  • Spain: 3-0
  • Tonga: 1-2
  • Tunisia: 1-0
  • Uruguay: 8-1
  • Wales: 0-6

Barclays Churchill Cup

The tournament, named after Winston Churchill, was launched in 2003 to promote rugby in North America. The tourney mainstays are teams from the United States, Canada and England. Three more are invited to round out the draw.

This year's teams

  • Pool A: Argentina, Canada, Scotland
  • Pool B: England, Ireland, United States

Schedule

  • Saturday in Ottawa, Ontario: England vs. United States, Canada vs. Scotland
  • June 11 in Kingston, Ontario: Argentina vs. Scotland, Ireland vs. United States
  • June 14 in Toronto: England vs. Ireland, Argentina vs. Canada

Finals

June 21 at Soldier Field in Chicago: Pool A winner vs. Pool B winner for first and second place; Pool A second vs. Pool B second for third and fourth place; Pool A third vs. Pool B third for fifth and last place

Past winners

  • 2003: England
  • 2004: New Zealand
  • 2005: England
  • 2006: New Zealand
  • 2007: England

The boy erupts when Vahafolau “Vaha” Esikia, one of the elite rugby players in the country, walks through the door.

Cell phones intrigue the mentally challenged boy so much that Esikia gave him one of his old models. The lights of the phone energize the boy when he turns it on.

“He thinks it’s the best toy,” Esikia says. “That’s the only time he’s happy.”

Esikia shines in the eyes of many in the valley who depend on him to bathe them, clean their homes or simply talk with them.

He assists a roster of needy and elderly clients for a nonmedical home health care company and must be available around the clock for emergencies.

Born in Tonga, he has a desire, fueled by his Polynesian roots, to help others. They glow when they see him. When he visits a new client, that light usually is dim.

“As you visit, those eyes ‘come back,’ ” Esikia says. “Some of them just need a friend, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. They’re so happy I’m there. It’s a great joy.”

Continuing to get established in that industry and keeping his family settled in Las Vegas might keep Esikia from earning international fame in the game he loves.

“Family and helping those in need are very important,” he says. “It’s not mandatory. It’s something Polynesians always do. That might keep me from exploring options overseas.”

Esikia, 28, made the jump from the Las Vegas Blackjacks club team to the U.S. national rugby union team, called the Eagles, at an all-star performance in Florida two years ago.

Previous tryouts for the Eagles didn’t go so well. In Florida, he played free and easy, not worrying about who was watching.

Officials from USA Rugby were watching closely. They especially liked how he stripped the ball from foes, and he was invited onto the squad for the Rugby World Cup in France last year.

“There are people who run, people who hit, and people who hit and steal balls,” Blackjacks teammate Glen Amador said. “He’s all three. Wow, he’s a special player.”

In September, Esikia started for the Eagles against defending World Cup champion England in Lens, France.

He wore No. 12 at the inside center position, marking his boyhood idol Mike Catt, who played 75 matches during his 14 years on the English national team. The Eagles were praised for losing only 28-10. After the match, Catt asked Esikia to swap jerseys.

“A great player,” Esikia says. “But I realized he bleeds the same way as I do.”

Half a world away, in a packed Crown & Anchor Pub in Las Vegas, his wife, Siva, and a friend had paid $20 to stand and cheer for Esikia and the Eagles. He broke away once and nearly scored.

“He was in front of everybody,” she says. “But he ran and, I don’t know. Honey, were you nervous? Were you excited?”

Sitting on a couch next to his wife, Esikia smiles. He was trying to hand the ball to speedy winger Takudzwa Ngwenya, who got snagged in traffic.

“And I got caught,” Esikia says.

Before a World Cup match against Tonga, Esikia sang both national anthems. He was born and raised by grandparents in the village of Neiafu, Tonga.

Rugby, the national sport, was in his blood. An uncle, Alatini Saulala, was an explosive outside center for the U.S. national team and coaches a premier club team in San Mateo, Calif.

That’s where Esikia moved, at 10, to live with his American-born parents. He played high school football but turned down a scholarship offer to the University of Oregon to serve a two-year Mormon mission in Connecticut.

“It was a hard decision,” Esikia says. “I took a chance. I wanted to serve the Lord first. Whatever came after that would be the outcome of my hard work.”

He has become a mainstay on the Eagles. After helping the Blackjacks win their first Southern California Division One regular-season championship this season, he received another invitation from the national team.

Esikia left Sunday to join the squad for the Barclays Churchill Cup in Canada, and he will play for the Eagles in a tournament in Japan this year.

He acknowledges feeling butterflies when he slips on a U.S. uniform.

“I’m always getting them,” he says. “They help. A lot of people get nervous. They break down. That butterfly usually is a tool for me to get ready for the games.”

More butterflies are on their way. Tonga’s ties to Great Britain influenced Esikia to keep dual citizenship, with the United States and Tonga, for tax advantages if he plays rugby in Europe.

An agent there has fielded offers from two French professional clubs and one in Italy, and a Japanese agent is testing that market.

“I’m not going to stop him,” Siva Esikia says. “He’s been doing this all his life. It’s his dream.”

Their two young boys politely buzz around the apartment. A third child is on the way. Esikia’s yellow and white cleats are airing out on the patio ledge.

Since the World Cup, fans recognize him as that guy who started against England and marked Catt.

“A lot of people say I have an opportunity to be famous,” Esikia says. “But it’s hard. I enjoy living here and playing with the Blackjacks. It’s all up in the air.”

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