Tagaloa completes incredible journey to World Cup
WIDNES, England (AP) — If not for the rugby league World Cup, Loto Tagaloa would be back home on the Hawaiian coast, educating tourists about the lifestyle of a typical Samoan man.
He’d be there in the Polynesian Culture Center in Laie, performing dances to entertain visitors as they ate roast pig at a traditional Hawaiian feast, the luau.
Instead, Tagaloa this week was more than 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) away in murky northwestern England, getting ready to impress scouts of the best club teams in Europe and the southern hemisphere and help his adopted United States make a splash at its first World Cup.
“My goal is to secure a contract by the end of the World Cup for an NRL team (in Australia) or any team, maybe in Super League in Europe,” Tagaloa said. “Anyone who will have me.”
A hard-running, hard-tackling center, Tagaloa has played only three full internationals for the U.S. Tomahawks. But he has the potential to be one of the team’s standout players at the World Cup, which is being held across Europe.
His future looks extremely bright, but it’s his back story that really fascinates.
Born in Samoa, Tagaloa moved to Hawaii in 2010 to go to university on the recommendation of his parents.
He was already a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which also has a church in Hawaii, so he settled on the state’s Brigham Young University campus, where he studies exercise and sport science. He attends through a program which sees the school pay for Tagaloa’s studies in return for him working at the Polynesian Culture Center.
“Part of my job is to teach people about my culture in Samoa, particularly the role of men,” the softly spoken Tagaloa told The Associated Press before a Tomahawks training session in Widnes, near Liverpool. “For example, doing the cooking — in Samoa, men do the cooking — climbing coconut trees, farming, hunting, fishing. They do a lot of things.
“People from all over the world come over, and they love learning about it.”
They also love his Samoan dancing.
“It’s the highlight of the dinner,” Tagaloa said with a wide grin.
He has already played for Samoa’s rugby league team, but after moving to Hawaii he started playing for a local rugby union club. Before long, Tagaloa was back in the 13-man code — bizarrely turning out for the Tomahawks after they found themselves short of players for an international against Tonga in Hawaii in early 2012.
“I thought, ‘Sweet, I’ll play,’” he recalled after being approached by the U.S. team. “I went and played well and ever since then, they’ve liked me.”
He had no second thoughts about playing for another country — he even played for the U.S. against his native Samoa in the Tomahawks’ next game later that year. He did enough to earn a call-up for the World Cup, and played at center as the U.S. secured a stunning 22-18 win over fourth-ranked France in a warm-up game on Friday. It was America’s best international victory.
“I have always wanted to play the big guys, those who have been playing rugby for years,” Tagaloa said, his eyes lighting up. “I like being the underdog. I want to hit the big guys and be better than them. They don’t scare at all. It just makes me want to go harder at it.”
The 26-year-old Tagaloa, who plays for Hawaii in the American National Rugby League, is one of eight U.S.-based players in the Tomahawks. None of them are paid by their domestic clubs, hence Tagaloa’s hope that his performances over the next month earn him a professional contract.
“We want to win games but our focus is to compete and develop our domestic players,” U.S. captain Joseph Paulo said. “We want them to take a lot out of this and create memories that will last forever.”
If that means earning a contract with a club in Europe or Australia, it will have all been worth it for Tagaloa.
“I just love the sport,” he said. “I just want to play, wherever I go.”