The old man still brought some freshness to the team.
When 33-year-old Tai Tuisamoa was selected for the USA team at the ARC, he was the oldest player on the squad – only Phil Thiel was close. But somehow the OMBAC forward brought with him a new perspective the team needed.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Tuisamoa told RUGBYMag.com. “I didn’t know anyone on the team except for Mile Pulu. I was just honored to be a part of the USA Selects team. But the coaching staff was really up front with me. They wanted me to bring my physicality and the way that I’ve been playing – my toughness.”
Head Coach Mike Tolkin said early on he wanted a forward pack that was gritty and uncompromising, and new forwards coach Justin Fitzpatrick reiterated that every day. In training witnessed by RUGBYMag, Fitzpatrick urged his players to fight for every scrap of territory, and it was clear that Tuisamoa was one of those heeding the call.
“That’s really what I wanted to bring,” said the 6-4, 260-lb lock/flanker. “I wanted to help the team any way possible. Coach Tolkin and Coach Fitzpatrick pointed me in the right direction.”
The results can be measured in playing time, as Tuisamoa came on as a sub against Argentina, and then started against Canada and Uruguay.
Against Canada, he almost scored a try, rumbling to the line only to be cut just short – the USA scored soon thereafter.
“I thought I was in,” Tuisamoa said. “I had only the scrumhalf to beat. But then somebody got me around the legs, so I didn’t make it. But that game was great. We didn’t just beat Canada, we beat them 30-10. That was huge for us.”
For any player new to international rugby, it’s an adjustment. Tuisamoa may be 33, but he had to adjust, too. To start with, he has actually not been playing rugby for particularly long. Born in Samoa, Tuisamoa moved with his family to Southern California when he was 15. He played sports in high school, concentrating on basketball where he was a shooting guard, playing in college and as a semi-pro. It was only four years ago that he started playing 7s for Craig Hartley at OMBAC, and stayed for 15s.
“They are great guys at OMBAC,” he said. “I loved it.”
“I’ve been saying for a while now that the Eagles should be looking at Tai,” added OMBAC Manager Geno Mazza, who recruited Tuisamoa.
“I know about rugby – we all played it in Samoa growing up, but not serious or organized,” Tuisamoa explained. “So I picked it up OK. But going into international rugby was a big step. Coming off the bench against Argentina, the pace was a lot more than I expected and really, really physical. I had heard that Argentina was really physical, so I knew I had to match their intensity. Then against Canada and Uruguay I knew I had to bring it even more and hold my own against these guys.
“Being the oldest guy, I felt I really had to prove something to the team,” added the warehouse operator and physical trainer. “I mean, who would bring a 33-year-old into this environment when it’s so much faster and more up-tempo? So that was my main concern. I had to step up my game, but at the same time, I feel I am in the best shape of my rugby-playing career; you’re only as old as you feel and I feel 23, not 33!”
Tuisamoa didn’t have to worry. He was a terror on defense and worked enormously hard in the breakdowns. He embraced the physical nature of the USA’s ARC opponents, and on tour with the Eagles, his tenacity will be welcome.
“It’s not a problem for me to take time off to play for the USA,” said the OMBAC star. “Everyone has been really supportive. My family supports me. My wife, Monique, she knows it’s a dream of mine.”
And a good dream it is. Tai Tuisamoa is our Rhino Rugby/RUGBYMag Player of the Week.