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Youth Rugby in Alaska Shows Its Talent in Florida

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Youth Rugby in Alaska Shows Its Talent in Florida

The Alaska U18 Boys at the Tropical 7s.

Alaska's young rugby players traveled 4,500 miles last week to get a game of rugby in, and they did pretty well in three brackets of the Tropical 7s in Orlando, Fla.

The girls struggled a bit more than the boys. They logged wins over Fallbrook and Rogue Ridge, but lost four in pool play and lost the 9th/10th playoff to Riverdale 22-5.

The boys came very close to playing for the championship. They beat one of the Panther 7s teams and tied another 5-5. It was only their tight 22-14 loss to eventual pool winners Gorilla Rugby that derailed a top two finish in the pool. Instead, they went into the consolation bracket, playing off for 9th. There Alaska Youth Rugby defeated Celtic Barbarians 35-10, Kahuku 19-17, and Mauri 26-24 to win the Cup Final and finish the weekend 4-1-1, with their only loss to the team that finished 3rd in the entire competition.

Alaska also fielded a Boys U14 team which played its first contact rugby in Orlando. They ended up 4th out of six teams, going 2-3 in Pool Play and then losing to Panther 7s White in the 3rd-4th playoff.

U14s Surprise

The U14s "had the whole club beaming with pride," said program director David Delozier. "Not one player ever played in a contact rugby match before Friday and the team is almost entirely made up from the Eagle River Panthers Pop Warner football team looking for something to do under strict COVID protocols.

The players had been playing flag rugby but embraced the contact aspect of the game. Head Coach Robert Sackerson had the players performing above expectations all weekend.

"Although there was a slow start they learned at a pace I've not seen before and put on a great show for all the Alaskan parents that wouldn't miss this new sport of rugby," said Delozier. "This will be a group to watch over the next four years for certain."

Tough Training Days

Preparation wasn't easy. The entire program found indoor pitches and gyms in Anchorage where they could practice. They battled through the cold winter afternoons when the sun sets early and the snow lay three feet on the ground.

But, said Delozier, "throughout there wasn't a single complaint from player, parent, and coach alike as we were all just grateful to be able to play again."

Girls Bright Spots

Despite the 2-5 result, the girls team had its moments. Under Head Coach Dr. Rob Van Zweeden, they got some excellent performances from Gracie O'Farrell, who played every minute of every game at several positions. Sisters Tara and Lyna Tuuaga were a force in the breakdowns and showed great physicality. Lyna has signed with Queens University Charlotte.

Lily Stover, a 15-year-old rookie who played football and ran track before finding rugby, has emerged as a beast on defense.

U18 Boys Shine

Under Head Coach Tusi Faafetai the Boys saw Ryan Williams, Atlas Faafetai, Brendan Amatu stepped up brilliantly against two athletic and physical Hawaii-based teams. They had to be as Maui ran out to a 19-0 lead in the Cup final game before Alaska scored three tries to win it 21-19.

Sebastian O'Farrell has speed and power and he was a key addition to the Alaska toolbox.

Building Something Up North

The Alaska Youth Rugby program has about 300 players normally, all in the Anchorage area. The players play 7s and do tackle in U14 and older, however, as noted above, the U14s were all fairly new to the game and hadn't been playing contact yet. The U12, U9, and U6 players play flag rugby.

The players are all split into games and they play Round-Robin style, usually on Wednesday nights in the summer, when the sun doesn't set until after 11pm. To find more games they need to travel, and they do, going to Las Vegas, Orlando, and further afield. In 2022 Alaska will visit Maui in January (perhaps starting a very nice rivalry there) as well as the LA Invitational and back for the Tropical 7s. They also host their own tournament over 4th of July Weekend

"Our goals are to be an inclusive sport," said Delozier. "The old ethos of rugby isn't for everyone but it is for anyone rings true with our program. All 12 of our volunteer coaching staff run by Tusi Faafetai for boys and Doc Rob Van Zweeden for girls fulfill that for our small, passionate group."

Definitely off the beaten path, the Alaska Youth Rugby program still seems to be blazing a trail.