Prying Brendan Murphy away from football wasn’t easy for Kona Bulls rugby coach Ben Nonoa. Convincing him to attend a practice took months.
Three years later, Murphy is headed to England to play for USA Rugby’s under-17 high school All-American team.
Nonoa told Murphy he’d “like the physicality of the sport,” and he was right.
“There’s a ball, but it’s a lot different from football,” Murphy said about the similarities between the sports.
To him, football gets boring — starting and stopping with every play. Rugby is different. The action is “always going.”
Murphy plays the blindside or open-side flanker positions with the Bulls’ under-19 squad. His main job is to “protect the ruck” — to keep opponents from taking control of the ball.
Murphy has had success on the field but doesn’t have a favorite moment.
“It’s fun to play with the people I’m with,” he said.
As “the only white kid” on the team, Murphy said he got “sucked into the culture.”
Murphy attended a free clinic led by under-17 USA Rugby coach Salty Thompson at Old Kona Airport Park in December. After the clinic, Thompson told him and Hilo Reign player Suwaiter Poch, “I want to keep track of you guys.”
Murphy and Thompson exchanged emails; the player sent his game clips and updates to the coach. In late December, Murphy was one of 115 athletes invited to participate in a four-day national tryout in Arizona. Only 29 were selected for the national squad.
Playing with the under-19 state champion Kona Bulls squad gave the 16-year-old Murphy an advantage in Arizona.
“Guys aren’t nearly as big at the high school All-American clinic. Playing with the big boys made it easier — playing with guys my own size,” he said.
Murphy got a hard elbow to the head during tackling drills the first day of the clinic, and he thought his dreams of making the national team were over. The rest of the time, he said, he “wasn’t completely with it.”
He returned to Hawaii, happy for having had the opportunity but with low expectations. In January, Murphy’s mother received an email from Thompson.
The Makua Lani junior was pulled from math class to the office; he had a phone call.
Murphy recalled the conversation with his mother. She said, “Hey, Coach Salty said you’re on the team. I said, ‘Oh sweet,’ and went back to math class.”
“Coach Salty saw something in me. I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Murphy added.
It took a while for the news to sink in.
“For the first two weeks, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m on the team.’”
Then it hit him.
“Oh, gosh, I’m on the team! I’ve got to get my fitness level up and get ready.”
For the two months leading up to his two-week trip to England, Murphy has a workout regimen that involves 60 to 90 minutes in the gym, three days a week. The Club in Kona helped his efforts with a free short-term membership. Murphy also focuses on leg strength with “lots of running” — sprints for 40 minutes at a time, up and down the steep hills near his house. And that’s in addition to the three weekly practices with the Bulls and Saturday matches.
The team leaves for England March 23. Murphy met most of his teammates in Arizona, and he has played against Poch, a junior at Waiakea, in Hawaii Youth Rugby matches.
Murphy will spend the first week of his trip at Wellington College, near London, practicing, with one day for sightseeing; the USA will play Wales, Belgium and England South all-star teams during the second week. The national rugby team will play in South America later this year.
Murphy is most excited to represent Kona.
“(It) opens up tons of doors for kids here in Hawaii,” he said.
John Nuualiitia, Hawaii Youth Rugby’s president, agrees. Last year’s under-19 USA Rugby team included Kona Bulls Tama Paogofie-Buyten and Isaiah Chinen, and Keaukaha Shark Nuu Aiava.
Paogofie-Buyten and Chinen now play college rugby at Lindenwood and Arizona State universities, respectively.
With the success of Hawaii Island players on the national stage, he said, more local youth will get their chance.
“USA Rugby and lots of colleges are now taking notice of Hawaii Island,” Nuualiitia said. “(Rugby can be a) pathway to college.”
Murphy plans to play rugby on the college level, too. But, he would also be interested if another team came calling. Rugby will be an Olympic sport in 2016. His chance is at least four years off, but Murphy said, “I would like to play, that would be awesome.”