The Big Island is quickly becoming a hotbed of high-caliber rugby talent.
Nika Paogofie-Buyten is the most recent West Hawaii athlete to receive the call from USA Rugby, and maybe the most surprising.
The Kealakehe High School sophomore said it was an unexpected, but welcomed offer she received via email about two months ago, inviting her to attend the USA Rugby Women’s 7’s national team camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
“I’m excited to get a chance and to show what Kona kids have to offer,” Paogofie-Buyten said.
The camp begins Sunday and runs until March 15.
Paogofie-Buyten is one of more than a half-dozen prospects from the Big Island who have garnered attention on the national level within the last few years. Kailua-Kona’s Brendan Murphy and Hilo’s Poch Suwaiter were given a chance to take their game to the next level in 2013. Both have since played for USA Rugby’s Boys High School All-American team.
However, Paogofie-Buyten’s opportunity is different. She will not be playing on a divisional or high school team among her peers. She has been invited to participate with the women’s team, where many of the athletes will be much older than her.
“It is another level altogether. There will be great coaches and older player who can be mentors,” said John Nuualiitia, Paogofie-Buyten’s coach. “Being in the volume of elite players forces you to rise, dig deep and be great. It will be a challenge.”
Paogofie-Buyten was recommended to women’s head coach Ric Suggitt by Salty Thompson, the head coach for USA Boys High School All-American team.
Thompson came to the Big Island for a camp a few years ago scouting talent for his own team. The veteran coach immediately saw the potential in Paogofie-Buyten.
“I saw the talent right away,” Thompson said. “She wowed me and it was evident that she was a rare physical specimen.”
The Paogofie-Buyten family is overjoyed for the opportunity and understands the implications of it, especially with the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro including rugby 7’s for the first time.
“We are humbled by all of this,” said Ed Buyten, Paogofie-Buyten’s father. “Coach told us he gets a lot of referrals, but when one comes from Salty Thompson, it has some major weight behind it.”
A family affair
Rugby runs in the Paogofie-Buyten family. Nika’s 20-year-old brother, Tama, earned a scholarship to play rugby at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
Tama played for coach Thompson on the All-American team before heading to school.
“Having that experience with Tama, we know this invite is something very rare,” said Nika’s mother, Leetha Paogofie-Buyten. “Tama had to do a circuit of camps before getting his invite (for the Under-20 team).”
In that circuit, Tama visited destinations all over the globe, including New Zealand and South Africa, playing in rugby tournaments. The family hopes Nika will get a similar opportunity.
“I think for us, at the end of the day, it is all about the experience. We want her to get that,” Ed said. “Of course, it is also a bullet point on her athletic resume.”
Tama left footprints in the sand for his sister and others to follow, proving that rugby is a viable option for island youth looking to pursue a sport and an education at the next level.
“I don’t think a lot of parents realize that,” Leetha said. “Rugby is not something to do when you’re bored or just when it’s not football season. It can be a vehicle to pursue education and the sport at the next level. For Nika, she knows her brother left a blueprint, but she really moves to the beat of her own drum.”
While her brother brought her into the game and piqued her interest, Nika said she maintains a healthy competition with her sibling. They both have Olympic aspirations.
“What Tama has done has inspired me. But we also want to see who can go further in the sport. It’s fun.”
Two-sports, no problem
The call to camp caught Paogofie-Buyten off-guard because with rugby being out of season, she had not strapped on her cleats for a few months.
Also, since entering high school, she had primarily concentrated on pursuing volleyball and put rugby on the back burner. As a sophomore, she was an All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation honorable mention at outside hitter and her height — around 6 feet and growing — and athletic prowess make her a solid college prospect.
“She has been concentrating on volleyball lately, and we did not have a lot of tape on her playing rugby,” Leetha said. “When we sent a tape to the coach it had volleyball and rugby highlights. The coaches more wanted to see how the girls are athletically. Many of the women are two-sport athletes.”
With five years of rugby experience under her belt, rugby is second nature to Paogofie-Buyten. The problem was finding a group to train with.
Enter coach Nuualiitia.
Nuualiitia, a native of New Zealand, took Paogofie-Buyten in to train with his men’s team twice a week at Old Kona Airport Park for the past two months. The group treated her like one of the boys and worked on the finer points of the game with the young prospect.
“I’m excited about Nika,” Nuualiitia said. “Just like her big brother, she has skills and talent and a lot to still be harnessed. I believe, if she becomes part of these USA camps she will be able to harness everything and become a great player.”
Paogofie-Buyten has thrived under the tutelage of Nuualiitia, who has a track record of producing top players and All-Americans.
“I was nervous when I first came down, but they have made me feel welcome,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “Being on the field again really helps with my mindset. Mostly I’ve been learning how to not give up when you get hit. Don’t go straight down and pump the legs.”
A sense of community
To the uneducated, rugby appears to be one of the most savage games around. However, the deep-rooted history of the sport and the respect the players carry for the game on and away from field results in strong bonds being formed. As stated in the movie Invictus by Julian Lewis Jones’ character Etienne Feyder, “Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. On the other hand, rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”
“This has been surprising for us, but it shows us how tight knit the community is,” Leetha said. “We really identify with rugby. It is a different game. The family aspect seems stronger than any other sport we have been involved in. I don’t know if that’s because it is smaller, but it is special and has been good to us.”
Thompson saw the unique training ground the Big Island has to offer on his visit and thinks it has been essential for growing the sport and fostering the excellent talent.
“I like what’s going on on the Big Island,” Thompson said. “The clubs are well organized. I think in Honolulu there is a lot of talent but the kids almost get lost in the shuffle.
“When I went to Kona, everyone came in the school buses and the coaches are like extended parents. It makes a ton of sense. Even though it’s a small population, it has provided better rugby. The talent is usually always there. It is just developing that talent the right way.”