Kahuku Rides Unity to Pacific Cup Title
Happy and tired, Kahuku champions. Grace Liava'a photo.
Kahuku's ride to a victory at the Pacific Cup was a bumpy one, at least at the start, but in the end the Red Raiders upended some impressive opposition to take the title this past weekend.
After two years of making the final and losing to Danville, Kahuku finally got the better of the Oaks, and did so by playing some of their best team rugby. As usual for the Hawaiian team, finding games has been difficult. Kahuku won the small Oahu league, and barely giving up a point, and then hammered Waimea to win the state.
But the Pacific Cup was another thing entirely, and they found that out quickly. In Kahuku's first pool game, they lost 10-8 to the Coastal Dragons. HS All American flyhalf Justin Petersen burned them with a smart kick-and-chase to win the game for the Dragons. It was a game that would jeopardize Kahuku's place in the semifinals, but for Head Coach (and tournamnt director) Seamus Fitzgerald, it was useful, too.
"I think we had too much emotion going into the game, and we did the Haka and it was even more," Fitzgerald said. "I appreciated that loss, as it did give us a grounding. You see what can happen when you’re not physically and emotionally prepared.
Kahuku rebounded to defeat Cooks Islands team Tereora 29-3, and then shut out a very good Snow Canyon team 15-0.
"I knew we'd probably make the semis if we won against Snow Canyon, but I wanted the four tries just to be sure," said Fitzgerald. "We weren't able to do that. But we've gelled really well this season and because of that we've been able to play well defensively. This team gelled the fastest of any I have coached, and they were locked into the defensive pattern."
On to the semis, where Kahuku played St. Francis. Normally, St. Francis is the chief rivals for Kahuku in Hawaii. However, this St. Francis team had some additional players from Peninsula Green and from Tonga. The result was a team with immense physicality and some added skill. But what Fitzgerald noted most of all was, in the middle of a very intense game, one of his Kahuku players was injured. An opposing St. Francis player (originally from Penn Green, reportedly), immediately dropped down onto the injured Kahuku player to protect him as the action came near.
"That," said Fitzgerald, "is the spirit of rugby and the spirit of this tournament."
Kahuku won 12-7. Meanwhile, Danville was laying waste to their pool, defeating Red Mountain, Western Heights, and Kamehameha without giving up a point. Danville's first points allowed were a penalty from Western Heights in the semifinal.
The Oaks were playing their game, defending well, making smart choices, and hitting hart. For Western Heights, a well-respected New Zealand school that has produced several All Blacks, the experience was a bit of a surprise. Western Heights did not travel with a full squad, and found as time went on that the physicality of the five-game (shortened games, but games nonetheless) tournament over three days was going to take its toll.
So to the final, and there, Nathen Fuluvaka produced another MVP performance, and Sekope Latu scored twice and added some kicks. But the key for the Red Raiders was their composure. Fitzgerald opted for no Haka before the game, telling the fans and the players they would do one after it was all done. The emotion needed to be kept in check.
"I knew our boys were in the zone," said Fitzgerald. "Before the game they were calm. They were talking about non-rugby things, their families. It's wasn't just 'let's smash them' and stuff like that. They were in control and I just had a really good feeling. They played with a lot of heart. They tackled hard. Our backline players all play defense in football, and you could see they wanted to play together."
Kahuku led early, and kept their lead throughout, winning 34-16.
It was a hugely impressive showing, and Danville, disappointed with the loss, congratulated their rivals.
"I love Danville," said Fitzgerald, adding that he and Danville Head Coach Jon Straka have become good friends since the Pacific Cup started. "He’s a class act. What’s brought us back to the Pacific Cup every year is Danville and the opportunity to play a team of that caliber. We finished the game and the Danville guys were just so classy and a great example of how you carry yourselves. It was intense, but the boys had nothing but respect for each other."
The overseas teams Western Heights and Tereora did not dominate, as some might have expected. Western Heights said they will be back at some point, and probably with a larger squad. Tereora College in Cook Islands just started their rugby team, and their opener against Snow Canyon was their second game ever. By the end they had improved enormously, and now go into their season well tested.
For the USA teams, all showed some good moments, but 230 minutes of rugby in three days is not easy, and depth was a major factor, as it often is in such multi-day tournaments. Witness the Coastal Dragons starting the tournament by beating the eventual winners, and ending up 8th. All of the final placement games were competitive.
Pacific Cup Scores:
4/27/2017 San Diego Mustangs 10-5 United Pool Play
4/27/2017 Kahuku 8-10 Coastal Dragons Pool Play
4/27/2017 Danville 26-0 Red Mountain Pool Play
4/27/2017 St. Francis 27-7 Hawaii Barbarians Pool Play
4/27/2017 Tereora 0-16 Snow Canyon Pool Play
4/27/2017 Western Heights (NZ) 26-0 Kamehameha Pool Play
4/27/2017 San Diego Mustangs 0-21 St. Francis Pool Play
4/27/2017 Kahuku 29-3 Tereora Pool Play
4/27/2017 Danville 14-0 Western Heights (NZ) Pool Play
4/27/2017 United 7-0 Hawaii Barbarians Pool Play
4/27/2017 Coastal Dragons 14-10 Snow Canyon Pool Play
4/27/2017 Red Mountain 19-7 Kamehameha Pool Play
4/28/2017 San Diego Mustangs 5-0 Hawaii Barbarians Pool Play
4/28/2017 Kahuku 15-0 Snow Canyon Pool Play
4/28/2017 Danville 46-0 Kamehameha Pool Play
4/28/2017 St. Francis 21-0 United Pool Play
4/28/2017 Tereora 8-5 Coastal Dragons Pool Play
4/28/2017 Western Heights (NZ) W-L Red Mountain Pool Play
4/28/2017 Tereora 29-5 Kamehameha 9th-Place Semis
4/28/2017 Red Mountain W-L Hawai'i Barbarians 9th-Place Semis
4/28/2017 Snow Canyon 16-7 Coastal Dragons 5th-Place Semis
4/28/2017 San Diego Mustangs 12-0 United 5th-Place Semis
4/28/2017 Kahuku 12-7 St. Francis Cup Semis
4/28/2017 Danville 12-3 Western Heights (NZ) Cup Semis
4/29/2017 Kamehameha W-L Hawai'i Barbarians Cup 11th/12th
4/29/2017 Red Mountain 12-36 Tereora Cup 9th/10th
4/29/2017 Coastal Dragons 10-15 United Cup 7th/8th
4/29/2017 Snow Canyon 26-22 San Diego Mustangs Cup 5th/6th
4/29/2017 St. Francis 24-6 Western Heights Cup 3rd/4th
4/29/2017 Danville 16-34 Kahuku Pacific Cup Final