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Personal Best: Rugby natural gets sport moving

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The San Mateo Rugby Football Club Warriors were locked in a scoreless halftime tie with the Sacramento Capitals on Jan. 9, opening day of the 2010 season.

The Warriors gathered at midfield during the halftime break to receive instructions from soft-spoken team president Patelesio Latu. The reinvigorated and spirited San Mateo team proceeded to begin the second half with two quick “tries” that led to a 39-0 victory.

The game was Patrick Latu’s first as a member of the SMRFC men’s team. The younger Latu first experienced rugby, the Tongan national sport, as a 5-year-old serving as a water boy for his dad, the SMRFC coach.

The 2009 San Mateo High School graduate was a prep football and track star, but he never lost his commitment to rugby.

“I grew up on the rugby field. I have a passion for the game,” Patrick Latu said. “It’s not like football where one guy gets to touch the ball. In rugby, everybody gets to touch the ball. It’s a real team sport.”

San Mateo police officer and former Cal rugby and football player Keala Keanaaina realized when he organized the San Mateo Warriors Police Athletic League rugby program that he needed to speak with only one person: Patrick Latu.

Latu recruited 12 of his high school mates, subsequently taught many of them the game of rugby, and the feeder program for the SMRFC was born. Two years later, in 2009, the Warriors’ boys team won the Northern California championship.

“Patrick brings experience and leadership. At every level of every sport he’s been a leader,” said Keanaaina, the PAL rugby program director. “To me, he’s a great player but a better person. He’s a leader by example.”

Latu feels a responsibility to be a role model for his teammates and for his five younger brothers.

“I’m the guy who’ll stay home,” Latu said. “If anyone asks me if I want to go out and party, and I say ‘no, that’s not me,’ especially the night before a game.”

Sharing a birthday with Willie Mays, the rugby superstar will turn 19 on May 6. Latu was a freshman linebacker on this year’s College of San Mateo Northern California Community College championship team. He is also on the under-20 USA National Rugby Team and is aiming for a spot on the World Cup team in 2012.

Latu finds the time to devote to academics — he held a 3.2 GPA at San Mateo High — and looks forward to Division I football opportunities. He has his sites on the NFL, but rugby will always be a part of him. The International Olympic Committee recently voted that rugby return as an event in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Keanaaina envisions a spot for his talented protege’ on the American team.

“Tongan rugby is in our blood. It’s part of the culture. It’s in our identity,” said the fourth generation rugger. “For some of the kids born here it’s their only tie with Tongan culture.”

An indication of Latu’s value to the SMRFC may be defined by his description on the roster, which is listed as “any position.”


San Mateo Rugby Football Club

Men’s team: 27 players on the roster, 85 percent of which are of Tongan descent

High school: Police Athletic League-sponsored San Mateo High Warriors

Season: Northern California Rugby Football Union, January to June

Home field: King Center Field in San Mateo

Info: www.smrfc.com

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