Vaha Esikia is one busy guy. This year, he was appointed director of Las Vegas Rugby Associations, putting him in charge of all rugby operations in Las Vegas, including the Blackjacks, the Lady Blackjacks, UNLV and the youth programs. In addition, he continues to run the Las Vegas Rugby Academy, which he founded to teach the game to children in schools and after-school programs. With rugby season scheduled to start in January, Tonga native Esikia, 32, sat down with the Weekly to talk about a lifelong love of the game.
When did you start playing rugby? I was 9 and living on the island of Tonga. It’s the national sport there. Anyone can start rugby at any age, but I’d recommend you start early. It can really help you in a lot of other sports. Rugby has other sports in it—basketball, American football, track.
What’s your single favorite rugby memory? Playing against Tonga when I was a center on the U.S. team in the 2007 World Cup. We lost by eight points. They’re really big and physical, and I’m pretty small for a Tongan. But overall, we did pretty well—back then, only two players on our team were professional. This year, more than half the team are professional.
How did you come to create the Las Vegas Rugby Academy? In 2008, I tore my ACL playing in Canada, and my wife got bored of my being at the house and said, “Get out and teach your kids rugby.” Pretty soon, the neighbors got involved. I decided to hold a clinic at Sunset Park, and 80 kids showed up. I thought maybe I could do a training academy. And it just exploded.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about rugby? I guess the biggest is that rugby is more dangerous than American football. There’s actually more injuries in American football than rugby. The reason is you have no protection, so you want to be more in shape and stronger, and rugby teaches more techniques to save your body and have less injuries. I tore my ACL, but that’s just from so many years of playing.
What’s the most common injury? Broken fingers—people reaching for the ball, falling. We teach them how to properly fall. Sometimes they’ll try to brace themselves when they fall.
What’s the single worst injury you’ve ever seen in a rugby match? A dislocated ankle. I didn’t know you could do that. His ankle came … out. We thought he broke it. His teammate’s whole weight came down on his ankle.
What types of people play rugby in Las Vegas? You have lawyers, accountants, CEOs, guys in the government, firemen … We played against a team from LA, and one of the guys was a heart surgeon. I said, “Don’t you need your hands?” But he says it relaxes him, gets his mind away from everything. We have a CSN professor that plays on the Blackjacks. He’s in his 50s, still running around, still has great techniques.
Rugby is known for its crazy afterparties. I think some people think rugby is all about drinking and partying, and there is that aspect to some degree, but the other side is that there’s a team bonding that happens that you just don’t see in other sports.
Still, got any good stories from some of them? We had a few guys go missing. We didn’t see them until a few days later. There was this one time we couldn’t find this guy from Australia, and we found him sleeping under a car. I guess he had a little too much to drink.
You’re a parent. Do your children play rugby? I have three sons, 8, 6 and 4. The oldest two started playing at 5, and they love it. Outside of the U.S., that’s not unusual, but we’re trying to change the culture here, get kids started younger.
Are parents a bit apprehensive at first? Sometimes. Some parents think their kids aren’t athletic enough or that they’re going to get hurt, and the first game is always scary for them. But when they realize their sons or daughters can do it, it gives them that boost of confidence
Want to play rugby? Preseason training for the Blackjacks is held Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. at Sunset Park. For more information, call Vaha at 308-0887 or email him at [email protected]