KAHULUI — Getting back on the field is all that matters to Maui rugby players, even if it means slightly changing the game.
As the opportunities for organized sports statewide dwindle under the impacts of COVID-19, the Maui Rugby Organization has shifted to flag rugby for its members.
“This is a good thing,” Tehani Agcaoili said just before the first flag rugby practice at Maui Lani Regional Park last week. “It gives me some sort of release, and because you know how in high school your senior is like a big year, and so being part of Maui Rugby gives me that outlet, that kind of moment for sports.”
Flag rugby is a non-contact version of the game in which each player wears a belt and two velcro tags as an alternative to tackling. Rookie and youth players usually compete in flag rugby until they advance or reach high school, where they then transition to full-contact rugby.
Agcaoili said she’s been playing rugby for about three to four years, and was looking forward to finishing out her final semester at Maui High School with some normalcy. Playing the no-contact version of rugby is bittersweet.
“Flag is OK, it’s not the same but as long as I get to play and I’m out there, it’s pretty good,” she said.
Some friends and teammates have been staying positive, Agcaoili said, while others are “wishing there is no COVID at all and just want to have that normal back again.”
“But in the end we all get to come out and play and that’s all that really matters,” she added.
No experience is necessary to join the Maui Rugby league, and it’s open for players ages 5-18 to register individually or as a whole team in Wailuku, Kahului, Paia and Kihei. The registration deadline to join a club is Sunday.
The season will run from January through March.
Due to health and safety protocols, the league can only offer seven-on-seven flag rugby, leaving the older players to adjust to a less physical, less competitive game.
“I think they are still happy to get out there,” said Adrienne Pulu, Maui Rugby Organization treasurer, Kahului Rugby secretary and Hawaii Youth Rugby board member. “I can see their faces and I think they feel like it’s not as serious or competitive to them now that they can’t tackle, but I honestly think for the most part they’re happy to just get out there again.”
Pulu is also a parent to four rugby players, three of whom are playing for Kahului — one in the youth division and two in high school. Her oldest son played rugby at the collegiate level.
“My boys and my girls, they’re just as good at it and it offers the same opportunities in college, pro leagues, and there’s even Olympic opportunity,” she said. “So I guess it was through my kids that really inspired me to try and give others the opportunity to play the sport that they like and just try to open it up to anyone else who is willing to play it.”
Maui Rugby is hoping for more kids to give the sport a try. As of last week, there were 10 youth and five high school players registered for Paia under coach Adam Bloomberg, 21 youth and 15 high school players for Kahului under coach Siua Lolohea, and 10 youth for Wailuku under coach Jack Breen. Details for Kihei were still being finalized.
Most who signed up this year are returnees, with a handful of new youth players between the ages of 8 and 10. Potentially, more older players might register since flag rugby is not a tackle sport, Pulu said.
About 20 boys and a handful of girls in the upper divisions attended the first practice for Kahului and Wailuku at Maui Lani Regional Park, a location already approved by the county for training and games.
Pulu said that once everything is finalized between the four club teams, Maui Rugby hopes to host up to 10 games on Saturdays until their permit expires, with the first game potentially at the end of January, but “we will see how this year goes.”
Coaches, parents and players have been generally supportive of the flag rugby league, especially the returning members.
“The first questions is usually ‘When can we start?’ and ‘How can we register?’ “ Pulu said. “We don’t get the ‘What are your COVID restrictions?’ “
The nonprofit organization has always offered free recreational play for kids across Maui County 18 years old and under, but had to adapt to COVID-19 protocols in order to get players back on the pitch.
Prior to COVID-19, rugby players would typically compete in the Maui Cup 7s season from December to March in preparation for the Hawaii Youth Rugby state championship. Depending on interest, amateur 7s divisions would compete in different tournaments throughout the year.
But now the Maui Rugby Organization committee is just doing what they can to get the sport back up and running for on-island participation. Pulu, who’s been coordinating with Maui County officials since the virus hit last year, said that the biggest challenge has been getting sanctioned to play in an ever-changing pandemic.
All rugby leagues have to follow the framework and safety protocols outlined by USA Rugby’s “return to play” guidelines, as well as state and county guidelines.
“Trying to combine all that into a working document, that was the difficult part for me, but the county has been pretty helpful so we finally moved forward with something they could approve,” she said.
Even though the organization is operating a bit differently under the restrictions, it still offers keiki “some sense of normalcy” and hope until sports are back in full force.
“Here’s something that we can do safely and you know, just give the kids a sense of hope that things can return to the new type of normal I guess,” she said.
Maui Rugby is also part of a long-term goal to grow the sport across the Valley Isle to give kids more opportunities to play on a team, stay active and competitive, and to educate players on how rugby can open doors to college, professional or national leagues.
For flag rugby registration information, email MauiRugby1@gmail.com. For more information and updates, visit the Maui Rugby Org Facebook page.
* Dakota Grossman is at email@example.com.