Malafu making strong statement at Kutztown

For Kina Malafu, rugby started off as a backyard hobby. It has evolved into his collegiate passion.

Malafu, a sophomore at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, has only been playing collegiate rugby for a semester but has already made an impact as a member of the Golden Bears rugby club.

The Baldwin High School graduate led his team to the Subaru Sevens tournament crown in Delaware on May 17, earning MVP honors after scoring five tries in four matches, including the final one in a 28-14 victory over Penn State in the title match that improved the Bears’ record to 35-1.

“It felt great and powerful to have won the tournament,” Malafu said via text message last week.

“I was really happy when I got the MVP. I believe that all of my teammates are MVPs because we all played well, but I just got rewarded for that last excellent run so I was stoked.”

Kutztown coach Doc Jones is familiar with Malafu’s modest streak.

“When his name was announced as the tournament MVP, I was amused by the surprised look on his face,” Jones said in an email. “He has a humbleness about him that is very admirable when you consider his athletic superiority.”

Malafu hopes to help Kutztown maintain its momentum at the Collegiate Rugby Sevens Championships, scheduled for Friday through Sunday in Chester, Pa.

“I am super excited and nervous for it,” he said. “I still can’t believe that I’m experiencing all this my first semester here in Kutztown. We are practicing every day twice a day for it.”

The tournament will be televised on NBC and NBC Sports.

“Knowing that I’ll be playing on TV is awesome,” Malafu said. “I hope to show Maui that it’s possible for someone to travel to the opposite side of the country and make a living. I hope that playing on TV will motivate other kids from Hawaii in general to come here to Kutztown. I had a rough start making the team at first, but I kept working hard and saying my prayers and now I’m a starter and leading try scorer. I love proving to these East Coast teams that athletes in Hawaii are real and dangerous.”

Rugby has long been part of Malafu’s life, though in went on hold a bit while he competed in football and track and field during high school.

“I started playing rugby growing up as a child,” he said. “It has always been a part of my Tongan culture and a backyard sport. I played for Maui Rugby Club with coach Jack Breen. I did not play at Baldwin because I was too busy playing football and track. Rugby was just that sport I always loved to play at the park. Now it’s my No. 1 sport, it makes me happy to live it every day.”

Malafu enjoys the team aspect of the sport.

“Rugby taught me that teamwork on and off the field is the key to success. That anything is possible if you just believe in your teammates and do your part of the assignment,” he said. “There’s just so much respect in this sport. When someone scores, it’s never only about the score. It’s the entire team’s score because everyone helped move the ball.”

It’s often Malafu, however, who finishes off a try.

“Once he touches the ball you can hold your breath every time because you just don’t know what could happen,” teammate Michael Law-renson said in a text. “He usually scores when he gets the ball.”

Lawrenson thinks Malafu’s talent on the field isn’t the only valuable contribution.

“Kina brought this chill, relax sensation to the team and is always happy,” Lawrenson said. “I guess it’s a Hawaiian thing.”

Malafu is pursuing a degree in business.

“As of right now, I don’t have any plans for a further career in rugby,” he said. “I’d love to play pro but for now, I’m just focused on getting that degree that will pay off in the long run.”

Of course, this weekend’s tournament has his attention as well – Kutztown is in a pool with Dartmouth, which won the title in 2011 and 2012, and reached last year’s quarterfinals

“It will be my hardest game for sure,” Malafu said. “All I can say is, I hope I do well as well as my team. But the experience is something that will be great no matter what.”