Toluta‘u excited for new position with new team

Baldwin graduate leaves Seattle for New England, set to move to hooker

Vili Toluta‘u is pictured competing for the Seattle Seawolves during the inaugural Major League Rugby season in 2018. The 2012 Baldwin High School graduate led the Seawolves to the MLR championship, earning Most Valuable Player honors. Rod Mar photo

Vili Toluta’u’s rugby journey has taken him around the world, but he leaves for a new destination on Wednesday.

Toluta’u, a 2012 Baldwin High School graduate, signed a one-year contract with the New England Free Jacks of Major League Rugby last week after three seasons with the Seattle Seawolves.

“It’s very exciting, it’s a challenge that I’m willing to take, travel all the way out to the East Coast,” Toluta’u said Monday. “I’m excited to meet the new players from all over the country and working with their head coach, Ryan Martin, and some good forwards coaches that could excel my game.

“I’m just not looking forward to the snow that they’re going through right now,” he added, “but it is what it is, some adversity to go through and overcome. I’m just excited to join a new group over there.”

Toluta’u was an MLR All-Star and the Most Valuable Player of the inaugural MLR championship series after leading the Seawolves to the title in 2018. Seattle again won the MLR championship in 2019 before the 2020 season was wiped out by COVID-19.

Vili Toluta‘u of the United States is tackled by Canada’s Luke Campbell during the Eagles’ 42-17 victory in a test match on June 23, 2018. Toluta‘u hopes to make the U.S. team for the 2023 World Cup. The Canadian Press via AP / Andrew Vaughan photo

Toluta’u signed a one-year contract with the Free Jacks in order to leave his options open. He has his eyes set on trying to qualify for the U.S. national team for the 2023 World Cup and also playing for a proposed Hawaii team in MLR.

“I’m looking to see how this goes — they came out firing last year,” Toluta’u said. “Also, I’m trying to see if Hawaii is going to have a team. It will be great to come back home and play for the place where I grew up and play here on my home soil.”

Toluta’u will get the chance to play hooker with the Free Jacks instead of his previous flanker position. He said at 6 feet tall, that position is more suited to him and could be his path back to the national team — he made appearances for the USA Eagles in 2018 and 2019.

“I’m working on a new position that they see me better suited for, so I’m learning a position that I just started up maybe a year ago, but I’m up for it, whatever it is to get my name on the radar again to get on track with that World Cup squad,” he said. “Most flankers are 6-5, or tall and lanky, but for me, I wasn’t that tall — I just look taller because of my hair. … If they say that hooker best suits me, then I’m going to take that challenge.”

Toluta’u will serve a seven-day quarantine upon arrival in New England, and then games begin on March 20.

“Full speed ahead and I’m excited, all gas, no brakes,” Toluta’u said.

He will miss the Seawolves franchise that he signed with and played for before graduating from Central Washington University, where he was a six-time All-American.

“It’s kind of like football where you get traded or play somewhere else, but it’s sad to leave a state with all your college friends and playing just two hours away from where you played college,” Toluta’u said. “The friends that became family, it’s still like home, just a flight away. Sad to leave, but I’m excited for a new journey. When one door closes, another opens, so I’m excited to take the next step.”

Toluta’u developed his own rock-wall business on Maui after returning from Seattle shortly before the MLR was shut down in March 2020. He also participated on the Asia Pacific Dragons team in the World Tens Series — a new international, professional tournament held in Bermuda in October.

“It was good to get my hands on the ball again and connect with a group of new guys,” Toluta’u said. “It was kind of like a showcase, an inaugural season for tens. It looks like they were successful because they plan on putting on another series. … It was good for everybody, especially all the players because they didn’t touch the ball since the beginning of 2020.”

Now, he is ready to return to the traditional 15-per-side game of rugby. He will be a diverse weapon for his new team.

“They see me as a hooker, but the good thing about New England is that they say they can use me as a force as a flanker as well,” he said. “Whatever they need me at, hooker or flanker, I’m there, whatever it takes to get playing time. Or whatever is best for the team.”

Toluta’u and fellow former Baldwin athlete Kina Malafu, a center for Old Glory DC, are carrying the flag for Mauians in the MLR. He knows the youngsters playing the sport on the Valley Isle are watching.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Toluta’u said. “When I kind of felt myself as a role model I look at it as, ‘Man, these kids are motivating me to do more, excel, because they are looking up to me.’ I don’t want them to be, ‘Oh, he went up there and then got shot down.’

“It feels great. From what I had growing up to what they have now, I see the success that the kids are getting through rugby. They travel more, they love the sport. It feels good coming back home and them asking questions.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com


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