(San Diego, CA) – On a cloudy day in San Diego, the Seattle Seawolves were in town for the championship matchup against the top seeded San Diego Legion.
Before I begin, I must admit: I never followed or really have even thought twice about rugby. I’m a baseball player and a huge follower of the sport. I also typically become emotionally drained when the Seahawks are playing as well as Gonzaga hoops. Therefore, during a long baseball season, I can relax and enjoy the Mariners—as much as a typical Mariners fan can enjoy them. This particular Sunday, one of the staffers at Cascadia, was able to secure a media spot for me to attend, take photos, and report about the game.
Here I am, someone who knows zilch about rugby, covering the game.
When I arrive and received my credentials, I took a Magellan route down to the press box (because I had no idea where to go) set up my camera and was ready to go—sort of. As I sat, watching the warmups, I thought, “Dude, first off, you’re lucky to be here. Second, what is the point of rugby other than to get the oversized football into the ‘end zone’ without throwing it forward? Can they kick a ‘field goal’? How many downs before the ball is turned over?” Luckily, League media staff was there to help me out and set me straight and to think of this as soccer meshed with football.
After a quick trip down terminology lane, I established a rugby dictionary within my brain. I was able to gather a little bit of information about why they kick it back-and-forth, roll over and dump the ball after they are tackled, as well as the point structure.
At this point, the match was about to start.
The Seawolves had a single goal in mind: Bring the US Men’s Rugby Championship back to Seattle. Like I mentioned, this was my first rugby match ever witnessed. Unfortunately, I do not think I will ever experience another ending that occurred ever again in my lifetime—in any sport. As a baseball guy, writing and analyzing the Seattle Mariners have been a hobby and pastime of mine for a while. I have seen some wild finishes to baseball games, but nothing will ever compare with what happened on the pitch Sunday.
The fate of a loss was lingering up until the final minute—seconds—when Brad Tucker took the ball over the try line and touched down to score the winning try. The Seawolves had a mission: to push the pile forward, score—and that is what they did.
In an interview with me after the game, I asked Tucker what was going through his mind as the ball was in his hands and the try line was within sight.
“Don’t stuff it up. That’s about it. Just I knew we were about one meter short so I just kept pumping my legs, saw the line, and dived down…and was relieved when we got there. I’m a bit of a hate losing guy so, for me, it was a bit of [immediate] relief that we got the job done.”
I asked what bringing the shield back to Seattle meant to him:
“I think at the start of the year we sort of had a bit of a goal to start building a dynasty for Major League Rugby. I think we took a step in the right direction. I think [Seattle] is the place people will want to play and hopefully set the standard for the league for seasons ahead. Seattle is a great sporting city, it’s great to have them behind us, it’s going to be awesome.”
I noticed he was emotional after the game—so I asked about what he was feeling during that moment:
“Like I said before, it was relief. Man, I just hate losing so much. But now, I guess excitement for the city.”
Has the attitude of hating to lose been the attitude of the team this season?
“Oh for sure. I think it’s something we drove for right from the start. High standards and we don’t want to lose any games. Obviously you can’t win everything, but it’s something we took especially into the playoffs and just whatever it takes to win and the belief that we can do it. And I think the keyword going into the playoffs was ‘believe’ and we stuck it out into the 80th minute to win the game.”
Believe. This baseball fan now believes in Seattle rugby. I was actually standing behind the uprights—20 feet away–and was in complete disbelief the Seawolves were pushing the pile forward. I thought, “Woah, the whistle hasn’t blown, they’re about to win this.” When they did score, I had to ask the MLR media representative “what just happened?!” He answered, “Seawolves just won. That’s what just happened.”
Immediately after the match was over and champagne was flying, I was able to talk to Nakai Penny.
In the final minute, knowing where the ball was at, what was the mindset of the team?
“It was 100% execution. There was no room for error. It was a do or die situation. If we execute it perfectly, we win. If we don’t, then we lose. The ball was on the line so we just had to do what we have practiced day in and day out. It was those moments in training where you try to execute it perfectly and, in the game today, this is literally what we do all day at practice. This is what it comes down to: right now. Everybody knows their roles and it just shows the class of the team. We were down in that final minute, we knew what we had to do…, and that’s how it’s done.”
What does bringing the championship back to Seattle mean for you?
“Well, everything man. It was a bit of a roller coaster of a season for us. There were times where we didn’t look our best. Going the week before the [semifinals] we didn’t know where we were going to be in the rankings. After winning that home [semi-final] and then come down [to San Diego] on an away field, in a hostile environment. Beating them on their home field and bringing that shield back to Seattle was just like….[pause]…the second best case scenario to bringing the shield back home on our own field.”
How does that champagne taste right about now?
“I’ve never tasted better champagne, man. Honestly, I loved this champagne shower and I couldn’t be happier.”
Stephan Coetzee scored a try in the 23rd minute, putting the Seawolves ahead for the first time this match. In an interview after the game, I asked him a few questions about what happened.
Walk me through the final minute:
“It was very stressful. I think we prepared well for this week. We had a lot of confidence coming in. We had the full backing of the boys so we knew if we could get the line out, we would win that line out and get the ball probably score. So, just confidence and well done to the boys.”
When the ball touched down, walk me through your thoughts:
“Massive, massive hard work through the year. Everything coming together at the end, couldn’t be better. Great game from San Diego, credit to them, they gave us a massive game. They beat us twice this season it was a massive battle to the end.”
The champagne you’re holding, how is it?
“Super sweet, eh? Oh there is going to be more tonight!”
As the field was clearing out, I was able to talk to the championship series MVP, Apisai Naikatini.
From the bench, with one minute left, what was running through your mind?
“Oh mate, I don’t know, I was on the bench at the edge of my seat just…[sigh] I can’t even describe, man. I was sitting there asking myself ‘What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?’ Just…it happened. After that line out, I was like, whew, it’s just indescribable.
It’s your first season with Seattle, what do you enjoy most about being up there?
“Awesome city, awesome team, awesome supporters. They traveled well, and their continuous support has been awesome.”
On being the playoffs MVP on championship series:
“It’s just a blessing man. I just want to thank God for this, man. I didn’t plan on coming to America from Wellington to play rugby but it happened.”
Is the game different here in America than New Zealand?
“Yeah, it’s different. It’s getting better and I love it. The rugby here is going to be awesome.”