March 13, 2010—Opportunities. That’s what rugby has given to Salesi Sika. The four-time collegiate All-American from Brigham Young University has played in two Rugby World Cups for the United States, with a third World Cup appearance a possibility. Sika currently plays professionally for Castres Olympique in France where he continues to take advantage of precious opportunities, doing his part to strengthen his team, his family, and the church. Photo: Sika in action for team USA, courtesy of USA Rugby.
LatterDaySports: How many siblings do you have in your family?
Salesi Sika: There are nine biological kids and then we had some other friends who came in and out, living with us.
LatterDaySports: What was that like growing up?
Sika: I’m the youngest, and typical of the youngest, you get all the blame, I guess, from all the other older siblings. We kind of joke a lot, but that’s probably why I play rugby. I was kind of toughened up. I kind of got rough-housed by my older siblings when they got frustrated. I was the punching bag I guess. It was fun though. I liked it growing up in a big family. There was always a lot of noise, screaming and fighting over things.
LatterDaySports: Never a dull moment, huh.
LatterDaySports: Did you grow up in Tonga the whole time?
Sika: I grew up in Tonga for most of my life, yeah, until I graduated from high school.
LatterDaySports: So did you start playing rugby in high school?
Sika: Yeah. That’s when I started playing in an organized game, when I was going to high school.
LatterDaySports: I had read that you played rugby in New Zealand as well.
Sika: In 1998, that’s when I went to New Zealand for Form 7 (British system of schooling in between graduating from high school and going to a university). I continued to play rugby there. It was in ’98 that I came to Auckland on a government exchange scholarship. I applied for that in ’97 and was fortunate enough to be selected. It was a good experience too.
LatterDaySports: How did you go from playing in New Zealand to playing at BYU in Provo, Utah?
Sika: OK. So that was ’98, I was a 7th Former. I was going to continue in New Zealand, but somehow, on my way back from summer break, my course deviated, pointing to BYU–Hawaii. In Spring of ’99—in April—I applied to both universities, BYU and BYU–Hawaii. I received an acceptance first from BYU–Hawaii, so I went there for Spring and Summer (terms). I think during the Fall, I received an acceptance letter from BYU for Winter semester 2000. So I left BYU–Hawaii (and went) to Provo right after that. That’s how I got into Provo.
LatterDaySports: Did you try out for the rugby team right away?
Sika: Yup. Growing up, I always wanted to be involved in some extra-curricular stuff, particularly sports. I just didn’t see myself enjoying school without any other activities. When I got to BYU-Provo as a freshmen, an island boy, walking onto a campus of 30,000 students was a huge culture shock for me. Plus the weather, with the snow in the winter semester, that was tough for me. It kind of increased my desire to look for something to be involved in.
So I found out from my brother—who was there at the time—that there was a rugby team. Oh great! Immediately, during the first few days of school, I went to look for the rugby team. I found out where they were practicing—on some field just outside the campus. I walked right in, and introduced myself to the coach and told him I wanted to play rugby. They (the coaches) were surprised that they didn’t know I was going to the Y. That was my first tryout for rugby, and I ended up playing during Winter 2000.
LatterDaySports: Kind of a “win” for both you and the team.
Sika: (Laughter) Yeah. It was kind of interesting. I was just so glad to find rugby that first week I was there.
LatterDaySports: There was an article written about you while you were at BYU-Provo. It sounded like you were incredibly busy while you were there. How were you able to juggle all of that?
Sika: It was an overwhelming time I think. It was towards the end of my Junior year and beginning of my senior year. I was super busy. I remembered having a very tight schedule, mainly because of school (studying civil engineering). It required a lot extra time outside of school, whether it was assignments or other things.
I was on the rugby team, and that was a commitment too for practices and for away games. I was also teaching a Tongan class during the semester. To be honest, I don’t really know how I did it. I wasn’t married at the time. There was though, a little bit of time for the chicas. You can’t avoid that living at BYU.
I was pretty busy and to be honest, I don’t know exactly how I did it. I guess it was a lot of patience at times, and determination. I did it though. In fact, there was a semester where I signed up for a luau, and was asked to teach the dancing for the Tongan section. So for some period of time, I was busy with that too, on top of everything else. I don’t know how I found time to find me a wife. My girlfriend at the time was very patient I guess.
LatterDaySports: You even managed to squeeze in going on a mission.
Sika: Yeah, that was around 2000. I decided to stop going to school for a while, start filling out papers, and I finally went on a mission that Fall.
LatterDaySports: I believe it was Spanish-speaking?
Sika: Yes. Spanish-speaking, Texas McAllen Mission.
LatterDaySports: How was that learning another language?
Sika: Oooh. It was difficult, but I did enjoy it. It was something I wanted to do, to learn a different culture, and then it was a plus to learn Spanish. I always love learning different languages. At the MTC it was challenging. I think with other things that I’ve gone through in life, that may have prepared me well to handle challenges in the mission—learning the language, the frustration of other things, of not getting it. That was a great turning point for me. I loved it! I loved learning Spanish! I still try to read articles and speak with others that speak Spanish, to keep that practice going. I don’t want to lose it. There are a lot of Spanish-speakers in the states, so I think that will help me. In Utah, there are tons. There is a huge community of Spanish-speakers.
LatterDaySports: Describe your first experience playing in the 2003 World Cup in Australia.
Sika: Let’s see. When I was a kid, we used to wake up and watch live games of the Rugby World Cup, throughout the world. The 1995 World Cup, I remember vividly because we used to wake up, and I was old enough to understand the rules of the game. I was already involved in organized rugby games. I was in amazement, thinking “Wow! Look at that huge crowd. Look at those people singing the national anthem.” And when I got the chance to go, it didn’t really hit me until my first cap—like my first debut match—which was against Fiji. I was just running out of the tunnel. Things were running fast. People were sprinting out, but to me it felt like everything was slow motion. I was still stunned by how huge of an event it was, with all the cameras and everything. It was one of those experiences I will never forget.
I was still young, just came back from my mission. To play in front of the crowd, and to see myself representing the U.S., singing the national anthem—those were all goose-bump moments, when you’re standing in front of the crowd, to put a jersey on and play. The 2003 World Cup was such an amazing experience. Throughout the whole tournament, throughout the whole tour, I got to travel (to different) places in Australia, and play against professionals—people I used to watch and idolize—in world rugby. To see myself in that arena, it was a great experience.
LatterDaySports: Did you always know that you wanted to play at the level that you are playing now?
Sika: No, actually. I didn’t really see myself playing professionally overseas. I’ve heard of friends before, both when I was young in Tonga, and when I moved to the states. I guess I didn’t have that faith in myself that I could make it to the professional realm. I also didn’t really see myself going in that direction because I was sent to the U.S. to go to school first. I knew that I probably wouldn’t get the approval of my dad if I choose to go play rugby professionally, and not be in school. Somehow the opportunity came, just before the 2007 World Cup.
I was married at the time, (my wife and I) counseled with one another, and said to ourselves that this may not be a bad idea just to go see how it is. We were both young, we were both wanting to travel around the world and see other cultures. In fact, we are both grateful that we chose to come. We had our first child here in France, we are learning a new language, a new culture, and many other countless experiences we’ve had here in France. We are so glad we chose to come here. There is no regret, in my mind, in choosing to come here to France for the professional experience. It was a great decision for us. So back to your question, no, I never really saw myself going to the professional route, but here I am.
LatterDaySports: How is the church in France?
Sika: When you compare it Tonga or Utah, the church in France, and even Europe does struggle in numbers. Having said that, I still see amazing faith in the members here. The branch that we go to is a very small branch, with an average attendance of 20 to 30 members, and that’s only recently. At times we would only have maybe 10, and that was counting 4 missionaries and the children in primary. You can see what I mean when I say that it’s a struggle here. There’s not a temple yet.
We love it here though. The people here in the southern part of France, particularly, are very laid back, very welcoming, very friendly. We love the food. We love how they do things here, it’s different. We do miss a few things in the states. (Laughs) My wife says she misses Walmart.
There is a family that travels for one hour to come to church. A lot of the members travel at least 30 minutes or more to get to church. We travel about 30 to 35 minutes every Sunday. You can see that a lot of the members’ faith is strong. I was just called to be the first counselor in the bishopric and our meetings are done over the phone, just because of the distance. When we have our stake conference we have it over in Toulouse, which is about an hour drive. A lot of other people have to drive four or five hours to get to stake conference. There is a lot sacrifice that people make. Sometimes we take it for granted when we have a church on every corner. Even though quantity-wise we struggle, the quality of the faith of the members in France is just amazing to me, just an eye-opener at times.
LatterDaySports: How was it going back and playing in the 2007 World Cup in France?
Sika: That was exciting for me. It was a big motivator for me because I was already playing in France. I first arrived here in late 2006. One of the reasons why I was keen on accepting the offer to come here, was so that I could prepare myself to play for 2007, which I really didn’t see myself doing after 2003. I thought I would be done by then, or too old to play.
The excitement and enthusiasm, the ambiance, the atmosphere in the stadium was bigger than what I experienced in Australia. I guess as the years go on, the competition gets better and better. The media attention gets bigger, and you are playing other great teams.
It was another moment for me playing for the 2007 (World Cup) as well. It was probably bigger than 2003, because I was more experienced playing and traveling overseas. The 2007 World Cup itself was a bigger event than the 2003 (World Cup). Playing it here in France was like playing in front of the home crowd because I had been living in France for a while.
LatterDaySports: Any plans for 2011, New Zealand?
Sika: That’s kind of hard (laughs). I haven’t really made a decision. I don’t know, we both kind of don’t know yet. Lately, I think I may not be able to physically compete, or be as competitive as I would like to be. There’s a half and half chance that I will try to make it to the 2011 World Cup.
The thought of it just excites me more. It’s going to be in New Zealand. I went to school in New Zealand, so that adds to the excitement, and it’s close to my homeland, and plus my sister lives in New Zealand. At the moment, I don’t know. I would like to say yes, but I think I’m done physically. I’m not Brett Favre. I’m not a magician like him who can play at 40 years old.
LatterDaySports: What has been your favorite thing about rugby?
Sika: That’s a hard question. I would say it’s playing the game. When you run out of the tunnel for a game, the adrenalin just fires up—the excitement for the first whistle to blow. As I have become more mature, the friendships and solidarity of teammates and even the opponents (mean a lot to me).
Sometimes when we travel, I sit at the back of the bus and I meet people from Russia, from Georgia, New Zealand, South Africa, from Samoa. I have these conversations with them. It’s a unique moment that I experience here. I never knew that I would work and have colleagues from all these different countries, speaking different languages, different cultures, having different expectations. Yet, they are all human. Most of us have kids, and we all know what it’s like to be a father. We understand the trials we are all going through with that. It warms me a lot of times just thinking about it when we travel. I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed rugby so much. It amazes me.
LatterDaySports: And what does your wife think of rugby?
Sika: Uhhh. I think that’s a question I should ask her. (Talks to wife in the background and she faintly answers, “I like rugby! I am athletic. I used to play sports.”) At first she didn’t understand the sport when we were dating. We played some touch rugby. She liked it—running around and learning the rules. She’s been to many games, and now she even yells at the referee sometimes. She knows the rules. I never (thought) that she would learn the rules and correct the referees when they make bad calls. She loves rugby!
LatterDaySports: You married the right woman.
Sika: (laughs) Exactly.