Waisale Serevi, a legendary rugby sevens player from Fiji, has moved to Seattle, where he hopes to help his fast-growing sport around the Pacific Northwest and country.

Share story

The new face of American rugby is unscarred bronze, has all its teeth, unblemished ears and a straight, unbroken nose.

Trouble is, it’s unfamiliar to all but a few Americans outside of a sport that’s growing in popularity here.

Waisale Serevi, regularly mobbed worldwide as the king of rugby sevens — the scaled-down, amped-up version of the 15-a-side game — generates no more than a grateful thank you when he opens a door for two teenagers burdened with sagging cases of bottled water at a Bellevue strip mall.

No double-take. No autograph request. Not even a glimmer of recognition. Serevi, who late last year moved family members to Seattle from his home nation of Fiji, shrugs.

“When we go to buy things in Fiji, when I go to shops from here to there, it takes nearly two hours to arrive. Stops everyone on the road,” he says. “Australia, New Zealand — rugby places — they always recognize me. It is good. But it is good, too, to just calm down for a while, have time on your own.”

The charismatic Serevi, 42, and retired as a player, says he’s here for the next five to 10 years as the Pied Piper of rugby in the U.S., with Seattle the hoped-for epicenter of the sport.

Yet he is here not only to boost his sport, but for a fresh start of his own after leaving behind accusations and a parting apology in his homeland.

“Rugby is here”

Backed by area business people, including Chris Prentice, president of Old Puget Sound Beach Rugby Club, Serevi is the draw behind Serevi Nation. The Seattle-based company was launched in January to spread the gospel of the game in a land where the NFL and youth soccer rule.

Rugby won’t compete with those giants. But as a niche sport, it has lots of room to grow here.

The Pied Piper has his pitch down cold.

“Football players, you have not been selected to play for your team?” Serevi asks. “Don’t worry. Because rugby is here. Come in. You are most welcome to come and join.”

Rugby got a boost of legitimacy over its fast-growth competition, like lacrosse, when it was adopted into the Olympics, along with golf, starting in 2016. Rugby was last played in the Games in 1924, when the U.S. won gold.

“Everyone’s dreamed of playing in the Olympics,” said Alipate Tuilevuka, Old Puget Sound Beach player, who with teammate Nu’u Punimata play on the Eagles, the U.S. national team from which the Olympic team will be chosen. “The exposure it will give rugby in the U.S. — it’s going to be huge. It’s going to bring the sport to another level.”

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, rugby is one of the nation’s fastest growing sports. More people play than ever before — 1.13 million in 2010, up from 750,000 the year before and nearly doubling the 617,000 in 2007.

Olympic officials picked rugby sevens, not the full version, because it will play well on TV. It’s a faster, more wide-open game than traditional 15s with a premium on speed and agility over strength. It features seven players a side on a regulation rugby field — longer and wider than a football field — and two seven-minute halves, meaning unpredictable results.

“One mistake, and you’re gone,” said Serevi.

A fresh start

The move to the U.S. represents a fresh start for Serevi, who has been plagued with financial and personal problems. The troubles, which allegedly included excessive drinking, prompted an apology to the people of Fiji last summer and a promise to change his behavior after he was fired from two coaching positions, according to the Fiji Times. Two weeks later, his manager terminated his contract for “immoral conduct.”

Serevi did not fight the firing, admitting he breached the conduct code in his contract.

“I believe I have to re-look at myself and try to make a change,” he told the Fiji paper.

He does not elaborate on his past, but when asked about a Bible verse he has written in ink on his palm, he said he looks to the words for strength.

“No better place to come to have a good start,” Serevi said of America. “It’s the land of opportunity. They always say it. I’m really excited and I always thank God for being with me all the time.”

Serevi Rugby Nation debuted earlier this month with the first of two weeklong rugby camps for youths. The company also plans player-development programs for all ages and skill levels, along with coaching camps, and apparel featuring the Serevi logo — his name topped by a royal crown.

More than 40 kids, ages 7 to 18, attended Serevi’s first weeklong camp in early April at Robinswood Park in Bellevue. Campers included Serevi’s son, 10-year-old Junior. All three of Serevi’s children, including Junior’s two teenage sisters, attend public school here. (Serevi said his wife will join the family in the U.S. later.)

At the camp, Serevi jumps in on drills, talking around the whistle in his mouth and encouraging youngsters with his rapid-fire, clipped English. Short and muscular, the 5-foot-7 Serevi looks as fit as in his playing days.

“He’s great with kids,” said camper Tino Hola, 17, of White Center. “He loves to teach people.”

Most of the kids don’t know they’re playing with a rugby icon, someone who led tiny Fiji to two World Cup sevens titles, and seven World Cup tournaments overall, including three in the traditional full-side version, over 21 years of international play.

Those that do have seen the YouTube clips of Serevi’s magician touch on passes, and ability to juke defenders, not just with his speed but his trademark goose-step, a straight-leg fake that left opponents flat-footed.

Even before the company was born, Serevi was laying the groundwork here. Since last year, Serevi has been the sevens coach for the OPSB club, helping it to its fifth national sevens title, the club’s first since 1992.

“It would be equal to Michael Jordan coming here to coach rec-league basketball,” said the club’s Kevin Graham.

Rugby savvy Seattle

The Central Washington University club team made the weekly drive over a mountain pass last winter for the chance to train with Serevi and OPSB coach Evan Haigh. When training was over, they’d pile back into their van and drive 2 ½ hours through the night back to Ellensburg.

That training helped CWU solidify its reputation as the top collegiate club in the Pacific Northwest when it won the NBC-televised Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) qualifier in Las Vegas in February. Central will play in the CRC in June in Philadelphia, trying to topple traditional rugby powers like California and Dartmouth.

“We’re kind of like the Boise State of rugby,” Pacheco said. “We’re crashing the party.”

Seattle is more rugby savvy than most cities.

Last month, Microsoft was announced as a sponsor of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the sport’s biggest event, scheduled for Sept. 9 to Oct. 23 in New Zealand. The tournament is expected to draw 1.6 million spectators and a TV audience of more than 4 billion people in 200 countries.

The Old Puget Sound Beach club is in its 40th year and plays in the Rugby Super League, recognized by USA Rugby as the nation’s premier 15s league.

Western Washington has established youth programs, like the Eastside Youth Rugby Lions, and high-schoolers play for South King County club teams in Kent, Renton and SeaTac, and as far north as Ferndale and Bellingham.

Haigh and Serevi point to other conditions that make the Seattle area a perfect launchpad for rugby.

• Proximity: Seattle is close to rugby-rich California and Canada, with its strong network of clubs and high-level facilities. “Having access to that rugby market makes it a great avenue to developing players,” said Haigh.

• State size: Unlike California, you can drive to most points in Washington in several hours or less.

• Sporting culture: It is “very open to new things,” Haigh said, pointing to Sounders FC as an example of a thriving new team.

Haigh believes the game and its Pied Piper have found the right place to incubate.

“I’ve spent the last three years of my life trying to make rugby advance,” said Haigh, among those responsible for bringing Serevi to town. “I never really thought we’d be where we are.”