Lance Fenumiai has plenty of reason to be thankful — and indulge in extra helpings during the Thanksgiving holiday — as the Juneau resident and former All-American college rugby player has signed a contract to play with the Dallas Jackals for the 2024 Major League Rugby season that begins in February.
Fenumiai, 23, just finished playing a season for the Pittsburgh Harlequins of the USA Rugby Football Union that ended Nov. 4 — which he described as a semi-pro league — so the coming months will be all about elevating the conditioning of his 5-foot-7-inch, 265-pound body to the next level.
“I definitely know I need to work to earn a spot there,” he said in a phone interview on Saturday from Seattle, where he is currently living. “I’ve been grinding every day and watching film on the positions that I play, and hopefully getting better and better, and definitely want to earn my spot, to get a starting spot.”
Despite his short stature, growing up in a relatively small city in Alaska and attending the small St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, Fenumiai has already managed to attract some big acclaim.
He was named an All-American by National Collegiate Rugby in March of 2022, after learning to play the sport while growing up in Juneau while also playing local high school football. In an interview with the Empire after winning the award, he said he went to St. Vincent with the intention of playing football, but soon switched to rugby because of the team aspect where everyone runs and throws instead of just the quarterback.
While at St. Vincent, coaches Mike Murphy and Drake Westerbeck “were a huge part of my success and ability to make it to the next level,” Fenumiai said.
“They taught me everything when I didn’t know a thing about rugby,” he said.
Fenumiai said Saturday he applied for the MLR draft after graduating from college in December, but wasn’t selected when the draft occurred in May. In pursuing his next options, he got a break when the Harlequins expressed interest in him.
“They asked me to fly down there in July, they paid for my flight, they gave me a job and I lived with my buddy over there,” he said. “I was able to play and get some decent experience over there playing with guys who played pro.”
While it was a semi-pro league — he took a security job at a high school to make ends meet — it was still a huge step up from his college experience due in part to the players with pro experience, Fenumiai said.
“We didn’t get much exposure (in college) so being able to go to Pittsburgh and play against bigger guys, faster guys, smarter guys was huge for me,” he said. “I feel like I learned a lot during the practice just hearing the way the guys speak about the game. There’s a lot of different talk about how they’ve been playing for someone and how they care about the game so much.”
The experience of other pro players in Pittsburgh also helped after he signed a contract with the Jackals, Fenumiai said. He said the Jackals did talk to him before the draft, but he didn’t give the team much thought until they called again about a contract after he got to Pittsburgh.
“When they found out I signed with the Jackals they would talk to me and give me advice, and so for me picking their minds and asking for advice and stuff really helped me, and has made me feel more confident in myself,” he said.
The Jackals signed him to play prop at the edge of the front line (think of it roughly as a three-man offensive line in football), whereas previously he’s played hooker in the center of the line and flanker on the edges behind the line. Fenumiai said that has to do with his height and weight measureables.
“At my height it’ll be better to go against the opposition (because) then you can get real low in the scrum,” he said.
Fenumiai’s physique is considerably different from his recruiting profile at age 18, which listed him at the same 5-foot-7-inch height, 205 pounds and 4.8 speed in the 40-yard dash. He said he still runs the 40 in five seconds or less — and that he actually ran the 40 a couple tenths of a second faster in high school than the recruiting profile shows.
Bulking up that much while maintaining most of his speed involves intense — if not expensive or overly specialized — training and diet, Fenumiai said.
“I basically eat whatever I can afford, just making sure I don’t overindulge and stuff like that,” he said. “Just making sure I eat enough to where I can perform at a high level. I grew up eating eggs, Spam and rice all the time, so I eat a lot of that. I eat a lot of chicken. And I eat a lot of fruit also. I drink a ton of water a day — I get those 42-pack waters from Costco and I drink probably like 10 to 12 a day.”
Workouts are guided by an app the Jackals provide, which means strenuous and varying activities that he’s performing alone daily without a trainer, Fenumiai said.
“Basically every day I run two miles to get my conditioning up, and basically working on squats and my legs up stretching to make sure I’m flexible and growing fast,” he said, “I do a lot of quick-base, fast-switch workouts to make sure that I’m real quick with my movements. At my position I have to use my back a lot and my legs, so I’ve been doing a lot of back workouts and doing calisthenics so I can perform well on my body, like bending over going in the scrum and just making sure my back is straight when I’m going through the scrum.”
The Jackals are entering their third season in MLR, a league that has experienced struggles since its inaugural season in 2018. An article in The Guardian in February of this year previewing the upcoming season reported “change is a constant.”
”Name tweaks and stadium switches are the least of the deal,” the article states. Late last season, the league disqualified the LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis, two teams owned by and named for one Australian entrepreneur. The entrepreneur, Adam Gilchrist, filed suit. All looked grim.”
But “all went quiet on the legal front,” the paper noted, and the league is planning to debut a 13th team in Miami for the coming season. Fenumiai said he considers the status of the Dallas team solid.
“Over the past few seasons we’ve made huge significant improvements, both on and off the pitch,” he said. “We’ve improved, the player roster and invested in team infrastructure. The ownership is respected around the league. Also, within the team our players like talking with our GM and coaches. We respect them very much and they know everything going on.”
Rugby has a far greater presence in other countries and Fenumiai said he did explore possibilities after college of playing in China or England — and might do so again — but “then this opportunity presented itself” in Dallas.
“I really wanted to play rugby at my age and don’t want to regret it in 10 years thinking why I never tried to do it.” he said.
Part of the motivation comes from his family, being the youngest of six siblings who “all have played sports in the real world,” Fenumiai said. He also has a niece who plays in the Juneau Youth Football League.
“I really want her to play rugby when she’s older and I think she’ll be real good at it,” he said.
Looking further into the future, Fenumiai said both family ties and furthering his play level are both key motivators.
“One of my huge dreams is to play for the Samoan national team — my dad was born there, my whole family’s all from there,” he said. “To be able to wear that blue jersey would be huge for me to make my dad happy and represent my dad’s country, and my background as well.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.