Lance Fenumiai, Juneau local and rugby player for St. Vincent College and recently named All-American by National Collegiate Rugby, pauses during a game against Wheeling University. (Terry Hancock / Wheeling University)

Lance Fenumiai, Juneau local and rugby player for St. Vincent College and recently named All-American by National Collegiate Rugby, pauses during a game against Wheeling University. (Terry Hancock / Wheeling University)

Juneau man named All-American college rugby player

He was also the first player from his school invited to a national college rugby event.

A man from Juneau has recently won acclaim as he was named an All-American by National Collegiate Rugby.

Lance Fenumiai, a senior at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, was feted for his play in the small college category by the national organization.

“It feels pretty awesome. Coming from Juneau, for sure,” Fenumiai said. “Even for a small college. This is the first time we ever went to playoffs.”

Rugby is growing in the United States, but still doesn’t have as large a presence stateside as its younger sibling, American football, an offshoot of rugby.

“It’s surprising to begin with to have anyone from Alaska in our little town of Latrobe,” said St. Vincent rugby coach Mike Murphy. “To have him come down and be the amazing player he is, it’s great to watch.”

Fenumiai is a union of talent, hard work and good energy that makes him a formidable rugby player as both a hooker and more recently a flanker — different positions on the field, Murphy said.

“He’s one of the most dynamic players I’ve ever seen,” Murphy said. “There’s nothing I can’t ask him to do that he won’t do to the best of his ability.”

Losing the pads

Fenumiai said he learned to play the sport in Juneau, where the Pacific Islander community brought the sport, playing touch games with friends. While he went to St. Vincent with the intention of playing football, he soon switched to rugby, praising the team aspect of the sport where everyone runs and throws, instead of just a quarterback.

“That’s what I like about rugby. You can do everything on your own, not just one person throwing the ball,” Fenumiai said. “It feels so good to hit people and run without pads on.”

Murphy said Fenumiai has both learned rapidly and worked hard to become a truly noteworthy player.

“He has a natural ability to make gaps and exploit them,” Murphy said. “There’s an uncanny IQ that he’s picked up in the short time playing rugby.”

The sport is widely played across the rest of the world, notably in Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Many players on U.S. teams come from other countries where they grew up playing the sport, Fenumiai said. Many of them competed at the recent All Star Shield Challenge, a January event that Fenumiai was selected for — the first St. Vincent men’s player to be picked.

“There were a lot of foreign players there,” Fenumiai said. “South African, Australian and French — It’s cool to see how they talk about the game.”

That international sense of the game varies from the United States, where rugby players typically come from a football background, Murphy said.

“One thing I noticed that he does well is that he studies the game harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Murphy said. “He studies the international side of the game.”

Between the whistles

Fenumiai isn’t just a good player on the field, Murphy said, but a good teammate and an all-around asset to St. Vincent rugby, encouraging teammates and cementing the team.

“It’s the off pitch things that people don’t get to know about. They don’t hand out awards for being a great teammate,” Murphy said. “It’s not just between the whistles. It’s between the final whistle and the next whistle that he’s actually doing his best work.”

A lot of that comes from his family and relationships, Murphy said.

“He’s very close with his family and they support him in everything he’s trying to do,” Murphy said. “He derives a lot of power and strength from not only his family but also his close friends.”

Fenumiai is part of a drive for the young team to go further than they have since the team’s founding in 2015.

“Our goals always get set higher. Our goal this year is a national championship,” Murphy said. “This is the furthest our team has ever gone in its short time in existence, and that’s in no small part due to Lance.”

Fenumiai said he hopes to keep playing, and hopes to see the sport keep growing.

“I hope this sport grows more. I hope there’s more recognition for it. It would give people more options,” Fenumiai said. “It’s hard to teach rugby when you don’t know anything about it. A lot of the new guys, it’s hard to get it until you actually play in the game.”

For those who have never watched rugby, Fenumiai recommended watching some games. Tournaments like the Six Nations Tournament, which just ended weeks ago in a French victory, and the Rugby World Cup, has its 2021 championship matches scheduled beginning October 2022. There are also games on the Rugby Network, which features U.S. college and major league teams.

“I do see people talk about it more. I see it growing more,” Fenumiai said. “Seeing it in Alaska- I didn’t think it would grow as fast as it is.”

Fenumiai has one more season of sevens and 15s rugby each to play before graduating this winter, Murphy said.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

Lance Fenumiai, Juneau local and rugby player for St. Vincent College and recently named All-American by National Collegiate Rugby, prepares to throw the ball in during a game against Wheeling University. (Terry Hancock / Wheeling University)

Lance Fenumiai, Juneau local and rugby player for St. Vincent College and recently named All-American by National Collegiate Rugby, prepares to throw the ball in during a game against Wheeling University. (Terry Hancock / Wheeling University)

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