Brothers in Arms
Written by: Brian Hightower, MLR Staff Writer
The second season of the Major League Rugby will once again feature three Suniula brothers — Andrew, Roland, and Shalom. Not surprising, really.
It is hard to recall a time in the past decade when there wasn’t a Suniula near the top of the rugby food chain in the United States. In fact, aside from the 1924 Olympic gold-medalist Slater boys, Colby and Norm, the Suniulas have etched out a family legacy in the annals of US rugby that will likely never be eclipsed.
Each Suniula brother has earned a closetful of international caps for the US Eagles — 74 if you add them together (that’s two behind record-holder Todd Clever), and all have played in a Rugby World Cup. They’re combined for nearly 60 appearances on the HSBC 7s World Series (yep, even Gibraltar-esque Andrew has two). And last June, there were Suniula fingerprints on the inaugural MLR Shield when Shalom helped the Seawolves claim the title.
Yet, as ever-present as they seem to be in the US sporting landscape, the story of these broad-shouldered brothers could have easily been written void of any American rugby chapter at all. It would take a few fortuitous bounces for the Suniulas to end up where they are today.
In 1980, before the boys were born, their father, Niu, coaxed his reluctant wife, Aa’one, away from family in New Zealand, and moved her and their first two sons, Jarret and Nathan, to American Samoa. He simply wanted his children to have better options than he had. This decision would be the butterfly effect that would cast our three heroes into the cornfields of Iowa almost thirty years later.
Of the three, only Andrew retains any memories of life in rural Pago Pago. Along with the daily farm chores, he recalls “wiping butts and changing diapers” for his little brothers. Shalom was a baby and Roland a toddler, and when the family moved back to Auckland in 1990, in step with Niu’s vision, all three boys held US passports. They never knew those papers would come in handy.
Their collective memory really begins here: 1/135 Matipo Road, Te Atatu Peninsula, Auckland, New Zealand. If the walls of the house there could talk, they’d laugh, cry, and would likely brace for impact. “It’s who I am,” Andrew reminisced last week about his childhood home, “…my foundation.” Unless you know the address above, your story of the Suniula brothers, much like the drywall at Matipo Road, has a few gaping holes.
“He left just enough…”
The family eventually settled into government-assisted housing on Matipo Rd.; six brothers and the youngest, baby Astralitta, the only daughter. One can only picture the chaos inside. Niu worked two jobs to feed nine mouths, while Aa’one stayed home to herd the flock.
“He was a visionary,” Drew recalls of his dad, Niu. “He was always thinking bigger…challenging us to be more.” Through the early ’90s, the beloved Suniula patriarch imparted his wisdom and discipline and dared his kids to dream.
Rugby players are often measured by “tests”, and for the Suniulas, their first big test was faced as an entire family. By mid-’95, Niu was having a hard time hiding a tragic secret from his children. He was dying. As with most of the Suniula kids, Andrew took his old man’s lead and acted as though his father wasn’t that sick, especially as he continued to work both jobs. But it became harder to keep up the pretense in the final days. Remembering how thin his Dad had become, Drew observed, “I knew it was bad when even the kids who bullied us started being nice.” Advanced stage bowel cancer had decimated the staunch Samoan. By October of that same year, the brightest star in the Suniula’s sky had faded.
Christmas at the Suniulas in 1995 was bleak. Niu’s death had left an unimaginable reality for Aa’one; seven kids, no income, and worst of all, without her partner for the first time in nearly twenty years. “Those were rough days. I still don’t know how she held it all together,” Drew said admiringly of his mom. “When Dad passed, I think he left just enough for us to hang on to.”
Coming of Age
Soon, just like Niu had been training them to do, they got on with their lives. Aa’one went back to university for a degree, which created another interesting time where all eight Suniulas were in school at the same time. The boys delivered the Western Leader newspaper door to door every week to help keep food on the table. And when they had free time, they found a ball.
As they grew, their passion for rugby often played out right on the living room floor. Credit Shalom’s evasiveness to his big brother. “Drew was always a manchild,” said the smallest Suniula last week, recalling days of trying not to get pummelled in the comfort of his own home. “We’d move all the furniture and play rugby on our knees. It used to piss mom off!”
Aa’one patiently endured broken furniture and holes in the walls as games of full contact “Knee Rugby” became more frequent and intense. The boys hatched a plan to hide the damage from Mom with visits to the local movie rental shop. “We couldn’t afford to rent movies, but they would let us take the posters to cover up the holes…,” Drew remembered.
Roland’s memory was the line out trainings: “We’d toss a ball on the roof, so we couldn’t see it, then when it hit the gutter, that was the throw-in, and we’d lift the jumper by his underwear.” “Rugby was all we knew growing up,” said Shalom.
If you haven’t seen Andrew play rugby, just imagine a monster truck running over a mini-Cooper. He wasn’t always such a beast, though. For most of his early years, he was much more inclined to sidestep than bulldoze. Consider that when he arrived from American Samoa, his first love was soccer. Thankfully, his oldest brother Jarret started playing rugby at Kelston Boy’s High School and helped him see the light. Andrew was soon fast-tracked into what was, as he would call Kelston, “the Alabama of rugby programs,” a veritable All Black nursery.
He followed his dominant Kelston career by playing in the greater Auckland NPC squad, and then with Taranaki in the ITM Cup. Within a few years of his high school graduation, Andrew would find himself on the same depth chart as legendary All Black centres Tana Umaga, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. It was an honor, but also a problem. He had run into the ceiling.
Interestingly, the entire foray into American rugby for the Suniulas was nearly derailed in ’06, when Andrew, pursuing his options, made the 7s team for his father’s native Manu Samoa. He was a week away from the HSBC World Series when he injured his shoulder and couldn’t play, thus keeping his USA eligibility.
The phone calls from the US began that same year. Drew had added some bulk to his frame, and could now go around a tackler or simply through one. Word was out that there was a man-mountain who was mopping up midfields in NZ and had an American passport. Andrew had made a connection with Adam Friend, an assistant for US Head Coach Peter Thorburn, a New Zealander. Friend was the coach at Pearl City Rugby club in Iowa at the time and convinced Drew to start his stateside journey in the heartland. Within a few months, Andrew Suniula was on an inbound flight to the city of dreams, Muscatine, Iowa.
A Chip on His Shoulder
Roland Suniula will tell you straight up, “I wasn’t as good as my brothers.” Jarret and Andrew had created huge expectations at Kelston Boys HS, but Roland just wasn’t cutting it. He couldn’t crack the 1st XV, even in his senior year. He could have folded, but Niu’s boys don’t quit. Instead, he carried the enormous chip on his shoulder by bus every day to North Harbour where he’d get a new start. The move paid off when he landed under the wing of Allan Pollock, the coach who would change his playing style and his career trajectory.
In ’07, the same year that brother Andrew had arrived in a Midwestern cornfield, Roland was a Player of the Year nominee in North Harbour. Just as he was starting to taste the success that he always craved, he ran into the same plateau that Andrew had just a few years before. The names were different, (McAlister, Gopperth, Tuitavake, Pisi), but the reality was the same. The talent pool in New Zealand was simply too deep..
The curious piece of Roland’s rugby career was that the option to play for the US was an accidental discovery. The family never talked about American Samoa, and Roland, as well as Shalom, just assumed they were Aucklanders. In ’08, Roland was picked by former USA 7s Coach John McKittrick to play for a traveling team, the Penguins, in Hong Kong. While booking the travel, John made a comment about his US Passport. I said, “You’re kidding me?” recalls Roland when learning of this crucial document.
Within the year, Roland would also find the curious wormhole that begins at Auckland and ends in Muscatine.
Shalom was the youngest, and by the time he reached high school had spent years not only getting smashed by the first five brothers but methodically picking up a unique set of skills from them as well. But unlike his brothers who lived and died for Kelston Boys rugby, Shalom just didn’t seem that interested. He excelled at touch rugby and was already in the pipeline for New Zealand’s rugby league national team. Instead of worshipping All Blacks, he grew up wanting to be Brad Fittler, the notorious side-stepper for the Sydney Roosters of the NRL. His Kelston rugby career was a whim in his last year. And, of course, he made the 1st XV.
After Kelston, he moved to Queensland, Australia to pursue the NRL dream. During a routine enrollment for a class, he was confused when they told him that he’d have to pay the rate for US international students. Like Roland a few months before, Shalom was just as surprised to find out that he, too, was American. Not long after, the calls came for Shalom, and, … you guessed it, Muscatine.
Six Degrees of Suniula
Ironically, of all the rugby that Andrew, Roland, and Shalom have played, the Pearl City would be the only place that all three Suniulas ever ran onto the field together. It was in the fall of ’09, and it only happened once. Though Muscatine is an unlikely portal into the US rugby landscape, it would launch the boys into a decade-long tour that included years of representative rugby for the USA and stints at over a dozen clubs at home and abroad, from Bucharest to the French wine country to Austin, Texas. It would be difficult to find a corner of the rugby universe that has not heard the name Suniula. It’s impressive…and exhausting.
Perhaps that’s why they seem more ready to settle down.
You may have read that Roland has signed with the MLR’s Seawolves. After a season with Andrew in Austin last spring, Rol had plans to head back to Italy to play for Viadana, his fourth European club since 2012. Before he left, Shalom had asked him to at least come to Seattle and check it out, perhaps he could get to know his nieces and nephew better. On a Facetime call to set up the visit this past summer, Shalom called out to his four-year-old daughter, Kiana, to come to talk to Uncle Roland. “Uncle Who?”, she said spontaneously.
With that innocent phrase came an unexpected epiphany. Roland realized how little time he’d spent with his family in the past few years. “It just got me thinking about what’s important, about the long term,” Roland said. “Courtney and I were wanting to start a family anyway.”
So Viadana’s loss is Seattle’s gain. And if their midfield depth helps ensure another playoff run, Seawolves fans might just have little Kiana to thank.
And don’t feel sorry for Uncle Andrew. He won’t be alone in Austin. In fact, he’s already replaced Roland with another Suniula. Just last week his first child, Julian Jarret Niu Suniula, was born.
Welcome to the world, little man. May your home be as full of love as the one on Matipo Rd.
Written by: Brian Hightower. Photos, in order: Norma Salinas, Suniula family, Norma Salinas, Norma Salinas, Quinn Width Photography, Suniula family.
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