When former BYU running back Wayne Latu walked onto the field at Sam Boyd Stadium last weekend, it brought back a host of memories from his days as a Cougar.
"I spent all four years at BYU (2002, 2005-08) and we played UNLV every year and in the Las Vegas Bowl," Latu said. "I had a breakout game in 2005 so there were a lot of reminiscences. It was great to come out there again, back where I started my career. I was there for a different sport but it still felt like being back at my old stomping grounds."
This time Latu was at the Las Vegas Invitational to play rugby with the Humless 7s, a club seven-man rugby team from Provo featuring a number of former Cougar football and rugby players.
But even though the team was thrown together, according to Latu, and squaring off against established teams, the Provo squad ended up dominating their division and won a national title.
Since this the event was the American stop for the international rugby circuit, victory meant another special moment for Latu in Las Vegas.
"To see our team, standing in the tunnel with the national teams from New Zealand and South Africa on either side, and have our trophy next to them, was special," Latu said. "These are the best rugby teams in the world. It was neat to be standing next to these guys for whom rugby is their whole careers."
Latu explained that international rugby has a culture of drinking and celebrating that goes along with the game. While the Provo squad, which is made up of many LDS members and made it a family-oriented event, didn't get involved with the drinking element, they had their own victory party.
"We all celebrated at Jack-in-the-Box," Latu said. "We went for strawberry milkshakes but we went with the trophy. Winning certainly made the drive back pass by a lot faster."
One of the coaches for the team was Brenton Salvesen, a South African who loves seeing the sport have success like the one accomplished by the Humless 7s.
"Unfortunately rugby in Utah has mentality to just get together and do it," he said. "We were going against teams who train day-in and day-out. Those guys are playing all the time and playing in regular tournaments. But it's a big thing, a platform for these guys. Some are out of football with nowhere to go and playing rugby provides joy. When Wayne tackles someone, he gets a big smile on his face. For us to come down and compete there was a big thing."
A lot of the success in the sevens competition — which differs from 15-man rugby because there are both fewer men on the pitch and they only play seven-minute halves — comes from having athletic players with speed.
"I was a changeup back, a speed back at BYU," Latu said. " With my skillset, this was something that came easier to me with the type of playing I did in football and track. Those are the type of players that we sought out and used."
It did also benefit from having former Cougar rugby stars Steve St. Pierre and Ryan Roundy.
“Roundy captained the team and he was a standout player,” Salvesen said. “The team functioned well together. Ryan played every minute of every game. He’s a great player, a great guy, and I’d love to have him go to the next level.”
Latu credited an athlete who hasn’t even been competing in sports for the last couple of years as providing a big boost.
“Our star players were players who didn’t play rugby,” Latu said. “Our MVP was Tre Ofahengaue, a former prep star at Westlake who is just off his mission. I don’t know is made to finals without him. Trying to corral him was like trying to catch the wind.”
Other members of the team included Sosaia Vainuku, Zeke Mendenhall, Tino Lepale, Will Hefner, Tana Uyema, Peni Pahulu, Kaiona Dutro, Kisa Natuilagi, Misi Tupe, Christian Kyle, and Glen Jakins, while the other coach was Hutch Fale.
“We had Americans, South Africans, Tongans, Fijians and New Zealanders, so it was a multi-national squad,” Salvesen said.
Latu also felt indebted to Humless, a green-energy company which builds a silent generator, for helping support the effort and allow them to compete.
“We’re a local company who have been sponsoring rugby for three or four years,” Salvesen said. “We’re South Africans who love rugby and were willing to put up money to get hotels down there.”
The coach said the chance to be there turned out to be life-changing for him as well.
“For me, the best part was walking into the stadium,” Salvesen said. “I’m an old South African guy who could show them some old tricks and help them find structure at their platform. It was a thrill for me, even walking out in front of 20,000 people. It was one of those things I’ll never forget. My nine-year-old son was there and when I saw him, I didn't know whether to wave or cry.”
While that was an exciting time for many of the players as well, some might get the chance to experience something even more thrilling. Seven-man rugby will compete for the first time in the Olympics in Brazil in 2016 and some might get to compete to be a part of their national team.
But that’s in the future. Right now, Latu is just glad to be able to say one thing about his Humless 7s squad.
“We’re the champions,” he said.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd.