Matai Leuta will soon be playing rugby on the world stage at the Olympics in Tokyo. It’s been a long journey getting there, but the goal was set even before the journey started. Growing up he participated in multiple different sports, including track and field, volleyball, soccer and football, but his favorite sport of them all was rugby. “Rugby was my first sport that I really fell in love with,” he says. He lived most of his childhood in tropical Fiji where he watched his older brother, Saimoni, play rugby. “Watching him on the field, being one of his biggest fans – I think that’s one of those moments where I knew that if I worked hard enough, dedicate myself, I can play this sport on a national level.”
When Leuta, a Monterey native, returned to the United States, he played football at Seaside High School and Monterey Peninsula College, since rugby wasn’t an option. Wearing shoulder pads and a helmet, and running shorter spurts were things he wasn’t used to. “I had to really adjust, but I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with American football,” he says.
Leuta, now 30, moved to San Diego in 2015, after impressing rugby coaches during tryouts in Las Vegas. Making it to the national team “was always a dream,” he says. “Making the Olympics was a far stretch at the time.”
The national team had a very successful season in 2019. “We actually finished in the highest ranking that USA Rugby has ever achieved,” Leuta notes. They placed second, and became the first team to qualify for the Tokyo games. Leuta spoke with the Weekly before he competes in the 2021 Olympics.
Weekly: Rugby isn’t a super common sport in the U.S. How would you explain it to a person who has never watched it before?
Leuta: It’s tough to explain the game itself, but one thing I can say is it has the qualities of a lot of different sports put together. The physicality of football, just removing all of the shoulder pads and the helmet. It’s kind of like basketball, with the change of possession and how quick it can go from offense to defense. The stamina of soccer players, because you’re constantly running, you’re getting up off the ground, changing direction, and all that.
Do you think rugby will ever become as popular as baseball, basketball or football in the U.S.?
Yeah, I really do. It actually has had a league going on for the past four years now. Major League Rugby is growing in popularity every year. It’s definitely not at the stage where we hope it can be, but there’s a lot of momentum behind it. I believe that as long as we can keep this momentum rolling – and obviously, with rugby back in the Olympics, that’s also great for marketing the sport in the states.
If I hadn’t grown up in Fiji, I wouldn’t be in the position that I am today. All that is credit to my upbringing, because of how different it is. They are so open-minded on how they think, and that shaped me in a lot of ways.
Do you have any rituals before going onto the field and playing a game?
I tend to take a moment where I just kind of meditate and recall those times as a kid – growing up, playing with a flat rugby ball called “the sack” back in the islands, dreaming of being a national player – just looking back and seeing the journey and how far I’ve come, thinking about my family, everyone that’s back home supporting me. I just try to be positive going into the next game.
If you could pick a song to introduce yourself on the field what would it be?
That would probably be one of my favorite artists, rest in peace, Nipsey Hussle: “Dedication.” I think it’s kind of self-explanatory with the title itself. The dedication that we’ve put in as a team to stick together to stay tight because we all had this one dream. This one goal of making the Olympics and making our country and our families proud. That song is definitely one of my favorites of all time, and I listen to it constantly.
Outside of rugby, what do you like to do?
I’m currently learning to be a graphic designer. Unfortunately rugby is going to come to an end, so I’m going to have to figure out what I want to do afterward. I love art and I love fashion; after rugby, it is a career that I see myself getting into. I’m on the verge right now of actually launching an apparel brand.