From our friend Alex Goff at Rugby Magazine, here is an interesting and well-written profile of Shalom Suniula, a star for both the Eagles Sevens team as well as the 15-man team.
Durability is one key measurement of success in all sports, and in a physical contest like rugby 7s, it is gold.
But a durable rugby player isn’t always the biggest and scariest. For every Tyrannosaurus Rex crashing through the jungle, there’s a scrappy little creature dodging its talons.
That’s Shalom Suniula. The American Samoa-born USA scrumhalf/flyhalf was the only USA player to participate in every IRB Sevens World Series tournament in 2009-2010. Injuries, pro contracts and 15s national team callups undercut the USA’s efforts at fielding anything close to the same squad every event. But Suniula, whose older brothers Andrew and Roland have also played for the USA in 7s, stuck out the entire season.
“I take pride in it because I know some boys are less fortunate with injuries or other commitments,” Suniula told RUGBY. “I grew up with Roland and Andrew playing together. They always liked the smash and bash game, and with older brothers, they’re always trying to bash me, too. For me to get away from all that I had to try and dodge them!”
That shiftiness has translated into some nifty rugby skills. Suniula has an impressive sidestep and after playing all last season as a scrumhalf, he was pressed into service at flyhalf when Nese Malifa came down with an injury just before Dubai.
Despite some adjustments with his goalkicking, Suniula hardly missed a beat, and helped lead the USA to its best start ever.
“I feel very comfortable at flyhalf,” Suniula enthused. “There’s a lot more room and time there and I feel more free. I get to play my game and let my natural flair do its work on the field. With the players I have around me on the USA team, it’s a lot of fun.”
Suniula did learn that there’s a rough part of flyhalf he didn’t expect.
“Handling the kicking duties and playing at the same time was tough — that was the first time I took on the role full-time,” he laughed. “I didn’t know Nese wasn’t going to be in Dubai, and suddenly I’m kicking. I didn’t know what Nese was going through until I did that. You’re tired, you’ve got 40,000 people screaming at you, and you’ve got the referee telling you you’ve got 30 seconds. I was willing to take it on board, but it was tough.”
Between tournaments, Suniula has been practicing kicking non-stop, especially after workouts when he is fatigued.
It’s just one more weapon in the repertoire of a player who started playing for the USA at 19. Born in American Samoa, Suniula and his brothers moved to New Zealand when they were young, and grew up playing together.
His background might make you think he doesn’t take playing for his country seriously, but that’s a mistake.
“I take big pride in putting on that jersey,” he said. “It’s always a moment of excitement and it’s fresh every time I put it on. Every time it feels like the first time.”
Shalom and Roland played together for the first time last year, and have connected well with the 7s team this year. Both are relatively short, shifty players who can squeeze through gaps. Roland is more solidly built and usually plays center in 7s and 15s. Shalom is the halfback, while Andrew is the much bigger, steamroller of a player.
“I guess when we were growing up Andrew ate all the dinner,” Shalom joked. “We are different players. I cover the more playmaking role. Andrew and Roland like that role too, but like the physical game more. Playing with Roland was an awesome experience, and hopefully there’ll come a time when all three of us will get to play together.”
For that to happen Shalom needs to break into the Eagles 15s team at scrumhalf, a goal he still harbors.
But for now, the 7s team is on his mind.
“Shalom has been phenomenal,” said USA 7s Coach Al Caravelli. “He has an excellent sidestep and the fact that he has played every tournament since the beginning of last season has been huge for us.”
“I look back at last year and Wellington and Las Vegas, and that was a big turning point for us,” Suniula added. “We won the Shield in the Wellington, then the Bowl in Vegas, and built on that. We know now that if Al can keep the same players around, as has been shown with other successful teams, then the more cohesion we have. For me, the experience and time with the team has been amazing. Not just the excitement of playing, I want to be a leader for this team. I want to be playing all the time.”
— Alex Goff