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Monday, March 09, 2009

It was love at first scrum

San Mateo High senior Patrick Latu wishes rugby was an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

If it was, he would probably be one of the nation’s most prized recruits. Latu recently made the U.S. 18-and-under national team, one of only 25 players to do so. Latu will be heading to Atlanta for a match against England in the first week of April. He plays tighthead prop, which basically means he provides the power in the scrum and needs to be powerful and strong.

At 5-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Latu is just that — a load to handle.

“I was surprised I made the national team,” he said. “But it’s a great feeling.”

Latu, who is heading to CSM in the fall to play football, was a standout on the Bearcats’ football team last season. He played offensive tackle and linebacker, and was a force on both sides of the ball. Bearcats coach Jeff Scheller raved about Latu’s unselfishness — Latu spent time at running back as a junior but volunteered to play tackle because the team needed help on the line.

Once reserved and shy, Latu has taken on a leadership role on the football and rugby field. He’s had to because he’s one of the best players wherever he plays. When Latu isn’t busy with national team duties, he has a starring role for the San Mateo Warriors, one of eight high school age-based club teams on the Peninsula.

“The biggest adjustment for me is being more of a vocal leader,” Latu said. “After football season I looked at myself in the mirror and asked myself what could I do better to make myself a better player. I knew right there and then I had to be more vocal because guys look up to me. I have to let them know I hear and see them.”

Latu is still the modest sort. He genuinely feels he’s not even the best high school age rugby player on the Peninsula, and chalked up his making the national team as a matter of having good contacts.

“I don’t think I’m the best around here,” Latu said. “I had a chance to meet the U.S.A. coaches a couple of years ago and they scouted me. I kind of put myself out there. If the coaches see something they like, they’ll pick you. To be honest I think the only reason I got picked is because I’m coachable and I work hard. I don’t go around saying I’m the best. I just go out there and play.”

While that may be true, Latu possesses some serious talent. He’s actually one of a number of prep football players on the Peninsula who also play rugby in the winter/spring. Latu is of Tongan descent and he said that Tongans love both sports because of the physicality involved. The Warriors and the East Palo Alto Razorbacks are the class of the Peninsula, and they played last year for the league championship.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. The Razorbacks were leading 21-19 with five minutes remaining when both teams were disqualified after the referees ruled they couldn’t control the crowd, which got unruly. That left a bitter taste for both teams, and Latu is eager to play East Palo Alto again.

“The next time we play them we’re hoping for a good, clean game and no fights,” Latu said.

The amazing part about Latu making the national team is the fact he’s only been playing rugby for three years. But it was love at first scrum for Latu, who enjoys rugby even more than football.

“Even though there’s more running in rugby and the games are longer (80 minutes as opposed to football’s 60 minutes at the college and pro levels and 48 in high school), it’s a lot of fun and a great challenge,” he said. “I’d say rugby is a more physical sport, and you need a lot more endurance. It’s 80 minutes of nonstop running and yelling at each other. In the 79th minute you’re so tired, but teammates are pushing you to finish strong.”

Latu has a good rugby role model. His dad, Mohu, was a standout player. Nicknamed the horse — “I don’t know why,” Latu said — Mohu was fast, physical and hard to take down. Even though he never saw his dad play, Latu tries to be that immovable force whenever he has the ball or is trying to tackle the opponent.

“Rugby is all about throwing your body at other bodies and trying to kill yourself,” Latu said. “(When I have the ball) I recommend if you go head to head with me, to absorb my tackle and go down. I like to dance a lot and try to get by people, but if you don’t let me I’ll be going straight at you.”

And one can guess Latu will win that battle more often than not.

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