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Seiuli Jesse Sapolu featured at Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame

Seiuli Jesse Sapolu (left) and Ma’a Tanuvasa.

Apia, SAMOA — Former NFL All-Pro and 4-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, Seiuli Jesse Sapolu, was one of the guest speakers during the Inaugural Induction Ceremony of the Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame in Auckland, New Zealand last Thursday.

Established in 2023, the Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame honors Pasifika rugby greats, players, coaches and contributors past and present, and further harness and expand the influence of Pacific rugby and its ever increasing mark on the game of rugby, further empowering Pacific communities and the next generation of Pasifika rugby heroes and influencers.

It has taken a lead from the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, established 12 years ago by co-founders Seiuli Jesse Sapolu and Denver Broncos two-time Super Bowl Champion Ma’a Tanuvasa to honor the greatest players, coaches, and contributors of Polynesian heritage to gridiron football.

Seiuli Jesse Sapolu, who is also a member of The Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame USA Committee addressed a packed house at the Eden Park Grand Hall and elaborated on the strong bond between Pacific island players.

"You may be wondering why an American who lives in California, played 15 years in the NFL and was born in the village of Toamua in Samoa, is speaking to a sellout crowd here in Eden Park tonight," Sapolu began. "The answer is very simple. The people of Pasefika, regardless of where you live, share an unbreakable bond that is cemented in faith, family, culture and sports.

"There is this special respect among Pacific island athletes whether you play gridiron or rugby, and it has continued to grow stronger in the last 25 years. Our community may be small in population, but our success in these two great sports is enormous. Over the years we've made our mark in the sport of rugby not only in our Pacific island nations, but around the world.

"It was made through the accomplishments of legendary players such as the great ones we're honoring here tonight, and in America, it was established by gridiron legendary players we now honor at the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. Today, we have stars such as Ardie Savea, Bundy Aki and Mark Tele'a just to name a few

"In America, we have Tua Tagovailoa, Puka Nacua, Talanoa Hufanga and the emergence of Jordan Ma'ilata who came from rugby league in Australia six years ago. They have become heroic figures not only in our community, but in the sports community around the world. Tonight marks an historic moment as gridiron and rugby join forces for what we believe will be an incredible, impactful and global initiative for our people," Seiuli declared.

The inaugural event honored two giants of Pacific rugby who have passed on, the late All Black legend Jonah Lomu and the late Papali'itele Peter Fatialofa, former Manu Samoa captain and legend, who were posthumously inducted.

Also on the inductees list are:

Fijian Sevens Maestro Waisale Tikoisolomoni Serevi, nicknamed "The Wizard" by commentators, is widely considered to be the greatest rugby sevens player in the history of the game. His representative sevens careers in 1989 when he played for Fiji at the Hong Kong tournament. Serevi also played in the 1993, 1997, 2001, and 2005 Rugby World Cup Sevens, winning the World Cup with Fiji in 1997 and 2005. He was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2013 – the first Fijian to receive the honor.

Former All Black great Tuafa'asisina Bryan George "Beegee" Williams, was one of the first Pacific island players to be selected in New Zealand's national rugby team. His speed and thundering runs as a winger scoring many tries, inspired many young Pacific island youth growing up in New Zealand in the early 1970s. In August of 2018, he was announced as a member of the 2018 induction class of the World Rugby Hall of Fame, one of his many international accolades.

Former Manu Samoa winger Muliagatele Brian Lima, world renowned for his bone-crushing tackles both on and off the field which earned him the nickname "The Chiropractor." Commentators also dubbed him "Rugby's Hardest Ever Hitter" and "Samoa's Greatest Rugby Player." He was also the first player to play in five World Cups. In 2011, he was inducted into the IRB Rugby Hall of Fame. Muliagatele Fata Brian Lima is currently the Manu Samoa Sevens team head coach.

Former Black Ferns captain Seiuli Fiao'o Fa'amausili was born in Samoa, but she moved with her family to New Zealand when she was five. She has been to five World Cups from 2002–2017. Faamausili has won four Women’s Rugby World Cup titles and captained the Black Ferns between 2012 and 2018. She has played over 100 games for Auckland and is the first Black Fern to play 50 test matches. Fa'amausili was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in a special ceremony during the 2021 Rugby World Cup semi-finals at Eden Park on 5 November 2022.

And former Australian Wallaby flanker George Smith, a retired rugby union player of Tongan descent with an impressive record of national and international accomplishments and accolades in his 19-year career. He was a flanker for 12 years (2000–10,13) at the ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby, earning 142 caps. He made his test debut in 2000 against France in Paris and earnt 111 caps for Australia, 110 before retiring from international rugby on 5 February, 2010 and one final cap against the British & Irish Lions on 6 July, 2013 when he was recalled.

The inaugural induction ceremony of the newly established Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame comes at a time of growing discontent among Pacific community leaders because of the NZRU's failure to recognize the contributions of Pacific islanders to rugby.

Prominent Tongan community leader Pakilau Manase Lua recently resigned from the NZRU's Pasifika Advisory Group saying, it is unacceptable for there to still be no Pacific representation on the board.

Pakilau argued that the union continues to disrespect the contributions of Pacific Islanders to rugby in New Zealand by not having them in management or on the board, despite the fact that almost 40 percent of players in the All Blacks, Black Ferns and sevens teams are of Pasifika heritage.

He told the media in New Zealand that Pasifika people are only used when needed and says they are seen as "performing monkeys for colonial institutions."

The plight of the Pasifika people was championed by Seiuli Jesse Sapolu and he has called on the NZRU and the rugby world to recognize Pasifika players and give them their right dues.

Speaking as the chief guest at the launch of the New Zealand Rugby Pasifika Strategy 2024-2029 at the World Cup Lounge on Eden Park in November last year, Sapolu said their accomplishments need to be honored.

"Our rugby story has a long history of success, that's longer and deeper than a Polynesian gridiron story we celebrate in America," he said to a room full of rugby officials and stakeholders.

"If we can make progress in America, a country of 330 million people, then there is no doubt that the accomplishments of our Pacific Island rugby players deserves to be honored and recognized."

He said Pacific Island players' contribution is still being underappreciated and that Pasifika players are not wanting any special treatment but just the right to have their stories heard and placed in the right place.

"We are not asking for special favors or to be treated in a special way. We just ask or want our stories to be installed properly as part of the legacy here and around the world."

Sapolu stated that it was time unions around the world compensated Pacific island players fully so that their families and communities could realize the benefits.

He said gridiron or American Football has taken notice of the talents Pacific island players have and now recognize the work being done by the Polynesian American Football group which he co-founded.

In last week's Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame Inaugural Induction Ceremony, Sapolu emphasized the importance of Pasifika having a 'seat at the table' and said the only way to get it, is to keep telling our story because if we sit on it and expect them to give it to us, chances are they won't.  

He said if we do work of service and keep telling our story, "remind them what Jonah Lomu did, what Savae Sir Michael did, what Tuifa'asisina Bryan Williams did in bringing the game along, in planting a seed for a lot of the Pasifika kids that they can also make it to the All Blacks - that's what we bring to the table and they need to acknowledge that and it needs to be honored."

"Let us not be afraid to set ambitious goals, push ourselves beyond our limits and set an example for future generations of Pacific islands excellence," he urged. "The goal is for the Pasefika Rugby Hall of Fame to become an inspiration not only to our rugby players, but to all our Pacific island youth that aspire to be whatever they want to be

"We can overcome any obstacle, conquer any challenge by working together and living a life of service. When we move forward with the mindset of serving our community, it is no longer about you, it's about us."