Seattle Seawolves: Leaving a Legacy
Growing rugby in North America is a tough task.
It’s an uphill battle that American ruggers have been fighting forever, and one that people will continue to fight until the sport is where we want it to be.
The emergence of Major League Rugby in 2018 was a big step for the sport in our country, but it was simply the first step. There is still plenty of work to be done to help the sport reach its potential in this country.
In addition to winning rugby matches, the franchises that make up the MLR have also taken it upon themselves to do their part to grow the sport they love in their regions. If you glance through each club’s social media accounts, you’ll see posts promoting camps for kids, school visits, and several other actions to help get involved in the local community’s rugby scene.
The work that the back-to-back defending champion Seattle Seawolves have done on the pitch over the course of their first two seasons has given the rest of the league something to strive for, but the work they’ve done in the community has arguably been more important. Headed by Seawolves captain Shalom Suniula, fullback Mat Turner and Seattle Saracen Lauren Barber, the Seawolves have taken advantage of their relationship with Atavus to make providing rugby camps a priority to accelerate the growth of the sport in the Pacific Northwest.
“Shalom and I were sitting down and were saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got an opportunity to do some regional camps within our backyard,’” Turner said of how the idea formed. “From an Atavus point of view, we were like, well we are part of the team, we can take a little bit of the workload off of the Seawolves with them obviously being mainly focused on the professional team. It was just a natural fit for us. Atavus is based here in Seattle, so why not help the local team out?”
“What sparked us to do this was, we figured 50 percent of the people at Starfire were non-rugby people and 50 percent looked like they knew what they were watching,” Suniula said of the motivation behind the camps. “I’ve always known this from my time on the U.S. National team, that we are still a ways away. We’re an amateur sport, so we’re educating.”
To build rugby up into the monster that it could be, Suniula believes that the efforts should be directed to the grassroots. That’s why he, Turner, Barber and Atavus set out to host seven regional camps around the Pacific Northwest directed towards high school kids and four “Run with the Pack” camps before their last four home matches at Starfire Stadium for first through eighth graders. This was all in addition to making visits to seven different schools around King County in Washington.
“We went to seven different regions,” Suniula explained. “Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Victoria, B.C., Vancouver, Alaska, Hawaii. In Alaska, they are all Seahawks people up there so we figured, we are the nearest ones, we might as well. There is rugby up there. I’ve been there before and there is an appetite for it. Let’s do what we know we can do, and that’s clinics. Let’s make it inclusive and let’s drive diversity and you can’t do that without making it affordable, if not free. For some of these kids, it’s hard enough to just get transport there, so we are trying to eliminate those barriers.”
These camps were made possible by corporate sponsorships, and the participants paid a small fee of $20 to learn about the game of rugby from some of the best in the country. According to both Turner and Suniula, all of the proceeds from the camp were donated directly back to the local rugby clubs.
“When they say professional, they think, ‘Oh, you must have heaps of cash,’” Suniula said. “No, we don’t. You have to get creative around a self-fundraising mechanism. There’s not much money in the rugby community as opposed to other sports. We charge a small fee of $20, and it’s more of a donation.”
“All the money the kids pay goes directly back into the local rugby union,” Turner said. “We don’t take any of that $20. That just gets reinvested into the local partners and rugby clubs.”
The point of the camps goes beyond teaching the kids about the rules of the game or sharpening their skills. While those are important pieces of the camp, the values of the game are what Suniula and the rest of the coaches want to make sure the kids leave understanding.
“We are still showing people what rugby really is from a physical standpoint, but more so the values of rugby,” Suniula said. “That’s the important component of our sport and quite frankly what differentiates our sport from all of the other mainstream sports. Rugby will always be a community sport.”
When the idea to create the camps were formed, Suniula and the rest of the staff wanted to make sure the camp fostered a safe environment for diversity, inclusion, and equality through opportunities and experiences, they wanted to promote rugby’s core values of integrity, passion, solidarity, and respect with player-centered coaching, and they wanted to support confident, young females in the community. That’s where Lauren Barber came in.
“Lauren Barber is very well skilled in the youth organization in the Pacific Northwest and I think she deserves a special mention,” Suniula said of the work that Barber has done with the camps.
Barber is a 13-year rugby veteran that has picked up National Championships all over the country. From her college career at Penn State to her club career with the Saracens, Barber has played high-level rugby for a long time. That passion for the sport led her to coaching, and that’s what landed her at Atavus.
“I came out to Seattle for a coaching job,” Barber said. “I was the youth director at Atavus full-time and coached as young as three years old all the way up to 18 years old. I did school visits, summer camps, after school programs, anything that had to do with teaching kids what rugby is and getting them excited about it. That was my job. Now I coach with Carly MacKinnon with the Washington Loggers girls state select side program.”
With Barber’s help, the camp’s average number of female participants rounded out to be around 40 percent when it was all said and done. That number was one that every one of the coaches was extremely proud of.
“The one thing I’m really proud of is that we were able to get an average of 40 percent female participants at the before game sessions which is huge for me and rugby in general,” Barber said. “It’s just one of those sports that empowers women and girls to be like the boys or better just because of how it functions. I ran those camps with Atavus for three years and I was always excited to get two girls and then all of a sudden with the before-game program I was getting 20-plus girls which is really cool.”
“Personally, my biggest surprise was the percentage of female participants,” Turner said. “It shows you that there is a real market for the female game over here. That’s pretty exciting. I think the female game is definitely growing faster than the male game over here, other than the professional side of it. With NCAA, the females have a head start on the male game.”
If equality is what Suniula is after, the camps are a great start. But what makes Suniula different is that he dreams big. He knows that these camps are just the beginning of the work and wants to make sure that they are just laying the foundation for something bigger and better in the future.
“Obviously, equality is massive,” Suniula said of the goal of the camps. “You can’t control that from a professional standpoint, but you can in terms of development. That’s well within our control. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the confidence that young girls get when they play rugby because they get to do what a man gets to do from a physical standpoint. It’s so rewarding to see that sort of thing. Imagine you’ve got big, grown men, driving this sort of message in our community. I think it should come from the players. You talk about leaving a legacy, that is the legacy that I hope our generation can leave behind. All of this in hopes that the next generation will do 10 times better than I ever did.”
It’s obvious the interest is there. The seeds have been planted, but there is plenty of work still left to be done. That’s why Suniula, Barber and Turner already have their sights on the next go around.
Some of next year’s plans include more regional stops, visiting more schools, and an invite only high-performance overnight camp that will not only go in-depth into rugby, but into college and work options as well.
The Seawolves may be hosting rugby camps, but the camps are much bigger than rugby. The camps are bigger than the franchises themselves, or the MLR or the national teams. They are about the confidence that the sport provides and the relationships that come along with it.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, and it’s not really about rugby, it’s everything that it provides,” Barber said of the camps. “I get a lot of parents that say, ‘Oh my kid hates sports but they love coming to this and get excited about it.’ I think the Seawolves, in general, have done a really good job of doing that and bringing the community in and that’s what it’s about. It’s not necessarily that sport piece, it’s the culture of everything. Doing the before game stuff has really opened my eyes to that since I have been exposed. A lot of the Seawolves fans are not rugby people, so being able to see how it can impact them has been huge.”
“What I’m mostly happy and excited about what we did is that we actually did it,” Turner said of what makes him proud. “We were the first team that’s gone out of their way to go to the surrounding states to not only promote, the Seawolves but to promote rugby. I think it is a huge opportunity and hopefully, follow suit from a Seawolves point of view. This is something that we are going to pitch to the league from an Atavus point of view. We want to grow the game. We want every team to do the exact same sort of concept that we have. Go to surrounding states and get the rugby out there. It’s not about the franchise, it’s about getting rugby. It’s a pickup sport, you know? We want kids to just be like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a rugby ball. That’s all you need to play rugby. Let’s go throw a rugby ball around.’ That’s probably the biggest thing for me is just saying that we’ve set an example and hopefully we can get others to follow and grow the game that way through the community side of things.”
Suniula approaches these camps with the goal of doing something bigger in his mind. It starts with instilling rugby’s core values and moves up to inclusion. Each camp births a few new ruggers, and Suniula hopes that helps North American rugby get to where they eventually want to be.
“I’m not talking from the Seawolves standpoint, I’m talking about from the national standpoint,” Suniula said. “I’ve put years into those jerseys. Even Canada. I hope that North American teams can go on and do bigger and better achievements than we did. I have a projection that in 2027 or 2031, we will put a bid in to host that next World Cup. By 2027, the league will be about 8 to 9 years old. Hopefully, by then, we will have the infrastructure in place, we will have a bit more maturing done by then. If not by then, 2031 definitely. Working backwards from there, I don’t even care who wins the MLR and all that. That’s an outcome. What’s important is that we leave a legacy.”
The MLR has made being a professional rugby player in the United States a possibility and now Suniula wants to make sure he’s not only making people aware of that, but he’s doing everything in his power to help people achieve the same dream.
“I want the same thing for a kid that grows up in New York,” Suniula said. “I want a kid to be inspired to one day want to grow up to be a RUNY player. That’s just great for our sport. Same with San Diego and all of the other franchises that are popping up. How do we help you become not only a Seawolf, because we understand that not all of them will be Seawolves. I don’t care if we help farm them and then they go to the Utah Warriors or the Toronto Arrows. Them getting an opportunity and going on to do bigger and better things is the whole point.”
Colton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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