Rugby Mean Machine

A sport that combines football and soccer is catching on in Camas and Washougal

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Tanner Lupton tackles Caleb Walz during Thursday's rugby practice in the field behind Liberty Middle School, in Camas. Lupton and Walz are two of the 15 Camas High School athletes on the Rugby Oregon "Mean Machine" team coached by Aisea Vailea.

For the Camas Papermakers, Hayes Freedom Rebels, Washougal Panthers and Union Titans who breathe football and crave something new, Aisea Vailea has the answer.

Come out and play rugby.

The Camas Mean Machine kicked off its second season in the Rugby Oregon high school boys league Saturday, at Skyridge High School in Camas. Vailea invites athletes from the four different high schools to be a part of this east county expansion.

“When kids first look at rugby, they think it’s kind of dangerous. I challenge them to come and try it out,” Vailea said. “Kids come for the first time, and they love it. And those are the ones who stick around.

“If you don’t like it, you can walk away,” he added. “You don’t know until you try.”

Like any other contact sport, rugby is dangerous. Anthony Grable, Tanner Lupton, 13 other Papermakers, two Titans and one Rebel would be the first ones to tell you that. They love it for the challenge. It’s down and dirty, knee deep in the mud, fighting for that inch. Sound familiar?

“I played football for nine years. After about two weeks, I loved this way more than football,” Lupton said. “I wish I would have found this years ago.”

“I thought football was brutal,” Grable said. “Rugby is way more brutal, but it’s also way more fun.”

What makes rugby better than football? Grable and Lupton’s lips curl when they are asked why.

“There’s no gear,” Grable said.

“Just a mouthpiece and cleats,” Lupton said.

Grable also loves to hit hard and knock the ball loose. Without pads on, those hits must hurt.

“Your adrenaline’s pumping so much, you don’t even feel it,” Grable said, before pausing.

“After the game, you feel it,” he back tracked, “but you don’t feel it during the game at all.”

Vailea has played and coached rugby for 30 years. It started on the island of Tonga, his native country, in 1980. He played year-round through high school and beyond, and advanced all the way to the Tonga national team. Rugby gave Vailea an opportunity to come to the U.S. in 1988. He played in California for three years, before finding a new home in the Columbia River Gorge. Vailea was still playing the game in 2010, before a shoulder injury forced him to retire.

“I love the game more now cause I don’t play,” he said. “It’s fun to share my experiences with these kids, and to just sit back and watch. Most of these kids remind me of how I played the game 25 years ago.”

Vailea started coaching his four sons on teams in Vancouver and Portland. Immediately, Siale, Sydney, Justin and Jason Vailea began telling their friends at school how fun rugby was to play. Aisea Vailea said the word spread to the point that there was enough kids intrigued to start a high school team in Camas.

The Mean Machine made its Rugby Oregon debut in 2010 with 12 seniors. This season is about building for the future, and Vailea is excited to be a part of it. Zachary Nute and Caleb Walz are the only seniors, but the team is backed by 17 underclassmen.

“We have a boys team going in Camas, I want to see a girls team and a men’s team in Camas,” Vailea said. “My hope for these kids is to have a bright future. I see some of them having a chance to make all-stars, and maybe one day qualifying for the U.S. team. Who knows? It all starts here.”

With rugby becoming a part of the Olympics in 2016, Vailea said the sport is making waves in Oregon and on the northern shores of the Columbia River. Oregon has 33 high school boys teams and 11 girls teams. The Vancouver Sharks joined Rugby Oregon in 1999. Battle Ground came into the league about seven years ago, and Camas and Prairie debuted last year.

Vailea said the high school rugby season is ideal for football players because it’s in the spring. Grable agrees.

“It definitely builds mentality for football,” he said. “It makes you hit harder, hit lower and it’s great for conditioning.”

Rugby could also be a different avenue for a football player. It took Lupton nine years to discover this new path, and he is not about to turn back.

“I never thought I would find something like this that I love so much,” he said. “This game is for me. I’m going to play it forever.”