From inspiring role models to adapting to life in the Philippines, get to know the family relations within the Moana Pasifika squad.
There’s a running joke among Pasifika people that when we come across someone from the same Pacific nation or village, we assume we must be related.
Moana Pasifika will be making history on Friday when they face the Queensland Reds in their first ever Super Rugby Pacific game played in Apia, Sāmoa.
For many of the players, it’s a chance to reconnect with their families, including Miracle Fai’ilagi, who was born in Sāmoa. The team considers itself a family, but who in the Moana Pasifika squad is literally related.
Fine (24) and Lotu Inisi (23) are brothers from Tāmaki Makaurau of Tongan and Sāmoan descent. “Mum is half Tongan, half Sāmoan and dad is full Tongan,” Fine shares.
The brothers both agreed they’re very close, having shared a bedroom right up until Fine turned 19 and went on his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines.
“It was difficult adapting to a new culture including the language barrier, but I eventually got the hang of it, learning new phrases and I’m grateful for the experiences in my two years of living abroad,” he says.
Lotu was inspired by his older brother, who turned down an opportunity to sign with North Harbour rugby in order to serve his mission. “I was in my last year of high school, and I remember being proud of him,” he says.
However, Fine was equally proud of his younger brother and how he stepped up to help their dad provide for the family as their mum was sick and couldn’t work. “Lotu had to balance working full-time and chasing his dream, which at the time was to play for the Warriors. At such a young age, it’s not easy,” Fine says.
“Mum never misses our games though.”
As brothers close in age, they did nearly everything together, including playing rugby in the same grade, club and now with Moana Pasifika.
Other family connections within Moana Pasifika include Christian Leali’ifano, who has surpassed 150 games in Super Rugby, being married to Jack Lam’s first cousin, while Manu Paea and Sione Tu’ipulotu are distant relatives.
“I’m not even sure how we’re related,” Jack Lam (35) says as he looks over to his younger cousin D’Angelo Leuila (26). “We’re from the same village, so somewhere there we’re connected,” he says.
That village is Gataivai in Sāmoa, where Lam’s mother and Leuila’s father are from.
Leuila says Lam is not just his cousin, but his role model, having watched Lam on television for many years before he joined him on the field. “Every time we would see Jack on TV, my dad would remind us that he’s our family,” Leuila says.
In 2016, Leuila debuted for Manu Sāmoa playing alongside Lam for the first time. This match against Georgia was memorable for Leuila, not only because he got to play alongside his cousin, but it was Lam’s resilience and strength in this match that has motivated Leuila to do his best in the sport.
“I love telling this story to the boys because a lot of them look up to Jack,” he says.
“During the first half of the game against Georgia, he broke one of his ribs, but he kept playing until half time, and I remember being inspired seeing Jack give it his all on field, especially wearing the Sāmoan jersey. It has made me, to this day, give my all in every match,” Leuila says.
Lam’s first time learning about their family connection was when his mum saw Leuila named for the Manu Sāmoa team and she told Lam, “Make sure you look after your younger cousin.”
Leuila admits he’s a bit hot-headed at times and shares that playing alongside Lam has helped him stay calm and refine his craft on field. “Since we’ve connected through rugby, I’ve always asked Jack for advice on things both on and off the field and I, and many of the boys in the team, have learnt a lot from him.
“We live together now, so our bond has definitely grown over the past few years,” he laughs.
Lam reiterates their brotherhood, saying he’s enjoyed encouraging Leuila in rugby and being supportive of his journey as he reminds Lam of himself. “I’m glad I can share my experiences with D’Angelo to help him as I only want the best for him. He’s got a lot of potential.”
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.