No helmets or pads necessary, just a good pair of cleats, full body strength, and a passion for the game, is all you need for the sport of Rugby. A little experience wouldn’t hurt either, as the #9 Hooker of the West Tigers, Joel Luani, shares his life long dream to play professional rugby and is now living out that dream. The Australian Native learned about ambition at a young age and built his way up to earn a spot in the National Rugby League. Luani is no stranger to hard work ethic after years of playing and continues to grow and learn more about the game. The strong-willed player has yet to show the League his best and knows nothing comes easily when striving for success. It is only the beginning for this unstoppable Tiger, as he takes us through a journey of his rugby career from what was once a dream to what is now a reality.
TWID: How long have you been in the National Rugby League and what has your experience been like?
LUANI: I started this year on a professional level and I’ve had a really good year. I played for the second division most of the year and was just learning lots, and I went on and played for the first grade team, it’s a dream come true. I’ve been pretty happy with this year.
TWID: Is this something you have always wanted to do?
LUANI: eah when I was a kid I wanted to play for the National Rugby Union, but after school it seemed like the National Rugby League was the best thing for me, so it’s what I stuck to.
TWID: What were you doing before you got into League?
LUANI: I was finishing high school pretty much. I started playing when I was a kid, I played Rugby Union before, then I switched over to League. Since I was kid I knew I was going to do something like this. I was good at school but it didn’t interest me as much as sports did.
TWID: Did you have to try out for League?
LUANI: Yeah the last time I had to try out was when I was 15. I just kept playing and gaining a reputation and eventually, you don’t really have to try out. It’s more just you play and train and you get picked. I’ve never really had to go to tryouts, it took years of progress, I made it a lifestyle for myself.
TWID: Does anyone in your family play and how do they feel about you playing professional rugby?
LUANI: I think I’m the first one, maybe a couple uncles but they’re more like distant relatives. I think I’m the first one in my family which is pretty cool. My Dad and Mom were both really athletically talented when they were young. They are excited, happy and supportive of me playing. My Dad passed away last February, it’s been different, but Mom is really good and my brothers are really supportive; and same as the outside family, my cousins and everyone comes over to my games. I think I had 50 of my cousins turn up to my first game, I could hear them cheering me on from all over so it was really good.
TWID: Did you get to choose which team you want to play for or did they assign you?
LUANI: Yeah it’s more you just play and if one of the clubs like you they’ll talk to you and talk to your manager,and you just sign a contract with them. I’ve signed a contract for another 2 years at West Tigers so I’ll be there and see what happens after that.
TWID: Is that the team you wanted to play for?
LUANI: Ever since I was a kid I played for the Junior side of the West Tigers, and ever since then I knew if I was going to play Rugby League. I always hoped it’d be for them and it worked out pretty well. I’ve been at the club for 5 or 6 years before I started playing professionally.
TWID: Was it intimidating when you first got on the team, seeing all the other players?
LUANI: Yeah it was, there are lots of good players. It was a bit challenging especially with my position, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of people. At the same time it’s your job and you have to do it. They were understanding as well, they’re all good guys.
TWID: Do you ever get nervous before a game? How do you prepare yourself?
LUANI: Yeah I try and do the same thing every week. Before a game I try not to eat too much. I try to stay up as late as I can so I can sleep in the morning. This helps so that I don’t think about the game too much. I’ll eat my usual meals, have sushi in the afternoon, drink lots of water, eat bananas, and go from there. I also say a prayer right before the game.
TWID: What has been challenging about playing for Rugby League?
LUANI: My schedule. It use to be do whatever during the day, train from 3-7 at night which wasn’t too bad. I dealt with that fine, but then when I started training professionally it was long hours. It’s more work, it’s a full time job, they demand more hours which makes the money worth it I guess. I start training at 8:30 in the morning, have a break at mid-day then begin at 2:30 to 4:00 at night, and I just come home afterwards. You can’t take it lightly, you get paid professionally so people expect you to play professionally.
TWID: What has been the upside to that?
LUANI: It’s a dream I’ve always had and have been playing for over 10 years now. Sometimes I look back at how its gone by so quick, but it was a lot of hard work, I feel real accomplished. And it’s good for the future because I’m still young. I’m excited and can’t wait how life will play itself out to be.
TWID: Are there any rugby legends you look up to what is it about them that you admire?
LUANI: Yeah, Benji Marshall is one of them, but he’s leaving at the end of the year, he plays for the Tigers. I was stoked to play with him, we played together in 3 games and that was huge. He’s got charisma, energy, a huge amount of talent, and he can win a game when you think he won’t, he’s really unpredictable. He’s a real good leader, he makes the game exciting and fun. I played against Sonny Bill Williams which is pretty cool as well. Seeing your face in the paper is pretty cool.
TWID: What do you work on for yourself as far as technique or style?
LUANI: My style is really different I’m nothing like Marshall, which is probably why I like the way he plays. The way I play is physical, I love hitting people, I don’t mind hurting people, but I think I have control over it. I’ve learned a lot about strategic plays and playing on a professional level since I started playing for the NRL. I’ve still got lots to learn and lots to fix before I can say I ‘made’ it. A lot of things I learn I just put it out on the field, I try to make it habit and keep practicing over and over, until i’m not trying anymore, it just happens.
TWID: How do you feel when you lose a game?
LUANI: Each person is different, but me personally I hate losing in anything, I’m real competitive. I get real frustrated, but it drives me harder for the next week. As long as I figure out why we lost and what to fix, I just keep going.
TWID: How do you feel when you win a game?
LUANI: It feels good we celebrate but we try not to do too much because we know our coaches want us to stay focused. We’ve got a mixed age group which makes going out a lot more fun. I’m 21 but then we’ve got guys that are 27,28,18,33. It’s fun to get to know all the other guys they’re really different.
TWID: What is your relationship like with your coaches and teamates?
LUANI: Good, I’ve grown up around these coaches for a while. When I was a kid I looked up to them and to play for them now is great. They train me now and know me from when I was younger. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the people who surround you, I look back and realize I’ve got good people around me who help make me better. We all bond well which is good. It’s a tight club because we’re together almost everyday.
TWID: Rugby is getting popular among the Pacific Island community here in the states, what kind of tips would you give players who are just starting to play that will help them?
LUANI: There are no breaks compared to American Football, it’s tougher, not that it’s harder than football, it’s tough in a different way. You have to have really good work ethic if you want to succeed and you’ve got to have the right attitude. You can’t just be a superstar you have to do the hard work first. Enjoy what you’re doing and learn more, I’m still learning. Run hard and tackle hard.
TWID: Give us some closing thoughts on what inspires you to keep striving to be the best:
LUANI: I just try to remember what I’m playing for, I play for myself, for God, and my family. These are the 3 main things that have gotten me to where I am. I try to stay humble and remember where I came from, is the biggest thing of all. I enjoy what I do, it’s all worth it.
Joel Luani is unquestionably living proof that dreams do come true with hard work and dedication. A true Islander in the sense that he manages to stay grounded through faith and the love and support his family and friends have for him. He has shown us that when you do what you love it makes life as a whole much more fulfilling. Joel, we are truly moved by your amazing journey and we appreciate the example you set for other aspiring athletes by staying focused and playing your heart out on the field. Dream big, challenge yourself, and always keep your eyes on the prize, because it’s What. He. Does.
Article Written By: Sina Uipi