Mike Te’o can fully appreciate the goal he’s just accomplished.
As part of the 30-man United States National Team that finished its four-game run in the 20-nation Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, the Long Beach native admits that “I’m just grateful to have been able to play at the highest level, to gain experience and confidence, and come out in one piece. It’s been a tough journey.”
The scoreboard shows the 17th-ranked Team USA Eagles didn’t fare so well as a designated Tier 2 squad having to compete in the so-called “Group of Death”—it lost all its pool-stage matches against England (45-7), France (33-9), Argentina (47-17) and Tonga (31-19).
Amidst all that, some games were postponed and canceled by the effects of Typhoon Hagibis, bringing high winds and rain, and leaving, by last reports, nearly 80 dead.
Individually, Te’o ended up tied for second on the USA roster with 10 points. The winger subbed in during the 18th minute for injured captain Blaine Scully against Tonga and scored two tries in five minutes to push the U.S. to its first and only lead during the tournament, a 12-7 advantage they took into the break.
Now, reality sets in.
“Back in 2011, when I saw the World Cup for the first time, I decided I wanted to make the team, and eight years later, I’m blessed that it happened,” the 26-year-old Te’o said during a phone conversation from Barcelona, Thursday morning.
“My dad always encouraged me—I’m the youngest of five kids—to always compete at the highest level, and this was it. But my identity to this point has been, I’m a rugby player. I think I’ve always wanted to be much more than that. I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”
The 2020 Olympics are in Tokyo next summer. With another chance to represent the U.S. team, Te’o wonders if he could hook up with a club team in Europe and experience the game from a whole new perspective.
Or, should he could come back to Long Beach, where his father still lives, and start a journey as a firefighter.
“I’m lucky to have been able to travel and meet new people now. I think I have more to life to bring than just kicking a rugby ball. But I’m also always trying to spread the word about rugby,” he said. “The rules may be hard to understand, but I think it’s growing with excitement. I haven’t met anyone who has ever been to a game that didn’t like it.”
Te’o has had this period of recent discernment after spending months rehabbing a knee that had to be surgically repaired, and then coming back from a broken foot. He got back in touch with his spiritual side as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ for Latter-day Saints. He’s started online classes to get a college degree.
Although Te’o was the Long Beach Poly High defensive captain for the 2009 and ’10 seasons, the 5-foot-9, 235-pound defensive lineman didn’t get many college offers. He picked Long Beach Poly, instead of the Long Beach Jordan campus much closer to his North Long Beach home where his siblings went, so he could make a name for himself even if it meant taking the bus at 6 a.m. and not making it back home until after 7:30 p.m.
After high school, he picked up on rugby, and in a span of three months, he was part of the Belmont Shores Rugby Club that eventually won the 15s Division I national championship, played for the Under-20 USA World team and then won a club 7s title with Belmont.
The lead-up to the Rugby World Cup included nearly 120 straight days of fitness training in Colorado, exhibition contests and the trip to Japan. Te’o appreciates the off-the-field moments as well—particularly when he and some teammates attended an elementary school for a community outreach event to hand out jerseys and balls, and experienced the school children singing the U.S. national anthem for them.
“Seeing the respect level they have for the game, it was so beautiful,” said Te’o. “Japan has become rugby crazy lately. I see how they cherish things so much more in Japan; fans were crying at the end of their team’s games. Our game against England was full of Japanese fans who wanted to show their support.”
As a result, the host country has made the unexpected leap to the quarterfinals that start this weekend.
“I was watching their game (when they defeated Ireland) and was so happy to see another Tier 2 team win. Hey, they’re one of us,” said Te’o. “You can see how hard they work and how disciplined they are. It’s amazing to see.”
Now Te’o wants to see what’s next for him.
“I’ve never tried to set goals that are too easy to reach, when you do that, you’re not reaching far enough,” he said. “I’m thankful to have come out of this tournament strong; physically, mentally and spiritually. I’m happy that I’ve been able to put my head down and grind it out, made this goal happen, doing things when others weren’t watching me. I knew the blessings would come. I will continue to pray for guidance and hopefully, the answer comes soon.”
The Rugby World Cup continues in Japan this weekend with quarterfinal matches: England vs. Australia, Saturday at 12:15 a.m., NBCSN; New Zealand vs. Ireland, Saturday at 3:15 a.m., video streaming on NBC Sports Gold package; Wales vs. France, Sunday at 12:15 a.m., video streaming on NBC Sports Gold package; Japan vs. South Africa, Sunday at 3:15 a.m., NBCSN;
Semifinals are Oct. 26-27 and the final takes place in Yokohama on Nov. 2
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