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LDS rugby players rise to world class

Returned missionaries make World Cup squad

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It could be said that Kimball Kjar has excelled in rugby because of his mission, while Salesi Sika has excelled in rugby in spite of his mission. But the two young men who have been playing the sport with the United States national team consider their missions times of spiritual growth and service.

Their achievements in the sport are indisputable following their recent selection to the U.S. national team for October's 2003 Rugby World Cup competition in Australia. They are among 30 players making the squad for rugby's premier event, Sika the only first-timer.

Kjar and Sika joined the BYU rugby team as new students at the school. Kjar was from Bountiful, Utah, and was an outstanding wrestler, but knew little about rugby when he went out for the team to satisfy his craving for physical competition. Sika was from Tonga where he, from an early age, had honed rugby skills that made him immediately valuable to the BYU program.

Each played a season at BYU before serving a mission. Kjar was called to the Australia Brisbane (Chinese speaking) Mission, a rugby hotbed. Sika, on the other hand, was called to the Texas McAllen (Spanish speaking) Mission where rugby was about as familiar to the soccer-crazed population as cricket.

Doors opened for Elder Kjar as people eagerly shared their knowledge of and love for rugby with this American novice. Doors also opened for Elder Sika. He said, "Rugby was a good missionary tool. The people were interested in learning about new things, so we'd spend a few minutes talking about rugby and then find a way to tie it into the first discussion."

Kjar's understanding of rugby, the sport that spawned American football, naturally grew and he gained experience on preparation days playing touch rugby — a kinder, gentler form of the sport — with native Australians who had developed high levels of expertise.

Upon his arrival home, Kjar quickly excelled on the BYU rugby team and drew attention on the national level. His position — scrumback — can be loosely compared to a football quarterback, BYU coach Jared Akenhead said. One of the scrumback's primary duties comes during scrums. A scrum is a way to restart the game after a break in the action as players on each team form a tight huddle. The scrumback feeds the ball into the channel between the opposing sides and if he does it well, his team is able to hook the ball out the back side of the scrum to launch a new offensive attack. Kjar developed into one of the best at his position and has been playing with the national team since 2001. He said there are about 50 players in the national pool and about 22 are assembled for any given event or tournament.

Sika also made the U.S. team as a back. After winning MVP honors at a collegiate all-star event this summer, he jumped into international competition on the U.S. squad. He scored both U.S. tries (touchdowns, worth five points each) in a 30-21 loss to Russia in the Super Powers Cup final at Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

The two players fit well with the national team which is trying to remake the image of rugby players by developing a more classy image. Kjar said USA Rugby officials want the team to be "buttoned up," putting forth a clean-cut perception like full-time missionaries do. "They want that whether we win or lose all the time, or we win — ever," he said with a laugh, considering the U.S. team's chances against countries of the world where rugby is much more dominating.

Other members of the national team generally respect their LDS teammates. Sika said that on the trip to Russia, other players "asked a lot of questions about the Church; it reminded me of my mission."

Since the sport isn't extremely popular in the United States, there isn't a lot of opportunity to earn a living at it. Kjar, with his wife, Chesney, is considering going to Europe or elsewhere to play professionally if the opportunity presents itself. But he also faces the prospect of using his BYU degree in philosophy to make a living while continuing to play at the amateur level.

Sika still has eligibility left at BYU and is also considering his future options in rugby, which, at least for now, are wide open.

E-mail: ghill@desnews.com