American Samoa has a presence in the world of international Seven aside rugby. Where speed, power and skills are pitted against the very best in the world at the HSBC Sevens World Series, to be able to live the dream of competing is one not many can attest to. To come from American Samoa and make it to the international level that is the World circuit, is a feat in itself. Nu'uese Punimata, known to many as Nu'u, can make that claim. But is one that he humbly acknowledges. Raised in American Samoa, and now playing in his first year for the USA Eagles national side, Punimata is living his dream, as well as inspiring the hopes and aspirations of up and coming rugby players that they too can compete at the international level.
In an interview with Samoa News following the final day of competition at the 2011 USA Seven's in Las Vegas, Punimata was thrilled to have played in front of the home crowd, and most importantly in front of his family, friends and those watching around the world.
"Playing in front of the home crowd was awesome! It amped up the intensity, and we wanted to give the fans and crowd something to cheer about!"
Punimata who fractured his ankle during the game against Samoa, said that playing them was very motivating form him. "Samoa comes with a very physical style of play, they are big guys. We either try to match them, or outmatch them. Their style of play is closest to what I could would describe as our style. And each time we meet them, it's a test match. It comes down to which team has the least amount of mistakes."
While he plays for the United States on the field, he said that Waisale Serevi, legendary Fijian Seven's player, described it best, in a speech he gave to the players.
"Serevi told us that whether we play for our own countries on the field, we represent all our Polynesian people. When I am out on the field, I play for not only the Eagles, I play for my parents, my sisters,my grandparents, my uncles and aunties, cousins, nieces and nephews and all who have been supporting me throughout the years to help me get where I am today. It means the world to me to be at this level. And I know I could not have made it this far without putting the Lord first in all that I do."
He went on to say "I thank the Lord for being able to play and in doing so, allowing it to open doors and show our athletes and aspiring rugby players back home, that it is possible. Whether you're from a big city or a small village, if you put the Lord first in all that you do, and work hard, playing rugby at this level can be achieved!"
When asked what if was like to be under the leadership of USA Eagles head coach, Al Caravelli, he described it as extremely exciting.
"Coach Caravelli is a very intense, very honest, and caring leader. He takes care of us as if we were his own sons. What he has done for the sport of rugby in the U.S. is nothing short of phenomenal. He has taken our team from being the doormat of the series to being one of the premier teams. He puts all the pieces into place and it is up to us as players to execute Coach Caravelli's plan. Keeping our team in the top 8 and being able to continue to qualify in the series is a huge feat, and Coach has been so instrumental in keeping us up there."
With the Hong Kong leg weeks away, Punimata is hopeful that he will be able to join the squad. Given the timeframe between now and the Hong Kong tournament which kicks off March 23-27, it will be up to the team doctor and trainers to make that decision. After suffering his injury during the game against Samoa, he said that Caravelli told him to do his best. The rest would be up to how fast his ankle heals after rehab.
Punimata, the eldest of three children born to Nick and Sharon Punimata and grandson of Nu'uese and Matamuli Punimata of Fogagogo, was raised in American Samoa. A graduate of Samoana High School in 2004, he played football in the first Annual Samoa Bowl, as a prep senior, and then as a senior in the Kava Bowl in Salt Lake City. He attended Mt San Antonio College in Walnut, California before transferring to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). While pursuing football in college, rugby was never far away. Crediting his father with instilling in him the love for rugby, he recalled watching his father play as a young boy, as well as playing village touch. After college he continued his passion for the sport, playing for Old Puget Sound Beach club in Seattle, when he was noticed by Caravelli and given a chance to trial for the Eagles. He has not looked back since.
When asked how he felt about his son playing for the U.S and watching him compete this past weekend, Nick Punimata was nothing short of proud. "It has been an extreme opportunity and blessing for Nu'u and for Sharon and I to see him compete at test level seven's. To be able to share and experience the atmosphere of the series, to be in the crowd has been amazing. We are all so proud of him. As long as he continues to put the Lord first, we know that he will continue to play his best and we will always be there to support him."
Punimata acknowledged that he would not have made it this far if it were not for the support of his family, friends and supporters.
"First I thank the Lord that I am here. Without faith and trusting in Him, I would not be blessed to be where I am today. To my Dad and Mom for always pushing me and being a positive influence, I am so very grateful; my sisters, Eti and Samalauulu for their love and support for their big brother; my grandparents for raising me and instilling in me the fa'asamoa and values which I have come to appreciate , moreso when I moved to the States, it has kept me grounded and humble, and to all the people back home in American Samoa. I also want to thank Coach Al Caravelli for believing in me and giving me the chance to try out for the Eagles. He is a big source of support and has a lot of respect for the Samoan Community here. I am so very blessed, and for as long as I am apart of the Eagles team, I will continue to give 110%."
From a small island to the world stage of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens series, Punimata is living his dream, and paving the way for aspiring rugby athletes from American Samoa who hope to do the same.