SAN DIEGO, CA – Who do you think of when you hear the term “Beast Mode?” Maybe it’s the Tuilagi brothers, New Zealand’s Julian Savea or Ma’a Nonu, or perhaps the USA’s own Danny Barrett. Sooner rather than later, you’re going to think of this man: LangiLangi Haupeakui.
One of the newest capped USA Eagles is making a name for himself in the inaugural season of PRO Rugby playing 8 man for the Sacramento Express. I spoke at length with Langi and Sacramento head coach Luke Gross about the importance of PRO Rugby and how it’s providing the opportunity for players to be seen who otherwise would not have had the chance to get a look.
Langi, a 6’1″, 260 lb. hammer with speed to boot, grew up in San Mateo, California playing football as a means to keep himself out of trouble. Living in an area heavily populated by Pacific Islander gangs which included family members and friends, he said it was difficult to avoid the trouble, and if it wasn’t for sports keeping him busy he most likely would have ended up going down a path that he had no desire to go. Eventually, football took Haupeakui to the College of San Mateo. For various reasons football didn’t work out, so he turned to rugby. Having watched his older brother play for several years, he knew that his size, speed, and natural athleticism would translate well to the game.
Langi played his club rugby with the East Palo Alto (EPA) Razorbacks, where according to former teammate Anthony Munoz, he was always a game changer. “Almost every game Langi would have a highlight reel hit. Just looking at him other teams were intimidated and all he had to do was keep that fear in his opponents and that’s exactly what he did week in and week out.” Something else that made Langi stand out in the club game was his work ethic. Munoz said that “The grind never stops for him. Nobody’s perfect but he always wants to improve, and he always put his body on the line for his Razorback family.”
When PRO Rugby was announced, Langi didn’t pay too much attention to it at first, and he wasn’t identified early on to be offered a contract. Just a few weeks before the inaugural season was set to kick off, the coaching staff of the Sacramento Express saw what the EPA Razorbacks had been seeing for years. Coach Gross saw his size, speed, and raw athleticism and had Langi come to training. Shortly thereafter, LangiLangi Haupeakui was a professional rugby player.
For anyone who’s been following the inaugural season of PRO Rugby North America, it’s not too difficult to see why Langi got the call up from the Eagles. Week after week he is making devastating tackles and running over grown men like they are children. I asked former New Zealand All Blacks fly-half Orene Ai’i – and current San Francisco Rush player – what it was like to play against him. He commented “LangiLangi is a beast of a man and an incredible player. Playing against him has been a handful. He’s so explosive and dynamic with the ball and on defense he is a monster.” Coach Gross believes one of Langi’s strongest attributes as a player is his never-ending drive to be successful. “Langi is extremely coachable,” says Gross, “He listens, works hard, and asks all the right questions. He desires to succeed.”
Langi was invited into USA Eagles camp in late June, prior to the summer series test match versus Russia and by the end of the week he had earned his first Eagles cap. Shock was his initial reaction, as he thought his coaches were joking with him when they told him. After a bit of time to reflect on the experience, Langi said, “I’m still shocked I got to play for the Eagles. I never thought it would have happened so quickly. I just wanted to give the USA coaches the best look I could, and next thing I knew they told me I made the roster.” Langi went on to say, “On top of that, playing in Sacramento, in front of family, friends, my Express and Razorback teammates was a dream come true. I’ll never forget it.”
From a former teammate’s perspective, Munoz said that “We weren’t surprised when he got picked up by the Eagles, it was just a relief that he finally got what he deserved. We always knew he would make it. It was just a matter of time.” Along the same lines, Orene Ai’i remarked “I like how he’s used playing in the pro league [PRO Rugby] to his full potential and has made the guys at the top of USA Rugby take notice of him and his talents.”
As the inaugural season of PRO Rugby is wrapping up, I asked Langi how he feels the league is helping to develop the game in the USA. “PRO Rugby is exposing the game to a lot of people who have never seen it. About 20 of my old football teammates are playing rugby now. They love the physicality, they love that they can play offense and defense, and the fat boys really love that they can run with the ball.”
In terms of how he thinks it will help the national team, Langi said “The continued success of PRO Rugby is only going to help the national team get better. It will give guys like me a look who may have not had the opportunity to be seen at the club level.”
Coach Gross agrees, saying that “In order to have a truly successful national team you have to have a successful pro league. It exposes more talent to the USA coaches and it gives the college and high school kids something to work towards, ultimately making everything more competitive.”
With one week left in his season with the Sacramento Express, I asked Langi what his future holds. He said he is looking at several options in Europe to play professionally (rumors point to an Aviva Premiership team), but most importantly to stay fit for the next Eagles assembly and prepare for the Maori All Blacks in November.
It truly seems the sky is the limit for this young man and his rugby career. Garnering high praise from Ai’i, who said, “I have no doubts that if he continues to work hard at his game he’ll be a professional rugby player for many years to come. I’ve got a lot of admiration for LangiLangi and respect for how he plays the game. Can’t wait to see his progress!”
Coach Gross feels similarly, saying “As his fitness improves and knowledge of the game improves he could definitely be a world class player.”
Get used to the name. You’re going to be hearing it a lot for the foreseeable future.
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