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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Kamehameha grad enjoys playing 'football on beach'

By Dennis Anderson
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wailele Sallas evaded an Eastern New Mexico defender as he and two University of Arizona teammates raced upfield.

Kevin Klaus Arizona Daily Wildcat

Although he was a four-sport athlete at the Kamehameha Schools, Wailele "Wai" Sallas went to the University of Arizona five years ago with no expectations in sports.

But the "craving to compete" got to him and Sallas found his place — in the bare-knuckles game of rugby.

This season, he is a co-captain and senior leader of the Arizona rugby team, starting in the backfield for the third year as the Wildcats have extended their victory string from the end of last season to nine games.

Sallas, of Kaimuki, says, "Rugby is like no other sport in terms of the bonds you make.

"There are 15 players — no offensive or defensive platoons — very few substitutes, and you are on the field together for 80 minutes."

He compares it to playing football on the beach. Most players have no protective pads, though the ones who butt heads in those play-starting scrums may wear leather "scrum caps" that look like the leather helmets football players wore 50 years ago.

Some wear light shoulder pads. "I don't wear anything but tape on my wrists," Sallas says. Like all rugby players, Sallas has paid the price: a broken wrist and torn muscle in his back in the last game last year.

At Kamehameha, Sallas played football, basketball, reached the state 800-meter final in track and was chosen all-Interscholastic League of Honolulu in paddling.

"I've played sports all my life and I missed it at Arizona; I got that craving," he said.

He had seen a few rugby games because his father, Dennis, played at Kapi'olani Park and played one season with the Eagles, one of the U.S. national teams. But Wai had never played.

"I came out at mid-season my sophomore year and they put me right on the rookie team," Sallas said. "I never thought that four years later I would be a co-captain and one of the main guys."

Sallas thinks his endurance, developed as a pass receiver at Kamehameha, is his best asset. "I stay in gear after everybody else dies out," he said.

He scored the game-winning try ("It's like a touchdown, but you really have to touch the ball down in the end zone," he said) in one of this season's games.

Sallas played against Air Force last season despite stomach flu and a 102-degree fever and assisted on a 60-yard try with no time left that upset the nationally ranked Falcons. "I was drained and tired, but that is my fondest memory," he said.

Arizona coach Dave Sitton said: "It is ingrained on him that as soon as you step on the field, you give 100 percent no matter how you feel. He is always up for the fight."

EXTRA KICKS: Rugby is not an official NCAA sport, but USA Rugby sponsors two national collegiate championship tournaments. At Arizona, rugby is officially a club sport that does not offer athletic scholarships but is supported in part by the university. ... "We get help from the athletic department, and also do a lot of fund-raising," said Dave Sitton, who is in his 25th year as head coach. Sitton and the entire coaching staff are volunteers. ... Arizona plays in the SoCal League with teams from UCLA, Arizona State, San Diego State, Long Beach State, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo (unbeaten last season), U. of San Diego, UC-Santa Barbara and UC-San Diego. There is also a strong league in Northern California, usually dominated by California and Stanford. ... Wai Sallas will receive a journalism degree in May and plans to go into broadcasting on the West Coast or in Hawai'i. He has interned several summers at KHON-TV.