During my most recent trip to Auckland, I drove over to Sacred Heart College to meet twenty of my compatriots, down from Hawaii for a week of rugby.

As part of the Embassy’s year-long celebration of the Rugby World Cup and America’s deep rugby history, we partnered with a group called Education-1st Hawaii on an innovative sports exchange focused on skills development, team building, and cross-cultural linkages.

Wesley Clarke of New Zealand Rugby Union teaches rugby drills to youth in Hawaii.

Wesley Clarke of New Zealand Rugby Union teaching rugby drills in Hawaii.

We started last December by sending three New Zealand rugby coaches, led by Wesley Clarke of the NZ Rugby Union, to Hawaii to work with Hawaiian coaches. The mixed group discussed best practices for safely teaching rugby to kids and ran a rugby camp (as part of the Game Plan Rugby Academy) for approximately 200 Hawaiian high school students.

Last month we brought 16 American youth and their coaches from the Game Plan Rugby Academy to Auckland to train with local students and play a few matches. The agenda focused on tactics, psychology, team attack, unit skills, and the best use of indoor and outdoor training facilities. Of course, there was also time for sightseeing.

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With my new friends from Hawaii.

I very much liked what I saw and heard. The visiting Hawaiians were an impressive bunch … motivated, focused, ambitious, and very grateful for the opportunity provided by the program. The girls held their own amidst the boys. And the coaches were as focused on discipline, life skills, and higher education as on line-outs and scrums.

Education-1st Hawaii is a not-for-profit Native Hawaiian Organization (NHO) dedicated to motivating young people to go to university, coaching families on the importance of education, giving students the confidence to succeed in school, and encouraging them to contribute back to their communities after graduation. Sports, including rugby, is the means rather than the end.

Girls learning proper rugby passing skills during the training camp in Hawaii.

Girls learning proper rugby passing skills during the training camp in Hawaii.

The funding for the exchange came from our friends at SportsUnited in the US State Department. SportsUnited promotes a variety of exchanges and other programs that help transcend cultural and political differences by bringing people together to play sports they love. Since its inception in 2002, the office has awarded more than 80 grants to US non-profits to conduct programs in 43 countries around the world.

What I saw at Sacred Heart certainly validates the premises of both SportsUnited and Education-1st Hawaii. It was an energizing, uplifting afternoon.

USA Rugby coach Eddie O’Sullivan begins rugby instruction for the youth during the training camp.

USA Rugby coach Eddie O’Sullivan providing instruction during the training camp.

As my compatriots north of the Equator wisely say … O ke kahua ma mua, ma hope ke kukulu … first the foundation, then the building.