Rigger to rugger: AIT Student helps All-Army team win rugby sevens tourney
June 27, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. (June 27, 2013) -- Following its come-from-behind victory over the Navy during a rugby sevens tournament title game June 2 in Chester, Pa., the scene in the All-Army locker room was one that was contradictory to a celebration. Instead, there was a mood of somberness marked by reflection and tears, said Col. Mark Drown, the coach.
"It was an emotional moment," he said by telephone.
The trophy Drown's team had just earned was thoughtfully placed atop a training shirt listing the names of 30 Soldiers who died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Everybody was weeping because everybody knew somebody on that shirt," said Drown.
Those listed on the shirt were not only warriors but rugby players as well. Some were All-Army team members.
"This has really hurt," said Drown. "That's a lot of rugby players."
The wars have impacted Army rugby, a small but loyal community, to the extent that it hasn't won any high-profile tournaments in more than seven years.
Drown was eager to change the team's fortunes when the U.S. Military Memorial Cup tournament was on the slate. Spc. Nuuese Punimata was a big part of that change, boasting a long list of accomplishments including a master's degree in strategic studies and three-stints on the U.S. national rugby team, a rare achievement for an All Army player.
It helped that Drown also knew the American Samoa native prior to the tournament and that Punimata is assigned to the Utah National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), a unit in which Drown is the deputy commander.
So Punimata would be a shoo-in to join the team, right?
Wrong -- Punimata is currently assigned as a rigger student with Charlie Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion, 23rd QM Brigade, and is only a few weeks from graduation. It would take much to get the advanced individual training Soldier released to play.
Drown contacted Punimata's brigade commander, and after some consideration, the 26-year-old received approval to travel with the team. Acknowledging how difficult it is to break away from his AIT studies, Punimatal said he was grateful his company, battalion and brigade leadership supported his efforts to join the All-Army squad.
"I was extremely thankful they let me go and represent the Army," said the 26-year-old son of a retired chief warrant officer 4. "It was an honor to represent the troops downrange, the rugby players who are no longer with us due to the war and all who are still with us."
The five-team, round robin Military Memorial Cup is one of several events that comprise the Collegiate Rugby Championship. The latest one included the inaugural rugby sevens event, a version of the traditional game contrasted by two seven-minute halfs instead of two 40-minute periods and a roster of seven players versus 15. The game is faster, more open and arguably more exciting.
Going undefeated in its first four games, the Army counted the Navy as one of its victims, logging a 12-10 come-from-behind victory on May 31. That set the stage for Sunday's title game. Once again, the Army team faced the sea service, and once again, it came from behind. Punimata's 50-meter try, similar to a touchdown, tied the score, and a two-point conversion gave them the lead. Nate Conky's try from roughly 40 meters out put the Army up for good.
Punimata, who plays the forward position, deferred to the team for his successes.
"Collectively, my teammates did a phenomenal job to put me in a position to score," he said. "I was fortunate enough that a couple of guys made some fantastic breaks and some great passes to set me up to score so really the credit goes to all the hard work on their part."
Drown said he knew Punimata would make a big difference for the team that has struggled for so long.
"The last time we had the Army sevens together, we came in fourth out of five places," he said by telephone. "It was embarrassing not to do well. Going into the tournament, we had a good core of players, and we knew if we could pick up Nuuese, we could turn the tide. Every time he went out on the field, he was playing good, solid, smart rugby. The players just responded to his leadership style, and this team is mostly comprised of officers. They totally respect Spc. Punimata."
Capt. Terrance Knight, Punimata's AIT commander, said his Soldier's contributions to the team shouldn't be understated.
"It's very commendable what Punimata did on short notice and helped his team win the cup," he said. "It's outstanding and was great to see."
Punimata said his future plans are to support his home unit to the fullest and apply to officer candidate school when he becomes eligible.