Giving up his national sport to be a Cougar

In New Zealand, rugby's popularity is the equivalent of that of baseball, football and basketball in America all rolled up into one. It's the island nation's national sport, where players are heralded for a lifetime and celebrated in memory – much like Michael Jordan or Johnny Unitas – long after they've stepped away from the sport.

When it comes to college rugby, BYU is running away with it. The Cougars are undefeated in 2012, having beaten No. 2 St. Mary's 53-17 and No. 4 Utah 38-22. A key player in the success of BYU's rugby team has been New Zealand-born center Paul Lasike, who is enjoying his time at BYU.

"That's one of my favorite things about attending this school is being a part of a sports team and just being able to bond together with the brothers," Lasike said. "That's one of my favorite things about being on this team.

"You know, when games are close you rely on those sort of things. You rely on the bond between the boys so you can trust them, so I think it's a huge part of the game."

The last time BYU won a rugby national championship was back in 2009 when Lasike was a freshman. The Cougars beat Cal 25-22 to win their first national championship. Now that Lasike has returned from a two-year mission, the Cougars are on their way to doing it again. Coincidence?

"No, I'm not the key ingredient at all," Lasike said with a laugh. "I think the whole team is. No, I'm not at all and just play the game and try my best really. Obviously it's a blessing and I'm proud to be a part of BYU rugby, but it's definitely not me but the boys, I reckon."

Along with playing rugby, Lasike decided to take his talents over to the football field and give it a shot. Juggling two sports while attending classes at BYU has been sort of, well, maddening for the talented athlete.

"Yeah, for me it's March Madness, eh" said Lasike. "Not basketball, but just doing rugby and football. It's probably been one of the busiest times of my life. It reminds me of serving a mission, you know."

It was particularly hectic while the football team was holding spring camp.

"From 2:00 to 7:30 was sports basically. For football, 2:00 to 6:00 and then 5:00 to 7:00 is rugby," Lasike said. "I'm just glad it's over, but it's an awesome opportunity to learn both sports as well, heck yeah. It was fun too."

At 6 feet and 225 pounds, Lasike is big, physical and fast. If he gets a crease down the line, he's out in the open field in the blink of an eye with his opponents trailing behind him, as was the case multiple times in the Wasatch Cup championship against Utah on Saturday. What makes Lasike so good? He credits two things.

"I reckon first of all just loving the game," Lasike said. "You gotta love the game to play it. Second of all, I love to run and I'm big and for my size … I'm not fast but I'm a little bit fast."

Years ago while growing up in New Zealand, Lasike was a member of the Waikato Academy, which is considered the top rugby program in the country in the under-17 rugby union league. A star member of the team when he was 16 years old, Lasike was rising through the ranks and was being considered as a new member of New Zealand's famous All-Blacks rugby team.

But rather than go all the way to the top and play for the All-Blacks rugby team, Lasike instead gave it all away for his faith.

"I was going to serve an LDS mission," Lasike said. "So, it's kind of they look at you but they know you're going on a mission, so I came to BYU right before my mission and had a blast."

If Lasike hadn't decided to serve a mission, more than likely he would have been a member of New Zealand's famed All-Blacks rugby team. The opportunity to try out for BYU's football team is what called him back to Provo, Utah following his mission.

"I didn't really know why I was coming over here at first because I wasn't going to at first after my mission, but some opportunity came up and I took it."

Not many young up-and-coming football stars would give up a chance to play for one of the more storied NFL teams, like the Pittsburg Steelers, Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys. However, that's the exact equivalent of what Lasike did long ago for the opportunity to serve an LDS mission.

"A lot of Mormon kids down in New Zealand have done it, you know," he said. "You hear about some young bucks that chose to serve a mission [rather] than pursue a career. They come back and some of them pursue it and some of them don't."

When it comes to giving up on the national fame of being an All-Black, traveling the world playing the sport he loves and the potential to play in the Rugby World Cup – the rugby equivalent of the Super Bowl –Lasike feels it will be all worth it in the end. The chance to be a BYU Cougar and possibly take his talents to a new level in the sport of football is an opportunity not many talented athletes back in New Zealand ever receive.

"Absolutely, I reckon it's a huge opportunity," Lasike said with a smile. "Not many people get that opportunity [to play rugby and football], so I think the sacrifice is worth it."

Cougar fans should hear a lot more about Paul Lasike, both in rugby and in football, for years to come.

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