Seawolf Tavite Lopeti Receives 2022 MLR Rookie of The Year Award
From the moment Tavite Lopeti was drafted by the Seattle Seawolves third overall in the 2021 Major League Rugby Collegiate Draft, it was clear that Allen Clarke had a player of immense capabilities on his hands.
That thought was something clearly shared by USA Rugby head coach, Gary Gold, who in the weeks after the draft included the 23-year-old in his plans for the Eagles’ Rugby World Cup qualification games against Canada in September 2021.
Immediately it was known that Lopeti was the real deal and speaking to the MLR Kickoff Podcast after being announced the 2022 Rookie of the Year, the outside center is in USA camp again as he and his teammates look to make the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Due to play Chile in the second leg of the two sides’ matchup, last weekend in Santiago it was the Eagles who edged out their hosts 22-21 in miserable South American conditions.
As a result, they take a one point lead into this weekend’s game at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado, knowing that a win of any kind will send them to France next Fall.
Although the youngster has already experienced so much in less than a year since he was drafted, the Saint Mary’s product is well aware that he is by no stretch of the imagination the finished product.
So, when asked about his attitude upon arriving in Seattle, Washington, from his home state of California, his answer had all to do with learning from those around him.
“Honestly, I came into the league with this year one mindset of just trying to learn from everybody, and I have got a lot of notable figures on my team like Dan Kriel, Ross Neal, AJ Alatimu, JP Smith, all those dudes,” Lopeti said.
“I knew those guys had huge resumes behind them with all the work they have been through. Every time in training, I am just trying to pick their brains, and I would say throughout the year, I was asking questions when I wasn’t sure how to run things or how things should have went, but I always asked questions and those guys helped me out all throughout the year.”
Describing how the right pass to help one of his teammates score a try gave him as much joy as crossing the whitewash himself, it’s clear that there is a maturity to how the Eagle plays the game.
His debut season was as solid as they come. Starting 15 out of the 16 games he was involved with in 2022, Lopeti scored five tries for his team and made 142 tackles in defense. The end of his season was somewhat marred by injury, that knock keeping him out of the starting XV as the playoffs got into full swing.
Instead, he acted as the supporting act for Dan Kriel and David Busby, the latter stepping up in fine fashion as Seattle made the MLR Championship Final at Red Bull Arena in Newark, New Jersey.
“Coming back from my injury, it was a little bit of a bummer, but I don’t want to look at it like it being an excuse,” Lopeti said. “I was just grateful to be back on my feet, whether I was starting or not and when my coaches broke it to me, saying I was going to be coming off the bench, I wasn’t disappointed.
“It was more so ‘how can I help my team?’ and ‘how can I support Buzz?’, who started after I got injured. So how I could support him, help him get better and prepare him for the playoff.
“I don’t regret none of it. Anything that happened, my injury, the outcome, that is something I took as a lesson. I learned a lot and I am pushing.”
Reaching the very final act of the MLR season, Lopeti and his teammates would fall short 15-30 to Rugby New York.
It was an unexpected run to the showpiece event, the Seawolves hoping to win the competition for a third time. A whirlwind affair, the run was started after beating the Houston SaberCats who despite losing secured the final Western Conference spot in the postseason.
“We had barely beat Houston at home in Seattle,” Lopeti said. “They made that final kick, and they were celebrating, so it was a bit of a bummer for us.
“Our coaches told us to take things day by day and we will see what happens. Guys weren’t really aware of what was going on at the time, but when the news came out, our coach just told us to do things day by day and anything could happen at this point given everything that was happening. Dudes really just had to take it day by day. We did that every day, just being prepared for the unexpected.”
Immediately after the Championship Final in New Jersey, Lopeti flew straight into Eagles camp in Houston, Texas, and started against the French Barbarians in the Eagles’ 26-21 win over the tourist, their preparations for Chile completed.
With perhaps the biggest game of his season still ahead of him, much will weigh on the USA’s encounter with Los Condores this Saturday, and MLR’s Rookie of the Year is going to be in the thick of it.
Earlier this week Major League Rugby released the All-MLR team selections, Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and Back of the Year. Stay tuned for additional end of season awards to be released by MLR across the week.
Written by Joe Harvey
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From the moment Tavite Lopeti was drafted by the Seattle Seawolves third