Following the second ever Major League Rugby Draft, in which 39 players were selected across three rounds, MLR correspondent Joe Harvey spoke with the top three Draft picks. Following a challenging year of collegiate sports, the excitement and emotion was heightened for the top three selections.
PICK #1 BY DALLAS JACKALS: ERIC NAPOSKI
UCLA | FULLBACK
Eric Naposki was in Glendale, Colorado, when he received the phone call that he would be moving to Dallas for the 2022 MLR season. Representing the USA Men’s U23 side at the Rugbytown 7s, the 22-year-old has committed himself wholeheartedly to rugby in recent years.
A four-year starter for UCLA, Naposki has also been a multiple time Collegiate All-American in both sevens and 15s, as well as a high school All-American, the fullback even started for the LA Giltinis Academy.
Representing multiple sides at the Rugbtown 7s and the Rhinos at the inaugural World Tens Series event in Bermuda, it is the player’s belief that by taking on these opportunities it has allowed him to develop.
“I have pretty much put everything into rugby,” Naposki said. “I am always training, in the gym every day, out on the field when I get the chance to work on my skills and another one of the main things for me was playing as much rugby throughout the past four years.
“I would have my season with UCLA, play sevens all summer, going on tours, playing at Rugbytown and that really helped me because I was playing against high-quality international players. I think the best thing for my improvement was just playing.”
It will have been a two year wait for the Jackals by the time they take to the field for the first time in 2022. Having watched the Giltinis closely in their first season of professional rugby, Naposki is looking forward to representing his new team when the time comes.
“I am definitely extremely excited to be a part of the team,” he said. “Dallas is a great city, it is a big sporting city and I have always been a fan of starting from the ground up in my career.
“I am excited that it is a new team coming into the league and we get the opportunity to make a splash, like the Giltinis did this year, and it will be an exciting experience to hopefully get Dallas to do that as well.”
One of five picks by the Jackals, Naposki will be joined by Decor Rhysheen Davis (Queens University of Charlotte), Aaron Gray (Kutztown University), Alejandro Torres (Thomas More University) and Calvin Gentry (University of Memphis) in Dallas in 2022.
PICK #2 HOUSTON SABERCATS: EMMANUEL ALBERT
LINDENWOOD UNIVERSITY | FLANKER
2021 has already been a special year for Emmanuel Albert. Recently named the 2021 Rudy Scholz Award recipient, as well as receiving the Lindenwood Rugby MVP for this year, Albert was one of the top Draft prospects for 2021, his selection at second overall proving this.
Only picking up a rugby ball for the first time six years ago, the 22-year-old from Eagan, Minnesota has thrived ever since taking up the sport.
“I’ve been playing rugby for six years and I am very happy to see that the hard work I have put in on and off the field has contributed to this moment,” Albert said. “It won’t just stop here.
“I am grateful to have such an amazing support system, like my mother and niece, who I go out and play for every chance I get. To say it is a blessing is an understatement and shows that hard work and talent will get noticed.”
Last season, Houston began in the brightest possible way, beating two-time champions Seattle at the AVEVA Stadium 30-24. However, ultimately the SaberCats finished at the bottom of the League standings, picking up only one more win across the 16 games that they played in 2021.
A narrow 34-32 victory over San Diego would be the only other occasion that the side picked up winning points, but as ever the build-up for the new season will create renewed optimism for the team and its supporters.
Set to be a part of what many will hope to be a winning season for one of the competition’s, Albert is looking forward to getting around his new teammates and building towards a playoff run under new Director of Rugby, Heyneke Meyer.
“Obviously, going into a new atmosphere is nerve-wracking,” Albert said. “But I am excited to be playing, competing at a higher level and to learn and grow around the boys.
“I am looking to start, without a question, in this program and I am ready to work and earn my spot. I can’t wait to get around the boys and bond while building towards a championship.”
Along with Albert, the SaberCats also selected Tinashe Muchena (Lindenwood University) and Dillon Shotwell (Sam Houston State University).
PICK #3 SEATTLE SEAWOLVES: TAVITE LOPETI
SAINT MARY’S COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA | CENTER
Much like in 2020, the third overall pick is a back from Saint Mary’s College of California. Last year it was Derek Ellingson, the wing heading to the Utah Warriors, but in 2021 it is Tavite Lopeti, the 22-year-old moving further up the west coast to represent the Seattle Seawolves.
Born to Tongan parents, rugby is certainly in the blood of Lopeti, but he only took up the game eight years ago while still at high school, having largely played basketball and football up to that point.
An extremely elusive runner with ball in hand and a combative defender, there is plenty to like about Lopeti who owes a lot to his college for allowing him to thrive on the rugby field.
“They have really had an impact on the way I look at things, not only in rugby, but in life in general,” Lopeti said. “The culture at Saint Mary’s is really about putting your head down and not to worry about any distractions.
“Your name might not be in the spotlight, and that’s okay because it might not be your time, and that has allowed me to change my perspective and not always try to keep the spotlight on myself and build that work ethic.”
Now, all that inhabits his thoughts are what is ahead of him these next few months. Joining two-time MLR champions Seattle, Lopeti is confident that he will be able to adjust to his new surroundings quickly and contribute to getting his team back on the winning path.
“So far in my rugby career, I have been thrown into different types of squads, met different types of people and have learnt from that,” he said. “Through those experiences, I have been able to learn how to adapt and maneuver with different types of players.
“One thing for me, I am eager to just learn in my first year at this next level. They have a winning culture, winning the inaugural season of MLR and the second, then fell off this year, but I have high hopes for this team.”
The Seattle Seawolves made three selections on Thursday, and selected Darrell Williams (Life University) and Ethan Scott (University of Memphis) following the selection of Lopeti.
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