'They turned up at the airport at 1am. Oh my god, it feels amazing’
Conquering the USA is rugby’s biggest punt. Major League Rugby remains in its infancy, yet the Rugby World Cups are North America-bound in 2031 and 2033. With the clock ticking, it’s time to put a foot on the accelerator and rapidly grow domestic awareness. Beaudein Waaka is very much clued into this agenda at the title-chasing New England Free Jacks.
He always wanted to travel the world and did so for three seasons as part of the All Blacks Sevens, collecting multiple stamps in a well-thumbed passport that unfortunately had the tail sting of him missing out on the Rio Olympics due to a mystery illness that still remains undiagnosed.
All the while, NPC action with Taranaki meant he carved out the full-time rugby career he had dreamed of during his days as an apprentice welder and working in mailshot delivery. Combining XVs and 7s over the course of a calendar year became his way to make ends meet and he is still doubling jobbing to this day – except in a very different way as XVs is now his sole breadwinner.
There is still plenty of NPC activity. Having featured in recent years at Waikato, you will find him hanging out with Manawatu this August. However, what also pays the bills is Waaka’s fruitful alliance with the Free Jacks, the 2020 Boston-based start-up hoping to become a first-time Eastern Conference champion on July 1.
They fell at this particular hurdle last year, getting beaten on their home turf by arch-rivals New York, but the sense of unfinished business has now driven them to greater levels of consistency this term – even tempting Waaka to prematurely quit his Japanese diversion at Kobe Steelers in April to fly back to the States where such is the growing enthusiasm for rugby that he was met at the airport in the early hours by a cluster of fans thrilled he was returning to the MLR.
Best fans in the world ? https://t.co/3ARyXYxP6Z
— New England Free Jacks (@NEFreeJacks) May 6, 2023
It’s exciting times then, an enthusiasm fully transparent when he popped up on a 30-minute Zoom call with RugbyPass where he shot the breeze about his alluring American adventure and so much more about his life – including the thrill of seeing his sister Stacey win the Women’s Rugby World Cup last November while he was hanging out in an Eden Park corporate box with Dan Carter.
First things first: Waaka’s big American adventure and the prospect that his fourth campaign there will culminate in an MLR title win in Chicago on July 8.
That’s, of course, assuming the Free Jacks negotiate their conference decider in front of an expected record attendance of around 5,000 at their Quincy ground, the facility located 10 miles closer to downtown Boston compared to the 2,000-capacity Union Point Sports Complex in Weymouth where they started out in 2020.
“That’s the plan, it’s always the plan. You never like falling short. Hopefully, we can go a step further and hopefully, we will be lifting that shield at the end of the season,” beamed Waaka, looking over the hedge to the coming weeks once this Sunday’s final regular season home game versus Houston is done and dusted.
“Last year, it was a team that hadn’t really played in the big final. We started off with a hiss and a roar, were leading at half-time, just got a little bit complacent, took the foot off the pedal and let it slip away. Credit to New York, they had a side with a lot of knowledge and experience, knew how to win little moments and they took the opportunities. Unfortunately, they got the win and we didn’t.
“This year we have got a bit of a head on ourselves. We know what it is like and we have been there now. We have got the same coaches and the players that we have brought in this year are all high calibre. We have got a lot of Canadian boys who play internationally as well, so we know what we are expecting and hopefully, we end up coming out on top.”
Having been at the Free Jacks from day one in the aborted five-game lockdown season of 2020, Waaka appreciates the considerable then and now progress. “We’ve had record crowds the last few weeks. It’s been awesome, they have been amazing. They really know how to get behind us and I guess it just goes back to the sports in Boston in general, the likes of the Celtics and the Red Sox and the Patriots and whatnot.
Your 2??3?? to face the @Hou_Sabercats tomorrow at home in Veterans Memorial Stadium!
Presented by @TuftsMedicalCtr
— New England Free Jacks (@NEFreeJacks) June 17, 2023
“The crowd really gets behind those teams and we are doing pretty well to bring this sport to Boston and really create something here. It is going to be awesome and we are really attracting a lot of people that have been interested in rugby but had never really had a pathway.
“You can expect our crowd to only get bigger and bigger and we all know when you have home advantage and you have got the crowd behind you, it definitely gives you an extra bit of oomph just to get across that white line.
“The fans have been crazy. I have never seen a crowd that just really gets stuck into the opposition to help us get a little bit of edge on them but at the same time, they are 100 per cent supportive of our team. When you see up there on the sideline my little biggest fan with my sign up saying, ‘Waaka, Waaka’, and when I came back this year she was, ‘Welcome back, Waaka’.
“When you see that sort of thing when you are out on the field it just inspires you to want to play a lot better and do well for them because they are taking the time out of their day to come and support us and we want to give back to their kind of thing.”
Why has Boston been the perfect fit for the mid-to-late-20s Waaka? “I guess we have got a good team culture. Every time we bring in new players or new coaches, they really learn us, learn the type of person we are, not just me but the coaches really try and get a good understanding of who you are as a person and what drives you to want to play this sport.
“I guess it is the same for the fans. They welcome you with open arms and you can tell just the way I arrived this season. I arrived late in the season and they turned up at the airport at 1am to show their support. It was like, ‘Oh my god, it feels amazing’. I always know that I can come back to Boston and know I am going to be welcomed with open arms and have the support behind my back and behind the Free Jacks boys.
“I remember the first year, it was a little bit strange at the start because I had been playing in a lot of professional environments and I guess that wasn’t quite the professional environment I was expecting. I was expecting a little bit more, but we got the likes of (high performance boss) Tom Kindley, who has done a great job in getting the club to where it is now, and it is only going to get better and better.
“I look forward to seeing where this club goes in the future because it has definitely got the potential to be champion for a long time. This competition is only going to take off. It has gotten better every year since I have been a part of it; since the Free Jacks have been a part of it.
“I definitely think with the World Cup happening in eight years this competition is going to grow dramatically and with the calibre of (overseas) players showing interest now in coming to the MLR, they can share their knowledge and create a pathway for the Americans to grow their rugby careers.
“I have enjoyed every bit of it. I never ever thought I would be able to get to travel to America, let alone play the sport I love, so it’s pretty amazing all the places you get to travel to, the likes of New York, Washington, San Diego. Amazing places. I always wanted to travel to America and visit all these places, but it is a dream come through really do it while I play the game that I love.”
One of the fiercest rivalry’s in sport – now bringing the heat in rugby ?
— The Rugby Network (@therugbynetwork) June 8, 2023
Culture is something that shines through in Proven, the Free Jacks’ fly-on-the-wall documentary series on their 2023 campaign. The opening of an old bank vault is part of the teamroom routine on Mondays, its contents rewarding Waaka and his colleagues for getting their job done on the pitch. “There are various prizes that we can win. For example, the other weekend we had a big team event on Sunday all day.
“We started at 9am and finished at 7pm, basically just out doing go-karting, going on cycle boats, going on team activities, going out for lunch, wine tasting and everything. All it does is get the boys connected and once we gel off the field, it just makes everything a lot easier once we get on the field because we know we are going to want to play for each other and hopefully, we will get the job done.”
Success would mean everything to the 29-year-old Waaka. “I have done a two-year deal here in America and a two-year deal in New Zealand with Manawatu. For the likes of someone like me whose career is coming up pretty soon, I’d like to get as much rugby in as I can because there is not much rugby left in these legs.
“It’s amazing what this job can do and where it can place you around the world. I love travelling and I wanted to experience different cultures and different countries, so this job is the No1 best job to do something like that. A lot of people dream of travelling to all these places but with this job in this industry, it’s amazing.
“I always wanted to do Dubai or South Africa and I got to do that on the World Series. Personally, you can’t find a job anywhere else where you get to travel the world for free, get your flights paid for, get accommodations paid for, and get to just tick off a lot of things on your bucket list that you always wanted to do growing up as a kid. For me, I am getting to live my dream and visit all these places that I thought I never would be able to go to.
— The Rugby Network (@therugbynetwork) March 6, 2022
“I loved rugby, hated the school. Once school finished and I had been offered my first Mitre 10 contract, I was signing straight on the dotted lines because I just wanted to make a career out of rugby, that is all I lived and breathed. It was tough for the first couple of years, I didn’t want to go to work but I had to go to work. You have got to live somehow.
“I did a fitter, welder apprenticeship for about a year and a bit. I disliked that, didn’t really like it to begin with, so I looked at something else and did a bit of career driving, having out mails and everything. Did that for about three to six months and after that is when I went full-time rugby and have been full-time ever since.
“New Zealand Sevens was when I got my first opportunity to sign a full-time professional contract and it was special because I got to call the parents and say, ‘Hey, this is my new career right now, I get to live my dream’. They were all happy for me. I wasn’t even aware of sevens. I just had an opportunity to play in a tournament in New Zealand and we did well, caught the eye of the head coach at the time, and then sevens took off for me for three seasons.”
The asterisk was missing the 2016 Olympics. “That was a tough year for me. I fell ill and it took a really big toll on my body. Mentally it got to me as well because I felt at the time I was the in-form half-back and the selections for the Rio Olympics were looking promising and then I got hit very badly with the sickness.
“I was in hospital in Hamilton for 10 days and basically didn’t eat and lost a lot of weight, 12 to 14kgs, just wasn’t feeling well, couldn’t eat, and then once I finally got out, I started having heart problems. They thought something was going in with my heart, so I had to see a specialist.
View this post on Instagram
“Once I was out, I played in a lot of overseas sevens tournaments to get some fitness back, put on some weight, but by then I was just too late. To this day we still don’t know what the sickness was. The doctors couldn’t diagnose me with what it was, they were kind of guessing I just picked up a bad bug and I just reacted to it. That was tough.”
A note from Sonny Bill Williams was a tonic. “When I was in the hospital and received that message while those boys were on tour, I got a little bit emotional because he was the only one in that team at the time that had messaged and was asking, am I okay, checking in on me, seeing how things were going.
“Just the words he shared with me that day were pretty amazing and I will never forget that day because that was one of the toughest that I went through the sickness. For someone like him to take time out of his day to send a message like that, I definitely had a lot more respect for the bloke.”
Another name that featured prominently in conversation with Wakka was Wainui, the Chiefs player tragically lost to a car accident 20 months ago. His memory is commemorated in one of the many Ta Moko that Waaka has on his body. “Me and Sean go way back to 2014 when he first arrived in Taranaki out of school. He was a really close brother of mine, we used to do a lot of things – not just him but also Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.
“We were the three Maori boys that basically grew up together trying to live out our dream. They obviously kicked on a lot better than I did. Sean and I used to live together, T man used to live with his partner. That was a tough way, how he went out. Me and Te Toiroa decided to get a tattoo to symbolise him so we can remember him and just know he is always with us now. That was the reason why we got it, so that we knew he would always be with us wherever we are.”
— Stacey Waaka (@staceywaaka) August 12, 2022
His art grabs attention. “A lot of people come up to me and ask what is this tattoo and I explain it is called a Ta Moko, that is what we call it back in New Zealand. I give them the details on what it means and what it is about and whatnot. It is a good conversation starter, especially when it is a nice hot day out and the top is off and you’re in the jockeys or some board shorts out on the beach.
“It [Maori roots] means a lot. I always want to bring my culture with me wherever I go, whether it is still in New Zealand, whether it is overseas in another country. As long as I can remember and keep reminding myself who I am and where I come from, I feel like I am going to be in a happy place. So my Maori culture definitely means a lot to me and to my family.”
That family enjoyed an incredible day out last November, younger sister Stacey scoring a try as the Black Ferns won the World Cup at a jammed Eden Park. “That was epic. When I was living in New Zealand the women’s game wasn’t as strong as the men’s for obvious reasons. Men’s rugby has been played for years but to see the growth in the women’s game is pretty special because it has now created pathways for females to live their dream.
“There was only a certain amount of rugby that you could play as a woman and you couldn’t really get outside of your country and live this dream. To see where it is now, it’s amazing. World Cup opportunities, Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games. To watch my sister play in the World Cup final in her hometown, no words can describe it.
“I was lucky enough I had that bye-week in Japan and was able to watch her final. To see her dot down in the final, to see her play her part to help the New Zealand women achieve their goal was honestly so good. To get to enjoy my time with my sister after the final and her having all her family there to support her was something special.
“I also got to spend a bit of time up in one of the corporate boxes with the legend himself, DC, Dan Carter. I was talking with him because I’d just signed with Kobe Steelers and he won championships with them. I got to have a bit of a word and a feel for what it was like over there, listening to his experiences and telling him my experiences from the little time I was there. To be in the corporate box alongside him watching my sister play I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The quest now for Waaka is to win his own title with New England. “I wouldn’t say there is a lot of nervousness. We know what to expect now and should know how to handle our situations on that field come play-off time. We are only growing and getting better. We don’t want to fall short this time. We want to be holding the shield up, to do this city and this state proud.”
Join free and tell us what you really think!Sign up for free