SAN DIEGO — It didn’t take long for Psalm Wooching to find himself back on the big stage.
Wooching, a Kealakehe graduate, is set to play in the Major League Rugby Championship today with his San Diego Legion squad.
The Legion will be taking on the Seattle Seawolves in San Diego for the MLR Shield — which weighs a whopping 75 pounds — at Torero Stadium at 10 a.m. Hawaii time. The game will be broadcast on CBS.
“It’s unbelievable,” Wooching said. “That’s where all the focus is right now, on that game. It’s going to be an awesome experience.”
The Legion were the best team in the MLR this season, blitzing their way to a 12-3-1 record and a whopping 161 point differential, by far the best in the league.
Seattle is the defending MLR champions, but San Diego (11-4-1) has won both meetings this season.
So what is MLR? The league — which is the touted as the top-level league for clubs in North America — held it’s inaugural season in 2018 and is tending upward. This year there were nine teams from coast to coast. They are based out of Texas, New York, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, California, Washington, Toronto and Utah.
The league plans to add three more teams next season in New England, Washington D.C. and Atlanta.
Wooching said being able to stay in the states and follow his passion was a big draw in signing with San Diego.
“It was an awesome opportunity when San Diego came to me with an offer to play pro in the US,” said Wooching, who signed with the team in December of last year. “I’ve been able to discover a lot of places going to all these cities, meeting new people and playing in different environments.”
Despite being the best team all season, San Diego just squeaked its way into the championship game.
With time ticking away against Rugby United New York in the semifinals, San Diego trailed 22-17. However, a last minute try by J.P. du Plessis and following conversion kick from fly-half Joe Pietersen secured the 24-22 victory and championship berth.
“That was a little crazy,” Wooching said. “Everyone went wild. We usually aren’t playing games that close, but we came out kind of overly buzzed. It will be different for this game.”
Seeing old friends
The matchup brings Wooching’s journey in the sport full circle in a way. Before he decided to pursue his passion of playing rugby for a living, Wooching starred at the University of Washington as a feared pass-rusher.
With his patented eye-black and flowing hair out of the back of his gold and purple helmet, Wooching led the Huskies in sacks his senior season, which came to an end against Alabama in the College Football playoff semifinals.
Shortly after his time as a Husky came to a close, Wooching announced he was turning his attention from football and a possible career in the NFL to rugby — a sport that was in his blood as a proud Samoan.
“I will be exchanging shoulder pads for short shorts and rugby boots,” Wooching wrote. “My first love and sport I excelled in was rugby, and it is time for me to follow my heart.”
That journey has led Wooching all over the world, from Uruguay to Germany and even Africa. He’s suited up for the USA Eagles, the top national team, and even played against his native Samoa. Wooching earned his cap — a metaphorical term for a player’s appearance in a game at international level — as Eagle No. 519.
While there’s still much ahead, Wooching is firmly planted in the present for the title match, although it will feel a little like deja vu. Many of the faces on the Seattle side are players he knew from his time in the Pacific Northwest.
“I know most of the guys on that team,” said Wooching with a laugh. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to compete against them with a championship on the line.”
Family first, always
Wooching’s bruising running style and bone-crushing tackling ability from his position in the forward pack has earned him a spot on the MLR’s First XV of the Week — the league’s weekly all-star selections — three times. He’s also become a fan-favorite with his entertaining brand of play.
But the biggest Legion and Wooching fans don’t reside in San Diego — they’re right here on the Big Island.
“No. 1 Legion fan club,” Psalm’s dad, Paulo Luki Wooching, wrote on Facebook following the win against New York, decked out in Legion gear. “Not sure what the neighbors are saying about us, but who cares (when) your son is playing an important game!”
Family has been a key ingredient in Psalm Wooching’s success, and when he went through a tough patch last year, he relied on them — and his faith — to get him through.
“I just needed to go back home and center myself to get my faith and everything back in order,” said Wooching, who also noted Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and the Respect the Corners gym as resources that got him back on the road to success. “It was a dark time for me in that stage. I needed to be with family and people I knew to build me back up and get that fire back to play. They helped me find it again.”
Wooching is expected to have plenty of support in the stands at the game, with family and friends making the trip to see the game.
“One of the reasons I chose San Diego, it’s the closest stop from back home,” Wooching said. “To have them there will be special because I play for my friends, I play for my family and I play for my parents. I hope to make them proud.”