Steveni Lombard has been with Buccaneers this season. James Crombie/INPHO

The Tongan-Hawaiian hooker who played AIL after two years as a missionary

Steveni Lombard grew up with Munster prop Roman Salanoa and is chasing his own rugby dream.

Athlone, Ireland

HAVE YOU HEARD about the Tonga native who grew up in Hawaii with Munster prop Roman Salanoa, played American football in college, had a rugby trial with the Dragons in Wales, went off the grid for two years as a religious missionary, and came back to play rugby for Buccaneers in the All-Ireland League?

Well, this is Steveni Lombard’s story.

Sitting in a quiet coffee shop in Athlone a week ago, the affable, articulate 23-year-old reflected on his globe-trotting journey. On Friday, Lombard returned to the US in order to join the Chicago Hounds until the end of the Major League Rugby season, but he wants to come back to this neck of the woods if he can.

He has just spent the All-Ireland League season with Eddie O’Sullivan’s Buccaneers, impressing at hooker and loosehead prop. Lombard hoped to get a chance with one of the Irish provinces but he’s in the States again for now as he chases his pro rugby dream.

It’s incredible that two close friends from the little coastal town of Laie in Hawaii – 11,811km from Athlone – ended up playing rugby in Ireland. Salanoa has been here since 2017 and has even been part of the Ireland squad this season.

“It’s wild to see this dude I grew up with and am real close with walking around and rubbing shoulders with Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, and Dan Sheehan,” said Lombard.

“When he got called up to the Irish camp, we were just texting about how we can’t believe it. He said he was nervous and me just being cheeky, I said, ‘You’re probably not going to play, just go and get us some gear and come back home!’ He was cracking up.

“I told him not to worry. He has been a huge help for me coming to play here.”

Laie, Hawaii

Let’s go right back to the start.

Lombard’s mum is a born-and-bred Tongan and his father is half-Tongan, half-Hawaiian, which explains the surname. They met in Laie, moved back to Tonga where Steveni was born, then returned to Hawaii for good when he was three.

Steveni hasn’t been back to Tonga since but hopes to visit his relatives there soon. There are lots of them. His mother is one of 13 siblings and the four eldest siblings have around 10 kids each, so Steveni hasn’t met lots of them.

11 Salanoa and Lombard [right] at the latter's high school graduation. Lombard is wearing a lei, which is a flower wreath often adorned with flowers, sweets, money, and even a rugby ball in this case.

“They recently all pitched in to build a house on some land that we have there,” he said. “I didn’t have to build the house but I’ll go and sleep there!”

Steveni himself has two sisters and a brother, a small family by Polynesian standards, he explains. His father works for the navy at Pearl Harbor and his mother is a caretaker in a hospice. They also had a little plot of land to continue the family tradition of farming.

Hawaii is renowned as an idyllic land of beautiful sand beaches, sunshine, and warm water and that’s what the place Lombard knows. In little Laie, with its population of just over 6,000 people, they worked hard and enjoyed life.

“All the rumours are true!” said Lombard, whose home is across the road from the famous Hukilau Beach.

“Hawaii is beautiful, the people are really nice, and the food is great.

“I don’t want to talk about it too much before I get homesick but I’m really grateful to be from there.”

Utah, United States

As a Tongan and with his father having played the sport, Lombard knew about rugby. One of his cousins in Tonga is best friends with Munster centre Malakai Fekitoa and all his uncles played too, but American football is king in Hawaii. Young men dream of making the NFL. 

Lombard was a prospect at Kahuku High School, which has produced 17 NFL players including current New York Jets defensive end Bradlee Anae, who Lombard played with at school. Lombard’s position of fullback involved lots of carrying, blocking, and catching short throws. He loved basketball too and played that in the off-season.

“Then around 14 I started growing bigger sideways and stopped growing taller. I realised I couldn’t play basketball anymore.”

That’s where rugby came into the picture. Lombard played for the first time at the age of 15, joining the same team that Salanoa, two years older than him, played for. It was a steep learning curve. He remembers being thrown into a scrum at hooker and using his hand to scoop the ball backward.

Lombard Utah Tech Utah Tech

But his explosive power meant he was good. Lombard played for his last two years of high school, benefitting from the coaching of Seamus Fitzgerald, a Kiwi with Irish roots. There was even a tour of New Zealand before Lombard graduated. Two weeks, four games, four wins, memories for life.

“That made me fall in love with rugby even more. We played a team called Fraser College and it was the hardest game we had. It was a muddy, wet, cold day, very hard to run but we won by a few points. Looking back now, it probably prepared me for playing in Ireland.”

Still, the NFL was everything he had dreamed of. He earned All-State selection in Hawaii and then got recruited by Utah Tech University.

He was a ‘red shirt freshman’ for the Trailblazers, meaning he trained with the team but didn’t play games in order to preserve his four-year eligibility period in college football.

As it transpired, he only did a year in Utah, where he studied as a political science major with an emphasis in international relations, before getting a call from Fitzgerald asking if he was still interested in playing rugby.

Newport, Wales

This is where O’Sullivan and Wesley Liddy enter the story. O’Sullivan knew Fitzgerald from his time coaching in the US. Limerick man Liddy is a producer with RTÉ and a rugby diehard, a true Young Munster man. He and O’Sullivan believe that the rugby potential in Hawaii – with its huge Polynesian population and so many incredibly athletic and well-trained American footballers who don’t make the NFL – is untapped. 

They linked up with Fitzgerald to get Salanoa over to Ireland, initially as part of Leinster’s sub-academy. Recently, they helped to place one of Salanoa’s cousins, Zion Ah You, over in La Rochelle for a month-long trial.

In late 2018, they arranged a trial for Lombard with Bernard Jackman’s Dragons. The young Hawaiian jumped at the chance.

He was still only 19 when he arrived in Newport for that month-long audition. He had barely any rugby experience in reality.

“I realised how much I had to learn skills-wise,” said Lombard. “Physically, I was comparing myself with the senior guys and even at 19, I could put up the same numbers in the gym. It showed I could definitely do it in that sense.

Eddie O'Sullivan / YouTube

“But there was that big difference in skills out on the pitch. All the things I needed to improve were skills and you can improve those. I went home after the trial with a fire in me to catch up with those guys.”

He returned to Hawaii with high hopes of being signed permanently, putting him on the pathway towards becoming Welsh-qualified, but Jackman and the Dragons soon parted ways. Lombard was “lost in the shuffle.” Back in Hawaii, he started work in landscaping and played for the local Laie Rhinos ruby team, but his faith was calling.

Iowa, United States 

Lombard’s family are strong believers. They’re devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, still known as Mormons in many places. Lombard went to church every week, prayed every day, read the scriptures.

Part of the Latter-Day Saints’ approach is that young men go out on a mission for two years, so now Lombard felt the time was right. The church decides where each member goes and he ended up over in the Philippines in 2020.

“It was my first time in a third-world country so you see there’s a lot of things you take for granted like hot water, toilet paper, paved roads, clean food. That was good for me to be there.”

Just a month after he arrived, Covid hit and he was sent back home to Hawaii, heartbroken that his mission seemed to be over. But he was soon redirected to Iowa, which he had to look up on the map. It’s in the midwest of the US, with roasting-hot summers and freezing-cold, snowy winters.

That’s where he spent nearly two years spreading the word of the Latter-Day Saints, the work lasting from 6.30am until 9.00pm six days a week.

“You’re trying to find people to teach, servicing the community, helping people out,” he says. “It’s very rewarding.”

There was lots of rejection and opposition, as well as some people who were “very hostile to us, nasty about the church and Christianity in general.”

22 Lombard pictured at a game in Hawaii.

All missionaries must be within sight and sound of a ‘companion’ for 24 hours of the day, their only time alone being in the bathroom.

“It’s a safety thing when you’re on mission,” said Lombard while discussing how tricky that made his plans to keep training in some form. At the back of his mind, he still hoped that rugby might be part of his future.

He would get up around 5am each morning to work out for an hour, meaning his companions had to get out of bed even in the dead of winter.

“I did a lot of pushups on my mission! I did this with all my companions, maybe 10 or 12 of them over that two years. They wouldn’t be surprised I’m back playing rugby because I used to drag them out every morning.”

Lombard got home from his mission in March 2022 and realised that he had just missed a USA Rugby talent identification camp in Hawaii, but he was determined to get another chance. 

So having played in a 7s tournament in Alaska, he flew to Salt Lake City in Utah for the last of those US talent camps. He did enough there to get picked for a two-month USA Rugby Academy programme for some of the most talented young American players, including his fellow Kahuku High School graduate Malaki Latu.

Lombard kicked on over those months at the Chula Vista Olympics training centre, culminating in being picked for a USA Falcons tour to South America. But once again, O’Sullivan and Liddy came into the picture.

Athlone, Ireland

Fitzgerald called out of nowhere. O’Sullivan had been appointed Buccs head coach. He needed a hooker. So Lombard flew home to Hawaii, packed his winter gear, and headed for Ireland, landing at the start of October 2022. The next day, he was on the bus up to Armagh to watch Buccs’ opening game of the AIL Division 1B season.

“I loved the intensity and speed and skills of the game. I got my fitness in a few weeks, lost a few kilos, got used to the style. I think I’ve played in almost every AIL game I’ve been able to and nearly 80 minutes in most.

“The physical side of it is not very difficult but when I came over here, there was still a skills gap. It’s not as big a gap now.”

steveni-lombard Playing for Buccs in the AIL. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

He has loved training and playing with the current and ex-Connacht contingent in Buccs, getting valuable lessons from the likes of hooker Shane Delahunt, who has had a big influence on his throwing. Lombard has spent many an afternoon in Athlone at his local park, where the basketball hoop is his target for throwing practice.

He’s effusive about the influence of Liddy in his and Salanoa’s lives, praising the Limerick man for “how much he has sacrificed for us and stuck his neck on the line” to give them opportunities to play rugby.

“I have been down on myself at times, say about my throwing, but Wes is always positive and supportive,” says Lombard. “He’s done the same thing for Roman and we trust him so much.”

O’Sullivan has been a “great coach” for Lombard and he has appreciated the former Ireland boss’ ability to be straightforward with his communication.

Now, Chicago will be the latest stop on Lombard’s remarkable whirlwind tour of the globe as he looks to impress in the remainder of Major League Rugby season, which runs until July. Thereafter, he hopes to get a shot in Europe. 

“I’d love to be in this part of the world playing, whether it’s Ireland or France or Italy or wherever,” says Lombard.

“It’s been really cool watching Roman get called into the Ireland squad, then seeing him in Dublin when they won the Grand Slam at home, seeing him walking around with the other players.

“I can see that potential for me to play at a high level, even if it’s not here. I’m excited and whatever happens, I know I put my best foot forward here in Ireland.”

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