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Despite their campuses being separated by just 45 miles, two of the most dynamic college rugby players of the century, and certainly two of the best centers on United States soil, have never run into each other. But they might Saturday when Utah and BYU meet on the gridiron (8:15pm MT kickoff on ESPN2).
Utah’s Thretton Palamo, an Eagle and World Cup veteran, picked up football in 2011 after capturing the attention of gridiron coaches with an electric performance on national television at the Collegiate Rugby Championship. (Yes, that’s current Eagle Seamus Kelly being juked out of his boots in the linked-to highlight reel. And that’s current New England Patriot safety Nate Ebner being run past, too.)
Paul Lasike, a Kiwi stud center who played rugby for the Cougars his freshman season before spending two years on a Mormon mission in Alabama, joined the football team in the spring of 2012 and earned a football scholarship the following fall.
While Lasike was on mission, Palamo was playing rugby. When Lasike got back from mission and started playing rugby again, Palamo was playing football. Unlike Lasike, Palamo hasn’t been released to play much rugby while on his football scholarship. The two big, mobile, rugby-to-football crossovers kept missing each other.
“I saw him last summer at a touch tournament down in San Francisco, and we were talking and stuff,” said Lasike of Palamo. “It was funny, because we both kind of understood the transition coming from rugby to football. We had a little chat about how it’s more difficult than it looks to transition from rugby to football because there’s all these little nuances.”
Lasike and Palamo spent most of last football season as special team contributors, but this year Lasike is getting more time as a running back, and Palamo is relishing a hybrid role that sees him play both defensive end and linebacker. So it’s likely Palamo and Lasike will collide for the first time Saturday.
“He’s a good kid. I like him,” said Palamo of Lasike. “I’ve always thought it would be cool to play against him and play with him. That would have been fun.”
Palamo and Lasike running side by side in the same midfield? That’s a vision American rugby fans can dream about. But it’s not something entirely likely to happen, as both have been told by football coaches they should pursue the NFL.
“Some of the coaches have encouraged me to have it as a goal, because the opportunity is always there for anyone who works for it and desires it,” said Lasike, who plans to graduate in the winter of 2015, of the NFL. “If I have the opportunity for football, that’s always been my dream, to be a professional athlete. But I’d say the No. 1 priority is to finish school…
“If I do well next year for rugby and [the opportunity to play for the Eagles] arises, it’s definitely a consideration, obviously, but like I said I really want to finish school, too.”
Unlike Lasike, Palamo is an American citizen, so a contract at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. is on the table for him, as well as another shot with the 15s Eagles.
“I don’t know, man. It’s up in the air. A lot of my teammates ask me the same question every day (rugby or football?), and I honestly don’t know,” said Palamo, who wants to commit to one sport and stick to it.
“The NFL would be great, but there’s also the Olympics. That would be great. There’s a lot of options, but it almost seems like a curse more than a blessing, because I just can’t pick one. I don’t know which one to pursue. I feel like if I pick one, then I’m going to regret not picking the other.
“Either one, it’s a long-term relationship, really. I have to change my whole training aspect. They’re both different sports. They require different muscles.”
Though we may never see them play on the same team, we might see Palamo and Lasike on the same rugby pitch. If Palamo, who’s been known to clandestinely sneak into a Utah rugby jersey a couple of times while on a football scholarship, and Lasike both play rugby this spring, it could make for a fun 2014 Wasatch Cup battle.