Akers’ protege Smith finding niche in rugby


October 22, 2011, 7:24 pm

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Rugby? In Philadelphia?

“It’s the birthplace of the sport in America,” said David Niu, the founder and president of the American National Rugby League. “I live here and we always thought that if given the right tournament and location we could put together a world class event and we think we’re doing that.”

Niu was born in Australia but has become a Philly fan; he moved to the area after meeting his wife, who is from Philadelphia.

“It also seems like the stars are lining up for us with the Eagles in a bye and the Phillies out of the playoffs,” he said.

The qualifying tournament concludes Sunday when USA faces Jamaica, with the winner earning its first-ever berth in the 2013 Rugby World Cup.

CAMDEN, N.J. – Sunday at Campbell’s Field, David Akers’ protégé hopes to lead his team to the World Cup.

In rugby.

Nate Smith and the 15th-ranked USA Tomahawks will face Jamaica, with both teams aiming for their first-ever berth to the Rugby League World Cup. Next year’s event is hosted by England and Wales.

Smith played football at Louisville, the alma mater of Akers, who this summer signed with the 49ers after spending the previous 12 seasons with the Eagles. Smith and Akers were never teammates at Louisville – Smith graduated in 2003 – but the two became acquainted when Akers returned for off-season workouts.

Smith left Louisville as the school’s all-time leading kicker in points (275) and field goals (44). Akers is second (216) and third (34). Smith and three other kickers hold the school record for longest field goal – 52 yards. Akers is tied for second at 51.

“To be able to break the records of someone with the stature of David Akers makes it that much better,” Smith said. “[Akers] was always supportive. He came back in the off-season and he let me see how a professional works out.”

A staple of USA Rugby, Smith joined the team in 2004. In the Tomahawks’ 40-4 win over South Africa last Monday in Game 1 of the qualifying series, Smith intercepted a pass to set up the game’s opening try.

“Nate’s been a longstanding member of the Tomahawks and he is serious about contributing,” head coach Matthew Elliott.

“It’s not really what people say. It’s how you conduct yourself on the field and he has a good impact on the other players.”

Smith’s transition to rugby actually started as a junior with the Cardinals, when he inherited the punting duties because of the halo rule. The rule prevented players covering punts from coming within two yards of a returner.

Because of Smith’s rugby-style of punt, the ball would often bounce before reaching the returner – thus negating the halo rule and aiding the Cardinals’ coverage units. That led to Smith’s decision to learn a new sport – and handle a new ball.

“The ball is just completely different,” he said.

“There were definitely some growing pains. Learning the game took time. I never saw a rugby game ’til I played my first one.”

Smith naturally considered the NFL but felt rugby would give him a better chance of continuing his athletic career.

“I think anybody who plays at a higher level in college does think about that. At the end of the day it would have been really hard, just like for everybody else, to make it but I’m happy with the decision that I’ve made,” Smith said.

“I played sports my whole life. I grew up playing soccer, basketball, baseball and started kicking as a high school freshmen. I missed being an athlete on the field.”

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