Beautifully green and blue from North to South, New Zealand is the land where Rugby heroes are made. Yet while the New Zealand All Blacks currently hold the World Cup, it is little known that the United States won the Olympic Rugby Gold Medal when it was last contested in 1924.
The students are rallied together by former international Rugby player, Stuart Krohn, a dedicated mentor who gives back-bone to the ICEF Schools’ Rugby Program. By bringing the teams to New Zealand to play a mix of local communities – both Pakeha and Maori – he provides the opportunity to learn not just more about the sport, but also about other cultures with which African Americans might share some commonalities. This is perhaps best expressed throughout the film by the infusion of song and dance into the students’ meeting and greeting of local teams.
We meet Cameron, a six-foot-four super star, already coveted by American Football scouts at only 16 years old. Unexpectedly built for this game and for Rugby, he faces a choice he’s perhaps too young to make – does he disregard potential for fame and fortune for the sake of supportive friends and teamwork?
Jennese gives the film its center of gravity. The drama of her reluctant push toward and pulling away from her role as the Girls’ Team Captain develops over the course of the film, and with each challenge, Jennese rises up, faces the task of becoming her own woman. Unstoppable force and enduring energy comes from Asa – the Boys’ Team Captain – instantly recognizable as a leader and comfortably so, he provides a powerful touchstone for younger students, and is an honorable role model for someone so young.
On the field, troubled histories and worries of home melt away – we see boys rise as men; girls lead as women. Marjau, a green-haired fire-starter, takes the tensions of home responsibilities and insecurities to the field – repeatedly, she seeks to work them through, and leave them there. De Janae, a self-confessed ‘weaker player’ often kept in reserve, uses Rugby to build a better community and a brighter future for her family.
Regardless of win or lose – at the end of the game, the realities of life at home and the burden of choices made by others, means that relief is only temporary. In addition to the physical sporting tests the students face, they await responses from college applications, the outcomes of which will shape futures, friendships and families. Ebony is an academic high-achiever awaiting responses from Ivy League Colleges, Dartmouth and Brown. Between games she checks application status.
But the heart of the film beats in the story of a boy who bears his father’s name. A father whom The Los Angeles Times chronicles as a fallen Football star, a man who fired gun shots at home, robbed a pizza joint for less than $50 and spent many years in prison. Perhaps his son will fare better – for it’s not what’s in a name, but he who bears it that might define it – as our young hero states, he will make “responsible, successful, articulate and positive the words associated with my name.”
His name is Leodes Van Buren Jnr.
Rugby will be re-instated as an Olympic sport in 2016.