GVSU club rugby tabs new assistant coach

GVL / Courtesy - Lance Hohaia

Lance Hohaia

GVL / Courtesy – Lance Hohaia

Natalie Longroy

After years of intermittent assistant coaches on the Grand Valley State men’s rugby team, head coach John Mullett found his guy in New Zealand native and retired professional rugby player, Lance Hohaia.

“I think he’ll be a huge impact player as a coach and I think he’ll change a lot of what we do,” Mullett said. “He’s very knowledgeable.”

His journey to find his place in West Michigan is like no other.

Eight years ago, Hohaia’s eventual wife, Marisa Hohaia, was studying in New Zealand and was offered a job there. Lance Hohaia was playing professional rugby for the New Zealand Warriors at the time. They met, started dating and eventually got married.

He convinced Marisa Hohaia to move to the U.K. to continue his professional playing career with the St. Helens Rugby Football Club in the First Utility Super League and begin a new life there.

Lance Hohaia retired from rugby in April 2015 due to age and concussion issues. The family had been traveling back and forth between the U.S. and New Zealand for a number of years and was looking for a place to settle.

“I knew of Grand Rapids and knew it was a nice place to raise a family,” he said. “The winters are a little brutal now and then, but I don’t mind the cold.”

Marisa Hohaia’s father lives near Grand Rapids, and that played a factor into the move as well.

While Lance Hohaia pursued a more stable career doing real estate work, he couldn’t let go of his lifelong passion.

“Obviously playing rugby, being brought up on rugby from a 5-year-old, it’s the No. 1 sport in our country, and you live and breathe rugby in our nation so I feel like I have a lot of knowledge and a lot to give back to the sport,” he said.

Lance Hohaia found Mullett’s contact information online and asked if he would like to grab coffee to talk about the prospect of helping out the team. Mullett was thrilled to have an assistant coach of Lance Hohaia’s caliber.

Mullett, who is in his 19th year as GVSU’s head coach, sees Lance Hohaia as a huge asset.

“Defensive schemes right away, tackling, which is very important in rugby, and he’s probably as good a tackler as you’ll find in the United States of America,” Mullett said. “He was really quite good at what he does and he’s gonna bring some skill instruction even though we got a really good skilled fly-half, he’ll be able to bring up the skill of other players.”

Lance Hohaia hopes to bring a new perspective to the sport for the men.

“He is used to playing a more advanced version of what we play, so he is helping us take our game to the next level,” said GVSU team captain Cameron Maher.

Along with a new perspective, Mullett says the team will have a new dynamic compared to previous years.

“We’re probably going to be a little bit better, little bit bigger and stronger than we were last year,” Mullett said. “We relied heavily on speed for the last couple years and this year we’re not gonna worry about our speed as much.”

Besides the style of play, leadership is important to Mullett and Lance Hohaia.

“We have really good leadership on this team,” Mullett said. “Cam Maher, our captain, does it all and he does a lot of the little things that a lot guys don’t do well and it makes a big difference on the field.”

At the end of the day, Lance Hohaia hopes to be around for a number of years.

“Coach John (Mullett) kind of wanting to slowly step away at some point so if there was an opportunity for me to be here full time, if my time allows I would love to be here more often,” he said.

The first GVSU home game is Sept. 24 against Saginaw Valley State.