Hemani Paea comes with an impressive list of competitions, teams, and titles under his belt. From the highest levels of French rugby to his earliest days on the rugby pitch, he has always been a flexible center powerhouse. What makes this new Sarlat Rugby recruit truly such a force to be reckoned with, however, is his unrelenting passion for the sport.
Join us as we sit down with Hemani to discuss the remarkable rugby career which led him to team up with Sarlat Rugby and help the team accomplish its dream.
An impressive career begins in distant Tonga
The South-West of France and the pacific islands of Tonga may be on opposite sides of the planet, but they do have one thing in common: a deep passion for the sport of rugby. Hemani Paea, like many Tongans, grew up with the game and started to play at the age of five. His love for the sport joined a growing sense of potential, ambition, and accomplishment. Here was a way for Hemani to stand out, prove himself and maybe even make his mark on the world.
The rising star was quickly noticed and selected for the national U18s at 15. He played for two years in the category and helped take the team all the way to Australia. Chosen for a season with the U19s, followed by two more years with the U21s team made for a promising start to his rugby career. Indeed, at only 20 years old he was chosen for the Tongan National Team.
That wonderful memory was soon tinged with disappointment, however, as Hemani was kept back from competing in the 2007 Rugby World Cup by an unfortunate ankle injury. That year Tonga lost only to the two finalists South Africa and England. Who knows how far they might have gone with Hemani? Yet his career was already on track, and later that same year, once healed, Hemani joined tryouts in Marseille and was picked to play for Marseille Vitrolles Rugby (later called Stade Phocéen). His career in French Rugby had begun!
Hemani Paea builds fame and family in France
Hemani’s first impression of French rugby was a favorable one. Here the sport was professionalized, the player’s lives revolved around the sport and trained not just for individual excellence, but for the triumph of the team. And while the first year of adjustment was difficult while learning the language and adjusting to the culture, he found a rock of support in his teammates. And now, his French is even stronger than his English, and he loves the easy banter and laughter which comes naturally to rugby players.
In the first year with Marseille Vitrolles Rugby, Hemani helped secure their spot in the Fédérale 1 division. It was also here that Hemani had the fortune to play and train with international rugby legend Jonah Lomu, who became somewhat of a mentor for Hemani during their time together. Hemani would be part of another triumph, as Marseille Vitrolles took home the title of Champion de France in Fédérale 2.
In 2011, he was recruited by Oyonnax, where he would spend four seasons, including the spectacular 2012 season where they won the Pro D2 championship. A season in which Hemani was nominated among the top 3 players of the year. The next year, in the Top 14, Hemani and the team made it all the way to the quarter-finals!
In 2015, Hemani signed for another French Rugby giant, Lyon Olympique Universitaire, or as it is generally known: LOU. Once again, Hemani would be center stage as the team rose. Winning the Pro D2 championship in 2016, Hemani added another achievement to his career. A victory further sweetened by being selected Player of the Year in 2016 for his performance during the season, cementing Hemani’s spot as a star in French Rugby. After playing with LOU in both the Pro D2 and Top 14, he played for Mâcon in Fédérale 1; and you guessed it, in 2019 they won the coveted Yves du Manoir trophy!
While rugby has been Hemani’s career and passion, it is not his only one. He met his wife Candice in Marseille early in his career in France, and now they have three kids together. And where better to raise them than in a gorgeous slice of the French countryside?
A star signs with Sarlat Rugby
Hemani’s arrival at Sarlat is hardly a coincidence, but rather a deliberate effort on behalf of Sarlat Rugby’s leadership. Having faced Hemani on the field in their game against the bracket leader Lormont, Sarlat Rugby had first-hand experience of his skill. What’s more, Sarlat’s own Ikapote Fono, also from Tonga, had played with him in Oyonnax and put Sarlat Rugby’s president in touch with Hemani.
Hemani told me he was moved by Dom Einhorn’s message, and ambition, for the Sarlat Rugby Team. Hamani’s respect for the project is one of the main reasons he signed on, in his words: “Being a leader on the field is a passion of mine, striving for results is in my blood”. An attitude perfectly in alignment with the Sarlat Rugby story, and objectives. His signing on with the team is a vote of confidence in the project.
Having a veteran of top Pro D2 and Top 14 teams will be an invaluable asset to the team that plans to compete in the Pro D2 in just a few years. And sharing his love of the sport, his passion, and his skills with the younger generation of players is a key goal for Hemani. Both during training with the younger recruits from the rich local talent, or even volunteering with the Rugby School, which may someday soon include one or more of Hemani’s own kids!
Hemani started his own rugby journey at only 5 years old, and look how far that passion took him! He is eager for the chance to prove that passion on the pitch and to pass it on to generations to come. The team has gained an invaluable asset, and a player we can all look forward to seeing in action when the season gets started!