Joe Taufete'e only took up rugby at the age of 19, but within a few years was playing at the Rugby World Cup

Story highlights

Taufete'e took up rugby to impress his girlfriend -- now his wife

Has since won nine caps for the USA

Plays hooker for Worcester in English Premiership

CNN  — 

Joe Taufete’e’s introduction to the game of rugby wasn’t a conventional one.

It all started when, as a nervous 19-year-old, he visited his new girlfriend’s family, eager to make a good first impression. But little did the Californian native know that meeting the woman of his dreams would also help him fulfil his sporting dreams.

“I was dating my girlfriend at the time,” Taufete’e, who has won nine caps for the USA, told CNN. “She had invited me to come over and meet her family, and I really wanted to impress this girl.

“The first thing they started talking about was rugby and about all these kids – saying how big they were for their age and how well they were doing.

“They were talking about these big hits they were making and I started thinking ‘this is what it would take to make them notice me.’”

A lot has changed since then. Taufete’e has married his then-girlfriend Noeleen, and the pair have had their first child together.

On the field, the 24-year-old has steadily risen through rugby’s ranks.

After injury forced Taufete’e to abandon his hopes of playing in the NFL, rugby has proved to be a sporting redemption. A surprise inclusion in USA’s 2015 World Cup squad, he made his debut in his country’s third game against South Africa.

At 130kg (286lb), he is thought to be the heaviest hooker in the world. His powerhouse physique has helped him make an instant impact with English Premiership side Worcester Warriors since joining in December last year.

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Learning the trade

After a short-lived American football career, Taufete’e has reshaped his sporting dreams.

The transition, he says, takes getting used to. The intensity of rugby is greater, and as a hooker he has had plenty of specialized skills to learn, whether it be throwing lineouts, winning scrums, or making the most of his ball-carrying skills.

But his schooling in American sports hasn’t completely gone to waste.

“I see myself as a basketball player when it comes to lineouts. You get the ball to a teammate and he dunks it; that’s kind of the way I approach it. It’s almost like another new sport in and of itself.

“The difference between the two sports is that I find American football a lot more explosive. With rugby it’s ongoing, whereas American football is short bursts for a short amount of time.

“As far as trying to keep that physicality – that’s where the real challenge is for a lot of Americans making that transition over to rugby […] After playing a full 80 minutes, my body’s wrecked for the next two days.”

‘A nobody, playing for the USA’

International debuts don’t come much more challenging than the one Taufete’e experienced. Aged just 22, he came off the bench for the Eagles against South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

His side lost that game 64-0 and went on to finish winless at the bottom of the group, but the experience helped Taufete’e develop as a player.

“I was pretty surprised when I first got the call-up. I was a late addition to the Rugby World Cup. I’d never played in that kind of environment, and then I get a call to come and be a part of the camp.

“There I was, a nobody, playing around the guys that I usually look up to and see playing for the USA on TV.”

Rugby in the US has improved considerably in recent years, particularly in the sevens format of the game. USA is currently fifth in the Sevens World Series standings; a place behind New Zealand and one ahead of Australia, it is rubbing shoulders with rugby’s heavyweight nations.

Yet Taufete’e admits rugby is still secondary to the traditional American sports.

“Rugby here in England is way more developed than in the United States. Basketball, American Football, soccer are all really big out there, so they don’t really take rugby as a serious sport.

“It’s taken a huge step after the Olympics. That’s really helped out. But it’s a growing sport – a lot of people like myself chase the NFL dream and find that they don’t reach it because something happened on the horizon and they find rugby.

“If those people are finding rugby at a younger age, just imagine five, ten years down the line what it would look like.”

On the field, Taufete’e has achieved more than he could have dreamt of. Now at Worcester, he sees himself playing at the “pinnacle” of domestic rugby.

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But what about his original intentions – has the sport helped him to win the admiration of his wife’s family?

“I think I’ve accomplished that,” he says.