“Hot Sauce” is defined as a spicy sauce or condiment that comes in various flavors and potencies made with chili peppers. The strongest can knock you off your feet and leave you asking for mercy. This describes the play and style of one of the newest OGs, Junior Sa’u.
Given the nickname “Hot Sauce” by his best mates Cooper Vuna and Terence Seu Seu back in 2008, and the name stuck. Not many of his teammates or Old Glory fans know it now, but everyone in Major League Rugby will soon find out.
At age 34, the 5’9”, 215 lbs. bruiser comes to the USA after playing nearly 15 years of rugby league worldwide. Junior is ready to embark on a new journey and bring his experience and physical presence to Old Glory DC.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Sa’u started playing rugby back in grade school when he was six years old. His family moved to Brisbane, Australia, when he was eight, and when Sa’u was 11, he was introduced to rugby league.
Rugby Union and Rugby League share similar concepts of rugby but are vastly different. In Union, the team consists of 15 players with 8 substitutes while League has 13 players and 10 replacements. In League, a try is worth 4 points, a conversion is worth 2, a penalty is 2, and a drop goal is 1 point. In Union, it’s 5 for a try, 2 for a conversion, and 3 points for a penalty or drop goal.
The biggest differences come from how possession is handled and contested. Once a tackle has been made, the player must roll the ball back between his legs to a teammate known as a “chicken scratch.” The attacking side can do this six times per possession before they must kick the ball away if they don’t score. If the ball goes into touch, there are no lineouts in League as a scrum is used to restart play.
Both games have a shared history, but obvious differences that have developed into their own sports.
At age 21 in 2008, Junior earned his first professional contract with the Newcastle Knights with the National Rugby League premiership in Australia. Sa’u made his red and blue debut against the Canterbury Bulldogs and scored two tries on the way to a 22-12 victory. While playing for the Knights, Sa’u was selected to the New Zealand Kiwis Four Nations squad in 2009, won the Four Nations in 2010, and played for Samoa in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.
Reflecting on his fondest rugby memories, Junior said, “My debut against the Bulldogs was a dream come true for me… The following year, I had a goal to play for New Zealand. I was lucky enough to play for New Zealand and selected for that tour. [In 2013,] representing Samoa [was one of my biggest accomplishments.] My parents were born in Samoa, so to get the opportunity to represent where they’re from was an honor for me.”
Junior’s career brought him to the Melbourne Storm, the Salford Red Devils, Wakefield Trinity, and finally the Leigh Centurions in 2019. In 13 years of rugby league, Sa’u appeared in 252 games and racked up 89 tries.
Having tackled league rugby, Sa’u turned his sights to returning to the sport he grew up playing: rugby union. Junior first entertained coming to America to play in the MLR through a friendship with Danny Tusitala.
"I just like playing physically. That's my game. Fight hard, run hard. Simple as that… So far from what I've seen, all [Coach Douglas] tells me is to be me."
“I’ve watched Danny for a couple of years now on the Samoan Sevens,” Junior said. “We pretty much have the same haircut, so he attracted me with the Odell Beckham blonde. Last year, I asked him if Old Glory was looking for outside backs for this year. He said we’ll have a chat with the coach, and here I am.”
After talking with head coach Andrew Douglas, Sa’u signed with Old Glory in the late fall of 2021.
“It’s exciting to have a player with Junior’s resume at Old Glory,” said Douglas. “He’s a powerful, dynamic runner and a fearsome defender. His experience at his levels in League will bring confidence to other players. He’s an exciting signing not just for Old Glory, but for Major League Rugby as well.”
When asked to describe his playing style, Junior responded, “I just like playing physically. That’s my game. Fight hard, run hard. Simple as that… So far from what I’ve seen, all [Coach Douglas] tells me is to be me. I don’t have to be anyone else. I just play my game. When you get that from a coach, it makes you play like you want to play.”
The transition from League Rugby to Union Rugby hasn’t been without its trials, but Sa’u brings his power and grit on every encounter. “The first week was really challenging. My brain was fried, but I’m a lot better now. The role of 12 when I played is a lot different now. So my main focus is to make sure that I do my best for the team and keep improving every week.”
Just as hard as getting used to a new sport is adapting to living in a new country. Junior came to the United States for the first time in early 2022 and recalled his initial reaction as unbelievable. “I’ve watched a lot of American movies, and now that I’m here, it’s surreal. Like seeing the White House in person. It’s amazing, and I’m grateful to be here… My family is coming in April, so I will hold off [to do the tourist things around town]. When they come, we’ll all go as a family.”
Sa’u can’t wait for his wife, Jasmine, and children, Lavon, Amaiya, and Elias, to visit and is incredibly thankful for all the support they have given him. His love and commitment to the well-being of his family have shown him a path for his post-rugby life.
“[I really have a passion for] working with children in need. I had been doing that for the last six months before I came over. It’s something that I really want to do with my life after footy. Just helping kids in need and bring some positivity in their lives.”
In coming America to play in the MLR, Junior says it’s all part of the ride. “For me, it’s about living the journey… I don’t want to retire and wonder what rugby union would have been. It’s about me pushing my limits. To get the opportunity to come here and learn the game again, I feel like a little kid again.”