Retired long-time former Vodafone Warrior Lance Hohaia hasn't had anything to do with rugby union since he played for the St Paul's Collegiate First XV in Hamilton but now he has taken up an assistant coaching role in the 15-man game in the United States.
The 33-year-old has been engaged by Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has settled with American-born wife Marisa and their sons Tyler and Riley.
He ended his playing career in 2015 after 300 top-level matches including 185 NRL appearances as Vodafone Warrior #99, 28 Tests for the Kiwis and 81 official outings fot St Helens in the Super League.
"The last time I played union was with St Paul's but I'm helping out with some coaching at Grand Valley State," he told www.warriors.kiwi from Grand Rapids.
"Rugby league doesn't really exist in this region. We are a division two team because of the size of the school but we are ranked fourth on a national scale.
"I'm working with the backs predominantly. I don't know too much about being a forward in union but thankfully the head coach was a forward so he takes care of that.
"The season runs for about 10 weeks through the autumn which is now for us. We've had two warm up games already that we have won pretty convincingly."
This story about Hohaia's coaching move first appeared in the Grand Valley Thornton:
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 league 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 was studying in New Zealand and was offered a job there. Lance was playing professional rugby league for the Vodafone Warriors in the National Rugby League at the time. They met, started dating and eventually got married.
He convinced Marisa to move to the UK to continue his professional playing career with the St Helens Rugby League Football Club in the First Utility Super League and begin a new life there.
Hohaia retired from rugby league in April, 2015, due to age and concussion issues. The family had been travelling back and forth between the US 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's father lives near Grand Rapids, and that played a factor in the move as well.
While Lance pursued a more stable career doing real estate work, he couldn’t let go of his lifelong passion.
“Rugby union is the No 1 sport in our country so I feel like I have a lot of knowledge and a lot to give back to the sport,” he said.
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 of Hohaia’s calibre.
Mullett, who is in his 19th year as GVSU’s head coach, sees him as a huge asset.
“Defensive schemes right away, tackling, which is very important in rugby union and rugby league, 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 going to bring some skill instruction. Even though we've got a really good skilled fly-half, Lance will be able to bring up the skill of other players.”
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 going to worry about our speed as much.”
Besides the style of play, leadership is important to Mullett and 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.”
Hohaia hopes to be around for a number of years.
“Coach John (Mullett) is 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 on September 24 against Saginaw Valley State.