Behind the Cups with Benn Vai

“Behind the Cups,” is a new series where we sit down one-on-one with people from club land for an in-depth conversation discussing their rugby journey. Behind every cup are the unsung heroes that help build upon the legacy of our game.

To kick start our new series I sat down with Benn Vai from Penrith Emus. Benn first got involved in rugby at a young age when his dad took him to play at the Takapuna Rugby Club in Auckland New Zealand. Starting as a Prop then moving to second five after being noticed for his footwork.

Benn played for Parramatta Two Blues after moving to Penrith Emus. During his rugby career he has played for first grade teams within Australia and overseas with Newport Salop and Berlin Grizzlies. Benn has been playing for Penrith on and off for eight plus years, he transitioned to coaching at the beginning of the 2022 season.

Benn Vai - Penrith Emus 2022

Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, Benn. It’s great to have the opportunity to talk with you about your rugby journey and where you’re at.

Thanks for having me it's cool to talk with you. I recently played for Noosa Dolphins in Queensland before coming back to Penrith. I’m a Penrith boy through and through, I was thinking of moving back so I could be closer to my parents. Then I saw they were joining John I Dent and thought I’d see if I could get a gig with them. It didn’t matter if it was just running water for them but then I had an interview and started coaching.

Just to give us a bit of background, explain what you are doing at the moment with Penrith Emus and what you’ve been involved in this year.

Oh man, I decided to put on the boots again which I kind of regret because my shoulder is stuffed now. I started off the season as the 2ndgrade coach, but I was getting burnt out. I was doing too much and told them I just needed a bit of a break to enjoy the game I grew up loving. It was weird to go into the coaching ranks it was a different scene for myself. I love the game for what it is as a player. I didn’t see how as a coach, how everything works and all the decisions you make off the field. You’re just thinking about rugby – how I can make this team better?

24/7 you think about how you can serve your community within this team. I didn’t have an off switch; it was my first time coaching a senior’s team. Coaching a junior’s team I really enjoy, that’s not something new. But you get more to a semi-professional level and it’s a bit of a step up regarding that and I’m not ashamed to say I was probably out of my element. Luckily Penrith have some great coaches there who are doing a great job.

Then after the break I wanted to come back and put on the boots but then I got injured and stepped back again. I blame the KFC! I was asked to play first grade but right now I prefer seconds. I know it's a real privilege to play top footy especially in the John I Dent Cup but I hadn’t put in the work with my body. There are younger kids coming up who deserve the go. I believe it’s all about development of rugby for those kids.

Have you always grown up in Penrith and in the Greater Sydney Area?

No, I moved over when I was about 22 or 23, I’m 34 now. I’m becoming a veteran now my body doesn’t react the same way it used to. I moved over from the North Shore in Auckland, playing for Ponsonby Rugby and a bit of rugby league before coming over to Australia. Where I got picked up by Parramatta Two Blues, that was a great club. Then chanced my arm at going overseas at a late time.

If I went over earlier, I would have run amuck over there. Going in my thirties I was a bit wiser and making better decisions. It was a good experience before coming back home to Noosa. I appreciate the family environment in rugby you can get it everywhere.

Benn Vai - Parramatta Two Blues

You mentioned everywhere you’ve gone and been able to play, you find that community and that family. What made you decide to come back to Penrith and make it a part of eight plus year of your life?

Honestly, it’s probably been the toughest years within the club a lot of uncertainty and every year there’s something with this club. But my family just lives around the corner. It wouldn't be right to pick up and play for another team when my local club is just here. I work here, my family is here, my church is here. It wouldn’t be right wearing a different colour or being in a different area. I’ve made some great relationships here.

But the turnover of players is just ridiculous, all of us have been offered different stuff over the years. Not that I’ll name any, but we’ve got some good players here and it’s hard to keep them. We all see the opportunities then jump from one club to another club. But with the integration of the Emus into the John I Dent Cup it’s a good lifeline. It gives a pathway that we haven’t had before. A pathway where these kids can look forward to making rep teams, it’s a reality.

With opportunities that come it sometimes is “Do I be loyal or try go for somewhere else?” and you need to make these decisions at an early age. But to be in this environment and to be where we are is a real privilege, a blessing to be in this one. I think we’ve had lot of help firsthand to be in the John I Dent Cup, and from our community who are coming together. We haven’t had so many players in a long time come down and register to play.

We have our struggles in our away games. That three hours’ drive down is a bit long and it’s a bit cold in Canberra. We’ll get used to it, to make it professional you got to learn how to travel. If you want to go overseas this is what you might have to do. I used to have to drive five hours one way to play when I was overseas. The young players need to learn it’s one of those things that builds their capacity to become a rugby player. Now the pathway is there, and they can look towards it. I don’t remember what question you asked but it's how I see where we’re at.

With what you’re saying, I know you’re not the only one who feels that. Sometimes having a shift in competition or joining different teams allow for different pathways. Within smaller communities such as Canberra and within Southern NSW is where you can get those greater opportunities on and off the field. When I was growing up, we lived out in Griffith NSW and for my brothers to play with Brumbies Development Squad when they were younger. It would be a four and a half or five-hour drive one way for two-hour training to just turn around and go all the way back. We would do those things and it seems crazy, but it allowed for not just those playing but all us kids to learn some fundamental principles. To learn that sometimes there are things worth sacrificing for and going the extra mile for. With Penrith we’re seeing that, that going the extra bit can make the difference with your women’s and colts’ teams you see the impact it can make.

Yeah, with our women’s team there is first timers and returning mums who are all giving it a crack. Bringing together the community from so many different scenarios and difference people from all places in life and that’s the coolest thing. They’re coming together and that’s what it’s all about. Especially with the Colts these players been playing since the Juniors and hopefully they keep playing all the way up into grade and then see the fruits of it. To see that now in a small amount time, we hope they carry it on until the end of season. If we can see one of our teams in the play-offs our community would go wild. We won’t jump the gun, but we’ll keep supporting them and see how they go.

So, tell me, what’s it like on your home grounds. When other teams travel up to you does the community come out to support you?

Yeah, we have a lot of people who come out; and we have this famous burger. Everyone knows it in the Shute Shield, and they always come to have it with gravy. I don’t have it because it’s not nutritious.

Um, you previously claimed that KFC is the reason you got injured!

Oh, eh well they got the Emu burger going and really it's all about the families that come through. You have junior teams being coached by one of the senior guy’s Willie and one of the women’s players Tash. They all come out to support us on home games. So, we have the Junior and Senior connection. Even Sia’a Taveuveu (Junior Club President) played his 300th game in first grade.

Honestly Penrith Emus is a good club to be a part of and an awesome community. If we keep working hard, hopefully our first-grade team can get a win this season.

Penrith Emus

I’m a big supporter of your team, I’m hoping you can pull through for a first grade win too. Before we finish up Benn, we want to give our readers a little glimpse into you more personally with a fast-round of questions. Just say the first thing that comes to mind.

Sounds good, I’m up for it!

Alright, first question… what was the last song you listened to?

Oh, Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis was playing at the office.

Who was the first person you texted this morning?

My girlfriend

Most used app on your phone?

I just call and text but probably my emails.

Favourite rugby hero? Could be a player, a coach, or anyone within rugby.

Right now, I’m a fan of like Levi Aumua, he’s real gun. But my rugby hero is Tash Leota she’s captain for the Emu’s Premier 15s team and coaches in Juniors Rugby too.

What is your favourite snack on game day?

It would be sushi, the crumbed prawn one.

What is your favourite rugby memory?

Probably winning a championship with Noosa Dolphins, I’ve never won a championship since high school. Here’s hoping the next one will be with Penrith.

Yeah, let’s go Penrith! Thank you so much Benn for taking the time out to talk with me and sharing your rugby journey. Good luck for the rest of the season.

*Notes about Interviewer: Georgia Rae Abel was raised on the sidelines of the rugby field watching her dad coach and brothers play; before strapping on the boots herself playing in Junior rugby, on her high school teams and in Women’s Premier 15s. Georgia Rae has a wide background in rugby both on and off the field.