Hopoate's Mormon faith comes first: no Sunday NRL matches

By DENNIS PASSA ,

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Will Hopoate

Will Hopoate

Like many Mormon athletes before him, Australian rugby league star Will Hopoate felt he had to choose between playing matches on a Sunday, or make himself unavailable.

He has chosen not to play on Sundays for the Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL for religious reasons.

News of Hopoate's strict religious faith isn't new — at least now — to those who follow the sport in Australia. In 2012 and 2013, he spent two years on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a common undertaking for young Mormons.

Still, his decision at the age of 19, just after he played on the Manly Sea Eagles' premiership-winning team in 2011, stunned many in the sport. Not to mention costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost salary.

"You get to understand more of the scripture, and mix with other missionaries," Hopoate said of his decision before he began his mission, most of which he carried out in the Australian state of Queensland. "There's nerves and excitement, mixed emotions."

The Sydney-born Hopoate, who has Tongan heritage and is the son of former Australia rugby league winger John Hopoate, won't even watch how his National Rugby League team fares by tuning into the three consecutive Sunday matches on television in May and June.

"I'll be at church and visiting people," the 23-year-old Hopoate told Australian Associated Press. "I'll obviously do a bit of video with the boys and watch the replays. But I'll just go about my normal Sabbath day."

Hopoate, however, will travel on Sunday with the Bulldogs for Monday's night match against the Melbourne Storm in the Victorian state capital.

Canterbury coach Des Hasler supported Hopoate's stance at a news conference early in the season.

"This is what makes Will so special," Hasler said. "His beliefs distinguish him. This is what makes him tick.

"To deny something that is so fundamental to a person is to deny that person the right to be who they are."

The extent of Mormon athletes' activities on a Sunday appears to vary across the sporting world.

An April 2013 article in "The Daily Universe," the daily college newspaper at Brigham Young University which is operated by the Mormon church, says it's a teaching to 'keep the Sabbath Day holy" but the ultimate decision rests with individual athletes.

Chris Hoke, a defensive linesman who played 11 seasons with the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers after playing at Brigham Young, said "it's a very sensitive subject" and some people were "very, very passionate about" it.

Hoke also went on a mission for two years in Belgium and France before starting his collegiate career. His Steelers' career — playing mostly on Sundays — saw him win two Super Bowl rings.

"I felt the decision was between me and the Lord," Hoke told The Daily Universe. "It wasn't between me and other members of the Church or anyone else but me and my wife and the Lord."

The Sunday matches that Hopoate has chosen not to play come at a key time for selectors for the New South Wales team for its annual three-match State of Origin series against Queensland, some of the most anticipated matches of the rugby league season.

That could cost Hopoate a spot in the New South Wales team for which he scored a try in his Origin debut in 2011.

He'll have another big decision if Canterbury makes it to the NRL grand final championship match at Sydney's Olympic stadium on Oct. 2.

Of course, that's a Sunday.

The season is still young — five rounds have been played in a 26-round season, and Canterbury has a 3-2 won-loss record and is in seventh place of 16 teams.

"I've spoken with (Hasler) but we've got to get there first before we start thinking about it," Hopoate said. "That's something we will sort out when the time comes."

-AP

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