Last spring, the Occidental Men’s Rugby Club — to put it gently — struggled. Normally a stalwart program (recent accolades include a Sevens national Championship in 2014), the Tigers lost every game but one — and that lone victory came by forfeit. According to Philip Grove (senior), last season was a learning experience for the young players and a humbling one for the veterans, most notably him and his best friend and team captain, Anthony “AC” Zepponi.
“That season was a bit of a shock to us veterans,” Grove said. “We just didn’t know what it was like to lose like that. No one was at fault. There was a transition in the head coaching position, and we lost a lot of key players. Most of our starters were [first-years] who had never played rugby before, so there was a huge learning curve.”
But those first years are now sophomores, and the squad is back on track. The Tigers opened the season by trouncing Whittier 26-0 and Cal Poly Pomona 47-7. When speaking of key performers during the young season, Grove praised the aggression of Will Ayers (sophomore), who recently had to switch positions from scrum-half to hooker, the tackling of prop Ethan Saltzman (senior), the elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability of Philip Liu (junior) and the versatility of Mark Gad (sophomore).
Behind the energized, young and improved squad lies the leadership of the two four-year veterans of the pitch, Grove and Zepponi. And while they would be the first to shift the attention to the younger players and the coaching staff, their leadership has proven instrumental in the team’s development.
Their close friend and team president, Andy Eichar (who had to end his rugby career due to injury), watched both Grove and Zepponi mature throughout their time at Occidental.
“Over the four years I have known [Zepponi], I have seen him become a captain who leads by action and example, a player who will make the tackle no matter how big the opponent is, and a player — or idiot — that will take the hit in order to maintain possession,” Eichar said. “[Grove] has really found his voice, found firmness, and learned how to command the people around him.”
Grove and Zepponi, who first met while living in Stewart-Cleland Hall in their first year, feel that sharing the rugby pitch has strengthened their personal bond even more, having gone through the ultimate highs and lows of a sport.
“It’s a dream come true to get the opportunity to lead the team together now,” Grove said. “Being best friends and playing together all four years makes it that much more special.”
According to Grove, Zepponi is the heart and soul of the team. He is both the team’s most skilled player and the one who sets the pace of the game.
The Occidental Rugby Club takes pride in being the underdog; Grove called the Tigers a rag-tag team of athletes from different backgrounds. He said that many players do not necessarily fit the traditional profile of a rugby player — they are always the smaller of the two teams on the pitch, so they have to rely on speed and superior form, mechanics and efficient rugby strategy.
Grove and Zepponi’s leadership reflects the understated nature of the team. According to Grove, neither he nor Zepponi are typical vocal leaders. Instead, they both try to lead by example, as Eichar mentioned, whether that be by always sprinting on to the field or by pushing through difficult drills at practice.
Both Grove and Zepponi are looking to take this season week by week, but the ultimate goal remains returning to Nationals. Regardless of where the Tigers end up this season, Grove will always look back on his career fondly.
“I always say that playing rugby was the greatest decision I’ve made while in college,” he said. “The culture surrounding rugby is also unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Eichar echoed this sentiment, saying that the sport’s culture is what has inspired him to stay around the team, despite the end of playing days.
While Grove would like to see rugby eventually receive more funding and maybe make the transition toward becoming a varsity sport, he is nostalgic about the grassroots character of the program.
“Part of me always relished in the alternative nature of rugby,” he said. “The fact that we’ve had to always scrape things together and build our own legacy.”