Rugby experiencing growth, change this season

On a chill Friday night the OU rugby team plays under the lights on the upper fields. It is a bizarre game: the technicality of soccer mixed with the brute contact of football. The ball moves swiftly back and forth between the two field goals for the next 80 minutes. Massive dog pile tackles and body checks interrupt play frequently. No helmets, pads or shin guards included. More shoving and tackling than any football game takes place even though the only armor these boys wear are a flimsy jersey and small pair of shorts.

Oakland has had a men’s Rugby team since 2005. Growth and change are defining adjectives of the 2011-2012.

“It’s like a program starting from scratch again. We are in the process of a whole new renovation for Oakland rugby.”  Head coach Giuseppe Tocco said. Tocco played on the OU men’s rugby team for five years in addition to coaching the Shelby township high school team for two years.

“Three years ago we were one of the better club programs in the mid-west,” Tocco said. “For the past two years the team has been falling apart and falling downhill. That’s why I came in for this intervention (of the program).”

The 2011 team consists of 30 players, enough to field a varsity and junior varsity team. Practices are held Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:30 on the upper fields.

“Our season runs in the fall. It is what is known as playoff season.  We run through our standard games and at the end of the season there is a tournament held for teams in their respected divisions,” Tocco said. “Oakland is a division three program and may host the final division tournament for the season.”

Home games will take place on the upper fields. Last Friday the team lost to Wayne state 21-24. The next home game will be Sept 25 against Hillsdale. The team will also play Bowling Green, Saginaw Valley and University of Michigan this season. The full schedule can be found on the team’s Facebook page: Oakland Rugby 2011-2012.

The head coach expects great things from this team.

“I have a lot of confidence in my players. I think there is a lot of tapped and untapped potential,” Tocco said. “The guys in the leadership positions have to step up and take their positions seriously. (They need to) show the new guys the ropes. I am confident in this team. I am very proud to call myself their coach.”

The team shows a lot of passion and enjoyment for this sport they have dedicated so much time to.

“It’s the greatest sport ever invented.” Freshman Zak Zotos said.

“I play because of the camaraderie and the contact,” sophomore Frank Delong said.

Rugby is known as one of the roughest team sports worldwide. Despite the danger, the players and coach love what they do.

“There is nothing like it. The camaraderie, the togetherness, the guys on your team and the friendships you forge,” Tocco said. “It’s a brotherhood and bond for life even with the guys we play against. It’s the only game I know where you go and beat each other bloody for 80 minutes and then go have a beer with them. It’s a passion of mine. That’s why I coach college; to grow, love and play this sport.”

The bond of the team is one of the big factors to why the team members play.

“I love being out here with my brothers and playing this sport with them,” Zotos said.

Even though the rugby team is currently in division three, next season they will compete at the division one level. Tocco hopes to have three squads next year in the rugby program.

“Interested players and fans can find our information on the club program page on the OU website or our Facebook page, Oakland rugby 2011-2012,” Tocco said.

A few of the OU fraternities have chosen to co-sponsor the OU rugby team this season.

“We are co-sponsoring the rugby team. We think it’s a great thing to have,” Beta Kai president Joshua King said. “It’s a great event to have to OU really involved besides going to a winter basketball game in the middle of January.”

The rugby team hopes to add excitement to the campus this fall that it has lacked in the past.

“There is nothing that says we can’t have a rugby team,” Tocco said. “There is nothing that says Oakland can’t have a national championship team either. We want to bring some pride to this university. Give it the gridiron effect.”