By Miguel Gonzalez
Hustling at Green Lane Fields on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, a group of students lace up their cleats and practice every drill, every strategy and every play. A typical club sport. Yet, they’re not swinging a bat, perfecting a corner kick, bumping shoulder pads or even tossing a frisbee.
Sprinting with a large, egg-shaped ball on his fingertips, senior criminology major Ryan Parker devotes his time to the men’s club rugby team simply for the sake of brotherhood.
“I’ve played this sport for about seven years now,” Parker said. “You really come into contact with a lot of diverse individuals and I think that’s what I value the most. We get on the field –– there’s 15 of us as one –– even though we come from different backgrounds.”
After three winless seasons, the men’s club rugby team demolished Montclair State University 56-5 on Sept. 9. The miraculous victory was not a fluke, as this year’s rugby team is more competitive and team-centric thanks to new leadership under Head Coach Brian Brott-Turpie.
The rugby team competes in USA Rugby Division II, Tri-State conference, where they play against several experienced teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Brian Brott-Turpie, an Australian native who has lived in New Zealand for 10 years, transformed the team with his rugby expertise. He gained experience playing the sport at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.
After coaching the Hillsborough High School boys rugby team in Hillsborough, New Jersey, Brott-Turpie became interested in coaching college rugby. Once he heard about the College’s club rugby team’s need of a coach, he was eager to help.
Cameron Kamer, a sophomore interdisciplinary business major, recognizes how Brott-Turpie’s rugby experience has led the team to drastic change.
“Our coach has done big things between last fall and this fall — you can’t even measure the gap,” Kamer said. “Last fall, we struggled to get numbers out and to win games. We didn’t win a game last year. We just won 56-5 against Montclair. Just a one year turnaround. It’s the same core of guys.”
Brott-Turpie further develops the rugby team’s skills through patience and respect. He sees the players as mature, young adults, in addition to being a college athletes.
“These guys are adults,” Brott-Turpie said. “I treat them like adults. I respect them and they respect me. It’s mutual. We’re all about team work and efforts and doing things the right way. With American football, it’s all about injuring the players and hurting them to do as much damage as you can. I don’t coach like that.”
Despite the team’s past struggle with recruiting high-caliber athletes, Parker believes Brott-Turpie has united the team.
“Size doesn’t matter for our team,” Parker said. “What matters more is being together. With a coach, we have a sense of leadership and someone to guide us. So, I think that really drives the team forward.”
Aside from higher team morale and exceptional coaching, the team features three international players, determined veterans and a freshman eager to contribute.
Billy Graessle, a senior biomedical engineering major and team captain, has witnessed many issues within the team in the past.
“It was super cool to see the team grow after having all the seniors leave my freshman year,” Graessle said. “We were at the bottom when I came in during my freshman year. I saw a lot guys who didn’t commit. We didn’t have a coach. It was hard to keep guys interested.”
According to Graessle, the club’s executive board initiated major reform by persuading Brott-Turpie to coach the team and change its culture.
“Once we got a team and a coach, we started to work with our fundamentals,” Graessle said. “I knew we had potential and last Sunday we showed it. That was just wonderful to see. I’ve been on this team for so long. We had so a habit of losing and now we can come on top. It feels really good.”
Reflecting on the team’s history and brotherhood, Graessle recalled how he got his nickname, “Billy Philly” after he arrived to his first practice wearing a Philadelphia Eagles shirt.
“First day of practice, I wore a Philadelphia eagles shirt and they asked me what my name was,” Graessle said. “I said ‘Billy’ and they were like ‘Oh, Billy Philly!’”
Hailing from Gamlingay, England, Will Kitson, a junior biology major, sees a tremendous difference between American rugby and English rugby.
“It’s more competitive (in England),” Kitson said. “(American rugby) not in the same level as in England and Europe. But there’s definitely good college teams out here.”
Before competing with the men’s club rugby team, Kitson was a kicker for the College’s football team during the 2016 season. After playing rugby for two years, Kitson hopes that rugby will become just as popular in the U.S. as football is becoming abroad.
“It think football is definitely on the up in Europe,” Kitson said. “I hope rugby becomes the same way here. I feel like a lot of Americans would enjoy rugby.”
Standing at the sidelines at every practice and game is David Crain, a freshman biomedical engineering major. Despite being injured, Crain keeps himself active by recording statistics during matches and watching games to learn rugby.
“This season is great,” Crain said. “(I) love these boys. It’s great to learn how to play rugby and have fun with it. I expect a great season.”
On Sunday, Sept. 16, the Lions continued their winning-streak when they trounced Molloy College 51-24 at Green Lane fields. While the blistering heat slowed down the team’s offense in the second half, the team took a timeout to rally themselves and clinch its second win of the season.
“I think we did get a little comfortable with the big lead after the first half,” Kamer said. “We missed some tackles. Then we got together as a team and connected again.”
In spite of two resounding victories, Kamer contends that the rugby team needs to increase its effort so it can become a more popular club sport on campus.
“I think we can continue to grow this team if we continue to win games and get our name out on campus,” Kamer said. “We’re starting to get more recognition. We’re going to get more drive to go to practice because (players) know what it’s like to win.”
Parker emphasized how commitment and devotion helped the team earn its first win in years.
“It’s building a sense of teamwork,” Parker said. “It’s all about dedication. It’s about getting these guys out here and practicing. As long as we build that teamwork and team ideology, we can get guys out here all day.”