Q: What got you into rugby at Woodside High School [Woodside, CA.]?
A: My father was a rugby man at Stanford while he was playing football there. I grew up watching rugby with him. My sister’s best friend’s older brothers played on my high school team and forced me to go to my first rugby practice freshmen year. I loved it and never looked back.
Q: You then continued your rugby career at the University of Oregon. What was that like, playing rugby at such a big school?
A: I didn’t play much rugby for the Ducks because football and studying took so much. Rugby at Oregon was like playing in a small mid-west town. Football rules the University of Oregon, so it was priority number one.
Q: What was it like trying to play two different sports at that level?
A: Playing football for the Ducks was an experience I still cherish to this day. It taught me a different type of discipline. I had to manage my time between study, practice, film and weight lifting. If you were not on top of your time management and you made a mistake, you would have to pay for it with your body. The strength and conditioning would let you know and make you feel the mistake you made. I believe that playing football at that high level allowed to make the adjustment to sevens because it is such fast game play. Quick reads on your route decisions is similar to reading a defensive wall in sevens.
Q: You see Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston play on both the football team and baseball team, and you hear stories of him being in Atlanta for a baseball game against Georgia Tech and then back in Tallahassee for Florida State’s Spring Game later that same day. Do you have memories like that, trying to balance both sports?
A: I have a big respect for Florida State’s QB, because it is a mental game of having to switch your decision-making and intensity between sports. I remember coming back from a u-20 rugby camp my freshmen year in the spring before the World Cup and having to immediately go to spring ball practice. I remember being so sore and then having to forget all those feelings to get back “up” to earn my spot on the football team. It took some serious mental strength because it was not easy at all.
Q: When you weren’t playing on the gridiron, pitch, or weight room, what were some of your fondest memories from Eugene?
A: One of my fondest memories from Eugene was the river that ran right through the middle of campus, and on really hot days after practice, we would go and float down the river and forget about all the terrible work we just went through. I love Eugene. It was an amazing time outside of football. I met some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I still stay in touch with them to this day.
Q: What was it like to represent the United States for the first time on the under-20 union team?
A: It was a huge honor to represent my country as an under-20. There are so many memories and great teammates I had the pleasure of being around. One memory sticks out; we played Canada in Florida for the Freedom Cup. We were losing by 4 points with not a lot of time left and I remember Scott Lavalla bringing us in and telling that no matter what hit us in the face today, yesterday and tomorrow, we have each other in this moment together to go win for our country. After that talk, I was no longer tired and I told our #10 Hamish Roberts to kick me a Garryowen and I went up and got it and scored the go-ahead try. Playing for that team with those teammates and what I learned from coach Salty Thompson and Mike E made me the player I am today.
Q: You then made your first appearance for the Eagles Sevens team during the 2008-2009 IRB Sevens World Series. Can you take us back to what it was like when you stepped out onto the pitch for your first match?
A: The first time I stepped onto the pitch for the Sevens Team is actually a funny story. I made my debut in Hong Kong and got subbed in the second half against Scotland. They kicked-off to us deep and Shalom Suniula gathered it while I looped him. He passed me the ball and I literally forgot how to play rugby. So many different emotions and thoughts ran through me at that time. I immediately passed the ball back to him and said “Send it.”
Q: You then had a tremendous year in 2011, recording 24 tries and 120 points during the 2010-11 IRB Sevens World Series, six tries at the 2011 Hong Kong Sevens tournament, and a bronze medal at the Pan American Games. Your season was then capped off with the award of Rugby Mag 2011 Men’s 7s Player of the Year. What were some of the memories you have from that season?
A: My fondest memory from that 10-11 season was in Hong Kong running out against New Zealand. The crowd and feeling was so electric, it still gives me goose bumps to this day. I scored that game from an offload from Peter Tiberio and I remember screaming “YES!” into the south stands and seeing all the scream it back.
Q: Now you have played both sevens and union at the international level, which style do you like better?
A: I like both styles of play. One is not better than the other.
Q: Very diplomatic answer… With a good number of players going back and forth between the Eagles 7s and 15s teams, is 15s on your radar? Would it be as a wing?
A: The only thing that matters to me is representing my country to the fullest of my ability. If that comes from one or both, it is a huge honor. In 15s, I believe I could play Wing, Fullback or even Center.
Q: You’ve played under three coaches on the sevens national team. How have their approaches differed and what has been the biggest positive thing to take away from each?
A: Every coach is different in the way they approach the game of sevens. They all came from different back grounds of the game. The biggest thing I took away from Coach Al [Carvelli] was be the fittest person you can be. If your the fittest, it will make the decisions on the field easier because you won’t be tired and distracted by those thoughts. Coach Mags taught me that fundamentals are key to the game of sevens. If you have the best technique in rucking, tackling, passing, kicking then it will second nature to you on the field. Be efficient in what you do. Also, he taught me to do the work on the front end; don’t wait for the opportunity to hit you in the face, go hit it in the face before it has a chance.
Q: Last season, the team struggled on before finishing with a flourish and avoiding relegation. Now you’re fighting for your lives again. How did the abrupt departure of Alex Magelby affect you personally, and also the team’s overall momentum?
A: I prefer to not answer this question.
Q: Understood… You’ll likely like to answer this one, though: You won Man of the Match in London at Twickenham last year. What were the first thoughts racing through your head when you were told it was you, considering there were about 240 other choices?
A: When I heard I won Man of the Match in London, I thought it was a joke. I was in the locker room getting showered and dressed while chatting with Nick Edwards. This lady came in asking for Zack, and I said, “That’s me.” She promptly said, “Please put on your nicest team gear; you’ve won an award.” I was like “What? What award?” She said, “Player of the Tournament.” I said, “Are you serious? Get out of here? Really?” She laughed and said “Yes, quickly come on, your on TV in five minutes,” and left. I turned to Nick, who had a smile from ear to ear, and he said “Congrats, don’t hit the panic button. You’re fine.” He knew I hate public speaking. I was sweating pretty hard, thinking that somebody must be playing a joke on me until one of the Welsh boys shook my hand and said “Congrats, bud.” It hit me than that I was #1 at the tournament. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it. I dreamed as a kid going to Twickenham and playing. Never had I thought in a million years would I win an award like that there. Unreal.
Q: What was in the bottle they gave you and what did you do with it?
A: The bottle is champagne of very high quality. I gave it to my father and told me the day I retire we are drinking the whole bottle.
Q: What was going through your mind when this rather iconic photo was taken?
A: In that picture, we had just lost to Hong Kong… in Hong Kong – in the bowl final. I was thinking of all the hard work myself and my teammates had put in and how our own mistakes had let us down. I made myself a promise to never let that happen ever again, because it was so painful. I still think about that moment when I am absolutely wrecked on the field and feel like I have nothing left. It gives me hope and pride to keep going no matter what hits me in the face.
Q: Is Matt Hawkins as good with a whistle as was playing the whistle? And what’s it like having a guy you played with for so long now coaching you?
A: Matt Hawkins has been such a huge influence in my life. He has been my mentor ever since I came into camp as a young, quiet 17 year-old. I go to Matt with all questions; whether it is life, rugby or anything. I trust him as if he was my own older brother, since I never had one. Matt was huge influence to this team when he was playing and now that he can take all the experience and teach us the right way to play the game. Only good things will happen under his guidance. Our relationship has only gotten stronger since he has become coach. We talk daily about everything and it gives me confidence that he has complete faith in me when I’m leading the team on the field and leading myself in my own life. I owe him a great deal and only way I know how to pay him back is to make him proud.
Q: Have you at any point been contacted to play professionally in Europe or Japan, and is that something you want to do?
A: I had a trial with the Exeter Chiefs in England a few years back and I really enjoyed the experience. My focus at the moment is taking this team to be the top in world. Winning Cups and ultimately winning a Gold Medal. After all is said and done, if another offer comes my way, I will definitely weigh my options and make the best decision for me and my family.
Q: Does Carlin Isles and Folau Niau getting the contracts with Glasgow make you look around and say, “What the [bleep], how about me?!”
A: Of course those thoughts go through your head as an athlete. We are competitive people by nature… but I am super proud of those two for what they have done. They deserve the opportunity they got and I support them 100%.
Q: Now… Taking a moment to talk about life off of the pitch… What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
A: A couple things people probably don’t know about me is I have 3 sisters. They mean the world to me and I have a huge soft spot for them. I am also I huge golfer… well, who wouldn’t be if you lived in San Diego? Every chance I get to play, I take it. My father, mother and I take any chance we get to play together and have a little competition. We take it no matter where we are in the world. I love series TV, too. If you were to find me in my hotel room, more than likely I am watching an episode on my projector.
Q: Since you were a Division I athlete, what’s your opinion about Division I athletes being paid?
A: As a former Division 1 athlete, I believe that athletes should be compensated more for what they put in. The NCAA & the Universities make tons of money off of what the athletes put in and we do not see any of it – ever. I understand that the pride & honor of playing for your university should be enough but in today’s modern world, its ruled by money, unfortunately. They should be compensated only after they have graduated to help start the next part of life.
Q: What’s more challenging, catching a pass over the middle in big-time college football or going up for a restart vs the AIG All Blacks 7s?
A: I can not say that one is more challenging than the next. In both situations, you are putting your body on the line and having to completely focus on the ball, knowing that punishment is on the other side.
Q: If you could sit down and have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?
A: My dinner of three would be Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and my grandfather Zoltan, as a young man. All three have experiences that I would love to listen and learn about in very much detail.
Q: Finally, why do you continue to play rugby?
A: I continue to play rugby because I love it so much. On the rugby pitch is my sanctuary. I find peace and happiness there. I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world. The experiences I have with my teammates, coaches and family is more rewarding than being the most successful business man.
One final thing… I want to give credit for my success to all the people that have influenced my life up to this point – and they know who they are. I owe them more than they know.
Q: Thanks, Zach.
A: Thank you.
NOTE: The RWU H&R Dept is considering firing today’s Contributor DJ Eberle for moonlighting… Zack Test may have saved him, however, with this interview. You be the judge: