The Plaza Room at De Neve Commons is a modest space. With beige walls and floral carpets, it’s a banquet hall that could be anywhere.
Except that it’s on UCLA’s campus. And to the hundreds of current and former Bruin rugby players who fill the hall, that means a lot.
“We spent a lot of time digging the club out of a hole, and I’m happy to say that the program is in the black,” said Matthew “Freddy” Fredrickson, 2012 rugby club president and alumnus.
Alumni spanning 50 years returned to campus for the UCLA Rugby Alumni Hall of Fame Dinner on Jan. 13 that is part of the all-UC Dennis Storer Classic Tournament. The three honored inductees included Tommy Smith, a 1986 alumnus – already also a member of USA Rugby’s Hall of Fame – John Gilpin, a 1968 alumnus, and Skip Niebauer, a 1976 alumnus. On Jan. 14, UCLA faced off against Cal, the reigning national champion.
But many of the alumni in attendance, like Fredrickson, were more excited for the Alumni Sevens match held prior to the main event the next day.
Coach Scott Stewart took in the proceedings from his table.
“What a great opportunity to connect with our past,” Scott said. “Without those guys being leaders in their own time we might not have a team today.”
Two round tables filled with dozens of men wearing identical powder blue Hawaiian shirts buzzed with loud conversations and bursts of laughter. These were the members of Sepi’s Seven, an alumni club rugby team named for the Westwood sports bar Sepi’s.
Sepi’s has long been the hangout of UCLA Rugby. Although the owners have changed over the years, these patrons have never left. Their pictures and trophy sit behind the bar, athletes are present in pictures – signed and unsigned – scattered all over the walls.
Heading into the back room of the bar, the pictures go further back into the history of UCLA Athletics. Football, basketball and crew are all well-represented. This is where UCLA Rugby stays connected to its past.
When past and present members of UCLA Rugby visit Sepi’s, they do as they’ve always done: They bring their opponents along to Sepi’s, buy a couple of pitchers, and compare scars over big glasses of suds with the braggadocio of athletes in their prime.
“Alums have been worried that the culture that we had built up might be dying,” said Jackson Welch, a 2014 alumnus and current assistant coach for UCLA Rugby. “I took from the weekend that our undergraduates are carrying on the traditions. The program is in good hands.”
This year, during the dinner in De Neve Commons, UCLA Rugby awarded the James Shandorf Rugby Scholarship – a self-funded, merit-based partial scholarship – to Yannick Mendes, a third-year linguistics and computer science student.
“(Mendes) is a great example of the type of person that rugby attracts – hardworking, dedicated and smart,” Scott said. “He’s the kind of athlete we are trying to recruit.”
John Gilpin, a 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, said he believes that rugby provides a structure not found in other sports.
“The value structure and sense of fair play is ingrained in the sport and translates to behavior on the pitch,” Gilpin said. “I feel that it is all-inclusive – any person, big or small, has a place in this sport.”
The day after the banquet, under a clear blue sky, a crowd of hundreds filled the stands on the North Athletic Field.
The disparity between the size of the current Cal and UCLA squads was clear from the moment the teams lined up for the national anthem. The perennial national champion Bears are just that much bigger than the Bruins.
“We have a way to go to compete with the big boys like Cal over there; we lack their institutional support,” Gilpin said. “Our boys will play hard.”
The match began, and within moments, Cal scored. The Cal fans roared approvingly. In the VIP section, members of Sepi’s Seven, recuperating from their just-completed intrasquad match, swigged down sports drinks in the shade of pop-up tents.
On the sideline, Mendes, sitting out the match with a minor injury, watched his teammates.
“I hope to make the alums behind the scholarship proud,” Mendes said. “It makes me feel good to know that the alumni support the work we put in here.”
The final score was 45-0 in favor of Cal, but the final tally would be taken later that night at Sepi’s.
At Sepi’s, the undergraduate team left the bar to participate in “Rookie Night,” where they were introduced to the team’s traditions. The alumni took their places at the tables and began scrutinizing the performance of players, just as they have done for generations in the backroom of Sepi’s postgame.
Then, together, they all head out into the night.
“Rugby, the community, the players – that is why I played, beyond the sheer fun of the sport,” Gilpin said. “We just had such a good time.”
This week UCLA played USC. UCLA 74, USC 16.
The season marches on.