Former UO wide receiver among the world’s best in one of the world’s most popular sports
Zack Test outruns an opponent on his way to scoring a try during the South Africa Sevens tournament.
The 2007 Oregon Ducks football roster boasted eight current NFL players, including Walter Thurmond III, Max Unger, and Jonathan Stewart. Yet, worldwide, the most famous athlete on that team might well be Zack Test, a wide receiver who never played a snap but went on to become one of the best rugby sevens players on the planet.
Most commonly associated with powerhouse national teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and England, rugby—with both the traditional 15-a-side and a more wide open, free flowing seven-a-side version—is one of the most popular sports in the world; the 15-a-side version’s World Cup is the third-largest sporting event on the planet.
Zack Test is 10th in the world among
active try scorers with 107.
Rugby isn’t for the faint of heart. The players hit and tackle every bit as fiercely as their football counterparts, but do so without the luxury of timeouts, commercial breaks, or rolling substitutions to give them a rest; and without helmets and pads to protect them. Players play on both offense and defense, so being fleet of foot with the ability to make a spectacular catch does you little good if you can’t also stop an opponent in his or her tracks. Instead of merely crossing the plane of the goal line to score a touchdown, in rugby you have to control the ball all the way to the ground for a try.
And when it comes to scoring tries, very few people in the world of rugby sevens are better than Zack Test. Test is tenth in the world among active try scorers and 20th among all-time try scorers with 107, placing him among the best in the game’s history. His 107 tries are more than all but six players from New Zealand, the winner of 11 of the 14 sevens world series titles; more than all but one player from Fiji, the sevens power known for producing a seemingly endless supply of rugby players who are built like Calvin Johnson and run like Usain Bolt; and 51 more than any other American has scored.
In short, Zack Test—named Rugby Mag’s best men’s sevens player in the world in 2011—is among the world’s best in one of the world’s most popular sports. Not a bad career path for a former walkon, really.
“I got a preferred walkon scholarship from Mike Belotti,” said Test. “We had an agreement that I could play rugby on the side. I was already playing for the USA U19 and U20 teams at the time.”
Test redshirted his first year at the UO, then transferred to Loughborough University in England, where he focused on rugby and flourished as a player while studying just 30 miles north of where the sport was invented.
“It was different, being overseas and living away from everyone,” Test said. “It taught me a lot of valuable rugby lessons.”
Test’s time at Loughborough was short-lived though, as his appearances for the USA national age-group teams had caught the eyes of the sevens team’s selectors.
“They brought me into camp, and I haven’t missed a tournament since,” Test said.
As a preferred walkon wide receiver, Test did
not see the field during his lone year at the UO,
but has excelled on the USA rugby sevens
The HSBC Sevens World Series is divided into nine annual tournaments, including a stop in Las Vegas for the USA Sevens. Sixteen teams are divided into four pools at each tournament, and teams play for the Shield, Bowl, Plate, or Cup, depending on how well they do in pool play or the knockout stage. The top prize at each tournament is the Cup, and to win that a team must finish in the top two of its pool, then progress through the knockout stage unbeaten.
A stop on the world series circuit is a cross between a sports tournament and Mardi Gras. There are street parades, fans dress in unusual costumes, and the entire weekend has a Carnival atmosphere.
For everyone except the players, that is.
“We’ll fly in, have dinner and meetings, then do some stretching because we’ve been sitting in economy class on a plane for hours, and sleep,” Test said. “In the morning, we’ll hit the pool or go to the beach to get acclimated. In the four days leading up, we’ll do one or two sessions each day, then the day before we’ll go for the captain’s run, then just sit in bed and rest our legs. On the day of the games, we’ll run, have breakfast, and then head to the stadium and get ready to play.”
The Las Vegas leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series, due to be held from February 13–15, 2015 at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium, is the largest annual rugby event in the USA, drawing almost 70,000 fans. Broadcast live on NBC since 2011, the USA Sevens tournament has grown rapidly since its inception in 2004. Eleven years ago, the total attendance was just 15,800 fans. Last year, a record 68,608 attended, including a large contingent of California native Test’s family.
“At my first Vegas sevens, only the final was full,” said Test. “Nowadays, it’s basically full to capacity the whole time.”
Test made his senior debut during the 2008-09 season, and made enough of an impact to become a team regular. The Eagles finished 11th in the world that year, and two years later became the first USA side to ever reach a Cup final, of which Test said, “I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
Zack Test at practice with the USA national
team. (Photo: Chad Wise, USA Rugby)
The team turned professional in 2012, and one year later finished in the top six in each of the final three tournaments of the season. So far this year the USA sits in ninth place, and defeated Fiji 21-14 in the Plate Final in South Africa.
“That showed we’re here to win,” said Test. “It showed the possibilities for what we can do. We’ll only get better.”
Test has led the team in scoring in three of the five complete seasons he has played, and this year sits second behind only Carlin Isles, the world’s fastest rugby player (Isles was briefly a member of the Detroit Lions practice squad, after running a 4.22-second 40-yard dash during his workout).
And while Test was never able to realize his childhood dream of winning a Super Bowl, rugby’s worldwide popularity means he may yet to get realize another sporting dream—that of Olympic glory. In 2009, rugby sevens was officially added to the 2016 Olympic Games, to be held in Rio de Janeiro. In an unusual twist, that will give the USA, currently ranked No. 9 in the Sevens World Series standings, the opportunity to defend the gold medals it won in 1920 and 1924, the last two times rugby was an official Olympic sport.
“That would be a dream come true,” said Test. “The opportunity to come home with a medal would be monumental.”
Test never ran out of the Autzen Stadium tunnel wearing the green and yellow of the University of Oregon, never caught a pass from Dennis Dixon, and never played before a national audience in a New Year's Day bowl game. However, the one-time receiver has found tremendous success on the rugby pitch, and has enjoyed an emotional, impactful opportunity very few athletes of any code will ever be lucky enough to experience: the opportunity to wear the red, white, and blue while representing the United States of America on a the world stage.
“When you put the jersey on, your heart starts racing and it breaths so much life into you; you can’t wait to play.”
Want to see Zack Test and the rest of the USA team in action?
February 13–15, 2015
Sam Boyd Stadium
Las Vegas, Nevada