Rugby is for women, too

By Mandy Sciacchitano

An old European saying claims that rugby is a "ruffian's sport played by gentlemen."

Well, it's time for the gentlemen to move over and share the spotlight with the women because women are redefining the boundaries of how the sport should be played. Rugby is increasingly gaining popularity as a sport for women, too, and, although many people don't know it, the women's rugby team at University of Richmond is swiftly breaking all of the stereotypes.

The first women's rugby team at Richmond started in the spring of 2003. That's when a group of freshman girls who met during sorority rush week and knew a lot of men's rugby players decided they wanted to try a different sport, said senior Liz Dunham, one of the team's original players.

Dunham said none of the girls knew how to play, but one of Richmond's men's rugby players helped them out.

"We had a student here from the guys' team that had too many concussions, so he was our coach," she said. "He taught us the fundamentals, but you can't really learn rugby through practice, so we had games and scrimmages and learned that way."

The game of rugby is like a combination of American football and soccer, except it is almost completely opposite. The "forwards," who are the offensive players in soccer, are actually the defensive players in rugby, and the "backs," who are the defensive players in soccer, play offense in rugby. More than that, there is one key difference: the ball can only be passed backward.

The field is called a pitch and the ball looks like a football, but fatter, junior Virginia Bunker said.

There are 15 people on the pitch for each team €” eight forwards and seven backs€”and the object of the game is to cross a line (like an end zone in football) and place the ball down to score. Where you place the ball down is where you kick for extra points, junior Kathryn Joyce, president of the women's rugby team, said.

Learning the game of rugby requires learning a new set of vocabulary words.

First, there's the "scrum," which takes place when there is a penalty or when the ball goes out of bounds, Bunker said. In the scrum, the 16 forwards (eight from each team) drive against one another and fight for the ball.

"You basically bind onto each other and bend down real low," Bunker said, "and the ref says €˜Hold. Engage.' and then you push against each other.

"The hooker tries to €˜hook' it with her foot, and you try to push it back with your feet to the scrum half so she can pick it up and get it out."

In addition to "scrum" and "pitch," another important rugby term is "ruck," which is what a team does when its player in possession of the ball is tackled by the other team.

"In order to gain possession again, you have to push against the other team where the ball has been down€”kind of like the line of scrimmage," junior Carrie Dyer said.

"Whoever wins the ruck will gain possession."

Neither male nor female rugby players wear any padding, so players have to be tough in the face of so much contact.

"Football players have it so easy compared to rugby players," said junior Kate Harmon, Bunker's roommate.

Bunker added, "In one of the games a girl fell on the ground and was bleeding from the head €¦ but she's OK now. Stuff like that is pretty common."

Rugby is a physically demanding game, but Joyce said that one of the common misconceptions is that people often get injured.

"It's just a violent game, and if you play it properly no one should get hurt," she said.

"It's aggressive and it's tough physically, but it's not like someone has to get
injured at every game. There's more to the game than just tackling people; there is skill involved."

The physical nature of the game and its male-dominated history leads to another stereotype that plagues the women's rugby team, especially on the Richmond campus.
"The stereotype is that rugby women are manly women €” butches," Bunker said.
"But our team is very feminine. We have a lot of small women."

The women who play rugby at UR are a lot shorter and smaller than the women on other teams. The average size of the team may have something to do with the type of students who attend Richmond.

"At Richmond the stereotype is to be as skinny as possible, which doesn't really help our chances when we go up against 300-pound girls," Joyce said.

But smaller means faster in the world of rugby and the Spiders have learned to use the size disparity to their advantage.

"We are a faster team," Joyce said, "whereas the other girls are bigger and can't run as fast for as long.

"We usually use our speed, quickness and running the ball . . . it works sometimes. During the fall semester we only lost two games."

Coach Rudy Miller, who has been with the team for two years, sees the average size of the team as a positive attribute.

"UR women don’t fit into the classic mold," he said in an e-mail response. "We are generally smaller than many teams, but the girls are faster and fitter than many teams."
Part of the reason that the rugby team is so stereotyped on campus may be because students just don't know a lot about the game. Rugby doesn't have as large of a following in the United States, partly because Americans grow up watching American football.

"It's just cultural differences," Dunham said. "It's what you grow up with. In high school here you don't have a rugby team, but in Europe you can play rugby in middle school, so I guess more people know about it."

According to USA Rugby Online, American football has its origins in rugby. As the popularity of rugby spread throughout North America, each region changed the rules to fit their style of play. Eventually two completely different games emerged: Canadian football and American football. Both resemble rugby, and to this day, some of the official rules derive from those of rugby.

Despite the strong connection to football, rugby is still so relatively unknown in
America that there are no professional teams, Miller said.

"Rugby is structured a lot like soccer," he said. "You have small clubs and large clubs and out of these, clubs players are selected to represent the U.S. internationally."

The first United States women's rugby team to compete internationally, The Eagles, was formed in 1987. It quickly launched itself onto the world circuit as a powerhouse, winning the first official World Cup in 1991. It finished second in the two subsequent World Cups, and the team's official website states that it "set the standard for international competition, leading an ensuing wave of women’s rugby growth and game development worldwide."

Hundreds of colleges nationwide currently boast a women's rugby team, but most are not at varsity level.

The Spiders women's rugby team plays in the Virginia Rugby Union (VRU), which includes school such as William and Mary, Mary Washington, Virginia Commonwealth University, Longwood, Radford and Virginia Tech€”all club teams.

The sport's national organization, USA Rugby, launched a program in 2003 called the USA Rugby College Commitment. According to the USA Rugby web site, the program has the aim of "improving the quality, image and awareness of college Rugby on campuses across America," and is assuming a leadership position at club-level college sports.

Although the program hasn't yet made it to Richmond, the team has launched a campaign to promote itself on campus.

Team members hold information sessions twice a semester for girls who are interested in playing but don't necessarily know what rugby is all about. Members also hang banners in the Commons advertising weekend home games and hang up fliers in the hallways and bathroom stalls all across campus. They also have a couple of fundraisers in the works for the upcoming semester.

"This semester we tried to do a Jello wrestling fundraiser," Joyce said, "and a lot of people heard about it and were going to come out, and that was exciting because it was a lot of people that probably hadn't heard about our team, but were going to come out anyway."

Currently, the biggest advertising asset the team has is word-of-mouth, which also serves to break many of the standing stereotypes about the kind of women who play rugby.

"If you are friends with people who play, you know it's not the stereotypical team," Bunker said. "But if you don't have friends, you'll think that it's just big girls out there beating up on other girls. It's hard to recruit with an image like that."

Through the team's advertising efforts, the Richmond student body is slowly learning more about and embracing the game of women's rugby.

"I think it is pretty well respected," Dyer said, "and I think people look at the girls' team as being pretty unique since rugby is a sport that is so synonymous with guys."

Miller thinks that the team has been gaining respect and popularity thanks to the "fun factor."

"These girls have a blast both on and off the field," he said. "Rugby is something everyone should try. Someone said to me once that rugby is like crack. I guess in some ways I agree. It is a very addictive game."

It must be very addictive if the UR women's rugby team, which doesn't hold tryouts and was non-existent just four years ago, has escalated to be one of the best teams in the conference.

"The girls started off having a general interest in the game and became one of the most competitive teams in their division," Miller said. "They are stronger, faster and are becoming real students of the game."

As a quote on the team's official website reads: “The only trophy we won that day was the blood and sweat we left on the pitch…. and it was enough.”

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1 Response to Rugby is for women, too

  1. Raoul Duke says:

    This is one of the most poorly written articles I have ever read

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