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Women get in on rugby action

By Eric Olson
Associated Press / April 18, 2010

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WAYNE, Neb. — Long denied the chance to compete in contact sports, women are now joining rugby clubs in record numbers — and relishing the hard-nosed nature of what’s been called a gentleman’s game for ruffians.

On a recent afternoon, the Wayne State College women’s club team practiced right along with the men in a meadow on the north edge of campus.

They locked arms and heads and otherwise contorted themselves in scrums. Women big and small chased each other in something akin to the old playground game kill-the-kid-with-the-ball. They held car tires as they ran laps, all the better for building strength and conditioning.

No passers-by seemed to blink.

Women make up the fastest-growing segment of rugby players in the United States. With youth programs still in their infancy, and rugby becoming an Olympic sport in 2016, the future of the sport in this country depends on club teams like the one here at this 3,600-student school tucked among the farm fields of northeast Nebraska.

Most of Wayne State’s players — men and women alike — didn’t know the difference between a rugby ball and a grapefruit when they signed up.

The women migrated from sports such as basketball, volleyball, and softball. Giving the chance to play the sport from which American football spawned, they gush about the rush they get from “blowing up’’ an opponent and the pride with which they wear their bumps and bruises.

Jennifer Becker bragged about the time two years ago that she broke her nose trying to tackle a University of Michigan player.

“She turned a different way and I nailed my nose into the side of her face,’’ the senior from Madison, Neb., said. “But I kept playing. They wiped up the blood, plugged up my nose a little bit and I went on. I had to show those people from Michigan that we weren’t quitters.’’

Such bravado doesn’t surprise US women’s national team coach Kathy Flores.

“Women have always wanted to be physical,’’ she said, “but they haven’t had the opportunity.’’

That’s changing. USA Rugby, the sport’s governing body in the United States, has recorded a 235 percent increase in registered female players since 1999, from 6,104 to 20,430.

Officials expect that number to continue growing with rugby’s return to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time since 1924. There will be competition for both genders, but in a seven-on-seven format rather than the traditional 15-to-a-side game.

Some future Olympians very well could be playing for a powerhouse such as Penn State or Stanford in the college club national playoffs in California and Florida this weekend.

Or they could be running about on a small college campus like the one at Wayne, which has won its league, or union, eight straight years and has knocked off club teams from bigger schools such as Nebraska, Iowa State, and Texas Tech, among others.

The college club players aren’t much different than those currently on US national teams. Few played rugby before high school or college, and most hold full- or part-time jobs on the side.

Flores said basketball players tend to convert into the best rugby players because of their hand-eye coordination, ability to catch and run, and the fact they are accustomed to a game that has quick changes of possession. Soccer players also make an easy transition, she said.

US Women’s National Sevens coach Ric Suggitt said an athlete unable to achieve elite status in her primary sport can excel in rugby.

“There might be an athlete who is two-tenths of a second away from qualifying for the Olympics, and rugby might suit her,’’ Suggitt said. “That’s the type of athlete we need to identify.

“We need to leave those avenues open for the track athletes and the basketball, soccer, and lacrosse players. It’s a dream for kids to go to the Olympics, and this might give them that chance.’’

Sometimes the biggest hurdle for women is mental.

“There are those who think they’ll appear manly if they play,’’ Flores said. “But girls are tough. Sometimes they just don’t know it.’’

The NCAA gave women’s rugby “emerging sport’’ status in 2002, allowing Division 1 programs to award as many as 12 scholarships. So far, Eastern Illinois is the only school to start a program, but the athletic department funds the equivalent of less than one scholarship divided among 20 players. There are about 400 college club teams, with some offering scholarships but most requiring members to pay a fee to play and cover their own travel expenses.

Though the sport gets minimal exposure in the United States — it’s extremely popular in Australia and Europe — Americans have generally fared well since international competition for women started in 1987.

The United States will play in the Women’s Rugby World Cup in England in August. The Americans finished fifth in 2006. Flores said the US is considered a “sleeping giant’’ because of the nation’s wealth of athletes.

Wayne State in 2002 produced a top-caliber player in Angela Matthews, who made the US under-19 team.

“Ronnie Lott with shaved legs,’’ Wayne coach Darrin Barner said, referring to the former NFL star. “She was flat-out the meanest-tackling thing you’ve ever seen in your life. Her first year here, I would have started her on the men’s team.’’

No current Wayne player has the skill of Matthews.

Passion? That’s another matter.

Whitney Nielsen, a senior from Sioux City, Iowa, was a member of the Wayne State softball team for less than a week as a freshman before she quit to take up rugby.

“I had never played a contact sport before, and it was so much fun,’’ Nielsen said. “Women don’t get a lot of opportunity to experience contact. I was intrigued by it.’’

Nielsen got a mixed reaction from her family when she broke the news that she was giving up softball.

“My grandma was terrified for me,’’ she said. “My dad thought it was awesome. You watch volleyball and softball, and then you watch a tackling sport. He was like, ‘Yeah, my daughter is going to kick butt.’ ’’