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Women’s rugby: Playing for love of sport and pride in bruises

May 4th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life, Sports

‘We call ourselves ruggers and we’re a unique bunch. We play in rain and snow and return to practice after practice with skinned knees and blackened eyes.’

Story by Noelle Johansen
Photos by Noelle Johansen and Kat Stowell

LOGAN — I overflowed with pride at my first real rugby bruise. I wore shorts just to show it off. My voyeuristic pleasure from the reactions to such a hideous mar on my porcelain lady skin was completed when I’d tell the disgusted questioner how I got it. I took pictures to document its progression from swollen, red stripes to purple-y green splotches. It was my trophy. I was tough.

In all honesty, when I’m not stiff-arming an opponent or rucking over a tackled teammate, I’m a pretty peaceful person. In most situations I flee from any sort of conflict. I never played any sports in high school — rec soccer as a 6-year-old doesn’t qualify me as an athlete — which is why my playing rugby does not fulfill common logic.

We call ourselves ruggers and we’re a unique bunch. We play in rain and snow and return to practice after practice with skinned knees and blackened eyes. The Utah State Women’s Rugby Football Club is one of 14 club sport teams supported by USU Campus Recreation. Among the others are men’s rugby, hockey, swimming, men’s soccer, and ultimate Frisbee.

Rugby began in England in the late 1800s, developing and becoming formalized alongside European football, or American soccer. Though there are variations, most regulation rugby is played with 31 people on the pitch, or field, 15 on each team and one referee. Games are generally 80 minutes long, in 40 minute halves. No time is wasted with strategic time-outs or huddles, the game is only stopped when someone needs to be carried off the pitch. Women’s rugby is the only women’s full-contact collegiate sport, and we pride ourselves on playing by the same rules and with the same regulations as the men.

Scott Wamsley, Campus Recreation assistant director, said the difference between club sports and university athletics is not in the participants. “These kids work just as hard and spend just as much time practicing as Division One teams,” Wamsley said of club sport athletes. “They just don’t get the notoriety.”


The difference, instead, is in the money. Or, with club sports, the lack thereof.

“They all pay dues,” Wamsley said. “They don’t have near the funding that Division One athletics have. They all have to pay to play.”

For women’s rugby, we pay $100 in dues every semester. We also fund our own gas and food for team trips we take. Thankfully, our dues cover hotels. This past spring season we traveled to Las Vegas for a tournament and to watch the USA Sevens Rugby Tournament. We also ventured to San Diego for the Champagne Classic Tournament, in which we placed second. Less extensive trips included matches in Provo and Boise.

Wamsley pointed out that club sports athletes must also be enrolled in at least 12 credit hours and maintain a 2.0 grade point average in order to qualify to be on a team. He also noted there are no club sport duplicates of university teams. For example, women’s basketball began as a club sport. When it became a Division One athletics team, the women’s basketball club sport category was eliminated.

“We don’t want to compete with athletics with the same kinds of teams,” Wamsley said.

Campus Recreation athletic trainer Alys Staten has aided club sport and intramural participants for nine years. After tearing her ACL in high school and becoming interested in sports medicine, she worked with club sports during graduate school at Boise State.

“I was looking to stay with club sports,” Staten said of looking for jobs post-grad school. “I like it a lot more than athletics. It’s more of the nontraditional sports. I don’t think it was until grad school that I realized how cool club sports are.” She said she enjoys the mellow yet competitive atmosphere of club sports and intramurals.

Staten also noted the differences in funding between club sports and university athletics.

“Although we’d love to have the money, it’s just not there,” Staten said. “You have to pay to play.”

Differences also exist on the level of the individual discipline of university athletes compared to club sport athletes, Staten observed.

“With athletics, it’s a job for them,” Staten said, “They’re rewarded for it. As an athlete for NCAA, you are monitored and watched, everything is very strict. With club sports you have to have a lot of self-discipline and I just don’t see it. It’s easier being told what to do and when to do it.”

Despite differences, however, some things are universal with athletes.

“They love the sport they’re doing,” Staten said. “There’s always that striving for a better performance.”


In the past month, Staten has seen nearly 300 student athletes for drop-in office visits.

“That’s just people that drop in and say, ‘hey, I’m hurt, help me,’” Staten said. “Not every injury is going to be a catastrophe.” She said five club sports make up nearly 100 percent of injuries, four of which are “collision sports”: hockey, men’s soccer, lacrosse, and men’s and women’s rugby. Drawing from information gathered from the last 13 semesters, Staten said the approximate 300 participants of club sports have a 50 percent chance of being hurt sometime during the competitive season.

The only problem is, Staten doesn’t know if she has her position next year. Wamsley said Staten is technically employed by Intermountain Healthcare (IHC) through a partnership with the campus recreation department. IHC opted out of the contract in February, and since then the department has been looking to renew the contract with another health care provider, Wamsley said.

“Hopefully I can work out something that we can keep this person for the next school year until we can come up with something more permanent,” Wamsley said. “My goal would be to have our own trainer that is our campus rec employee.”

Meanwhile, Staten is still waiting to hear whether she has a job as club sports and intramural trainer next year.

“There is a demand for an athletic trainer to cover club sports,” Staten said. “I think it would be catastrophic to go without an athletic trainer.” Staten cited increased risk of lawsuits, missed concussions, and mis-evaluations of injuries in the absence of an athletic trainer.

“We could end up like ISU,” Staten said. She said six or seven years ago an Idaho State Rugby player died from second impact syndrome, something that results from an untreated concussion. When we were in Boise for a match three weeks ago, I saw the monument to this lost rugger — a large stone, just off the field, engraved with the number 7. The 7 was for his position, a flanker. Flanker was the first position I ever played.

Graduating senior Hannah Turner started playing rugby her final year of high school in Maryland. Having also played field hockey, basketball, and soccer, Turner said she was immediately hooked on rugby because of instantaneous personal confidence and rewards.

“The fun was instant,” Turner said. “The reward for playing came so instantly where with other sports it was more of a long time coming.” She did not hesitate in joining the women’s rugby team when she entered USU as a freshman. Turner, too, recognized the monetary differences between club sports and athletics.

“We have to pay to play the sport that we love,” Turner said. “We have to sacrifice far more than we are ever given. The commitment and just the love of the sport have to be so much bigger if you’re going to play on a club sport team because you have to give up so much more than university athletes.”

Turner coached the women’s rugby team for the 2010-2011 season, an experience she said gave her a new perspective on the game. She said she would not have been able to gain such insights into the game without coaching.

“You have to have your heart and soul into this game right alongside your body,” Turner said. “The girls that come back, they realize that. They know that it’s so much more than a Tuesday, Thursday practice commitment and Saturday match commitment, it’s everything.”


I might be the only girl on my team who didn’t play sports in high school, or ever. I don’t know if I could every seriously call myself an athlete; I’m much more comfortable with the personal title of rookie. But possibly the best part of rugby is it doesn’t make any difference. When we put in our mouth guards and lace our cleats, we’re all equals. My inexperience isn’t belittled or scoffed, I’m welcomed and encouraged. When our field is covered in a thin layer of kitty litter gravel, my knees bleed the same as my teammates.

I am constantly telling my teammate Katie Martin, another graduating senior, that one day I’ll be as good a player as she is. And even though Martin has been an athlete since grade school, and I couldn’t run a mile until last semester, it somehow works. We’re still a team.

Martin said there is an intensity to rugby she never experienced in any other sport. She also said there is a social aspect that is new to her as well. Even opposing teams leave the field as friends.

“We play against each other because we love the game, not because we’re rivals,” Martin said. “Rugby is what brings people together.”


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  1. One Response to “Women’s rugby: Playing for love of sport and pride in bruises”

  2. By tammy on May 5, 2011

    I love the article. Everyone should play club sports. Wear those bruises with pride!

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