September 21, 2006

Dirt, Grit, and Women’s Rugby

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You’ve seen the bone-crushing hits on YouTube and the disgusting injuries on ESPN and other networks. You’ve definitely stumbled upon a game while looking for another show, but continued without giving it a second thought. It’s the only game I know of where, for 80 minutes, you can kick, throw and run with the ball, stand on top of your teammates, dive, hit someone … all without pads and uninterrupted play. I’m talking about Rugby.

Many people shudder at its mention or lose interest. But not these ladies. The Cornell women’s rugby team has athletes from across the country and campus, nearly all of whom had never played a game in their lives before they joined the team, let alone watched one. But they don’t fear the hitting, don’t shun the running, and more than anything else, they have found passion in a sport that many wouldn’t dare play.

“The great thing about college is you can try new things and have new experiences, and rugby is just one part of that,” said head coach Annemarie Farrell. “It’s very much in line with the mission of the University. We produce discipline, and academics is obviously first, but we have really smart players who work their ass off on the field … [and] are really passionate about their sport.”

Farrell has coached the team for over half a decade, and has brought the club team to the highest competition at the national level. But through all the wins — and there have been many — and intensity (three practices per week for two hours each, plus games and scrimmages), Farrell has left the team open to any girl who wishes to join. There are no tryouts; women are free to join at any time of the year. And that’s part of what makes joining the team so attractive, as it recruited 20 rookies this year alone.

“The Rugby team is really a family,” Farrell said. “Rugby is not a sport where you have one player be able to dominate a game. I’ve played four different sports … and I’ve never played a sport that is so team-focused.”

Rugby is a game in which people of all athletic types, heights and weights can play. It makes for an open environment, where everyone is welcomed and everyone fits in. In talking with players and the team’s coach, it’s easy to tell that the team’s mentality strays far from other sports teams’ Machiavellian attitudes. They work on playing together, and more importantly, they enjoy who they’re working with and the environment they’re in.

“When we try and recruit for rugby, we always have people who say ‘oh, I’m too small.’ But we have people that are five feet tall and 110 pounds. It’s really not an issue,” said junior Laura Tagatac, one of the team’s fullbacks.

Tagatac had never played Rugby before she stepped on campus, but she knew it was right at her very first practice freshman year.

“[As a freshman], I had seen chalkings for Rugby, and thought it might be fun to try something new since I wanted an extra-curricular activity and I liked being part of a team in high school,” Tagatac said. “I really had a good time when I went to the first practice. … That was the big difference that made me stay, because everyone was so welcoming and excited to have new people there. Whereas with soccer, it was more competitive and cutthroat because everyone is competing to get on the team. It just wasn’t fun.”

When asked about the best part of the women’s rugby team, “I think it’s our team dynamic,” said senior wing Molly Melhem. “You join the team and you automatically get to know all these great people.”

That environment has helped many players overcome what might be the biggest obstacle for some people: learning the game itself and becoming interested.

“You can only learn so much through practice,” Melhem said. “You really have to play the game to actually get better at it. … [The coaches] usually throw you in inexperienced, and you pick it up quickly when you get thrown into a game situation.”

“You try and put it all together on the field and it’s just insanity,” Tagatac said of her rookie experience. “Until you learn the rules and you figure out the patterns of play, [it’s tough] … but it was fun. When you’re a rookie, you’re definitely not the only one — we’ve always had a more than a few new people come and play — so there are other people learning along-side you.”

But as friendly and open as the girls are and their team is, they can play even better. As of last night, the team was elevated to No. 7 in the country, the highest ranking it has held in years. The squad has girls who, along with the majority who had never played rugby, play on the national level and on regional teams.

Being good at Rugby inevitably means being good at hitting or taking hits. So it’s no surprise that the girls don’t mind doing either. But, what is startling is that they feel too much is made over the physical play.

“I don’t find that woman are afraid of [contact],” said Farrell. “When they come in, they are eager for contact. They are eager to hit. We have a freshman on our team who played linebacker for her high school football team. This is the next generation of women athletes.”
“I think the injury rate is equivalent to soccer, so it’s not as bad as what people think,” Tagatac said, also noting that bruises are not uncommon.

It’s a drastic departure from the scrappy, mud and blood view of rugby that many people, myself included, have etched in their brains. These girls are proving otherwise, one scrum at a time.

“A lot of people find it surprising, because everyone has that stereotype for [women] Rugby [players] — that they’re big, and butch, and they’re lesbians — they’re all negative. So I try and set them straight. Those aren’t the only kind of people that play,” Tagatac said.

She certainly set me straight.

Josh Perlin is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Thursday this semester.