Rugged rugby. No longer a `gentlemen only' sport

A SMALL woman with mouthguard in hand hollers a battle cry: ``Never do I go downtown on Sundays!'' She fires the egg-shaped ball straight down the middle of two parallel lines of jumping figures. It reaches the outstretched finger tips of the teammate designated in the call, and in seconds the ``lineout'' formation disseminates into the rough-and-tumble, fast-moving game of rugby football. Watching on the sidelines of a recent international competition, Darlene Connors, a registered nurse wearing the red United States team jersey, says, ``We really feel like a family out there. A lot of us have been playing together for eight to 10 years.

``One of the women brings her baby to all the events. And when Mommy's playing, Jessica has to be taken care of by those on the sidelines. Her father plays rugby, too.

For 80 minutes, these ``families,'' two each of 15 women, run dizzying patterns and execute configurations with names like ``maul'' and ``ruck.'' Blocking and interference are not allowed, so players tackle without protective padding.

For a century, this British export was a ``gentlemen only'' game. Fierce play and equally enthusiastic socializing are trademarks of the macho sport. But women began playing 16 years ago, according to US rugby historian Ed Lee, and the sport entered a new era. Mr. Lee says that as many as 4,000 women play today from the Beantown Women's Rugby Club in Boston to the SheHawks of San Francisco.

Women's commitment to rugby paid off last year when the USA Rugby Football Union (USARFU) recognized for the first time an official US women's team.

Not everyone is happy with women's participation in this sport, however; some male rugby peers object to the women's game being associated with the men's. But overall there is camaraderie and support between local men's and women's teams.

And that's important for a club sport that has begun to penetrate the American sports consciousness and is being played at the high school level in North America.

According to legend, rugby began in 1823 at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, when football (soccer) player William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it. North American universities like Harvard and McGill were playing their own versions of the game at least five years earlier than their first match in 1874, according to Lee. But it wasn't until 1975 that the USARFU was started. Of its nearly 800 teams, 117 are women's.

American women rugby players face tough obstacles. Rugby enjoys only a fraction of the public awareness here that it does in countries such as New Zealand, Japan, and South Africa; the personal costs to play an amateur sport with any degree of commitment are high; and there are many faces of discrimination, both subtle and overt.

Kerri Heffernan, a veteran of the US women's team, says top-level amateur rugby participation approaches a life style. It's not unheard of for rugby players to leave jobs in order to go on tour or to hold jobs that have flexible hours. On the East Coast the season can run from February to June and September through November. Ms. Heffernan says that during that time, ``We officially practice twice a week and play on weekends. A pretty strict conditioning routine takes place on the off days. I work out six days a week, seven if we're playing.'' Meanwhile she pursues a doctorate at Boston University and directs the physical education program at LaSalle College in Newton, Mass.

Kevin O'Brien is originally from Wales and coaches both the Beantown club and the US women's team. A special-education teacher by profession, Mr. O'Brien says women's rugby, unlike American men's rugby, does not emphasize tackling. Unlike American football, there is no forward passing, and tackling is not supposed to take the tackler out of play. O'Brien says rugby involves skills similar to basketball, soccer, and lacrosse such as acceleration, quick reflexes, and strategic thinking.

``I've coached a number of men's teams, and I find their egos dominate their listening skills,'' O'Brien notes. ``They're unable to try different things, whereas women will.''

He and Lee cite the need to increase participation as one of two major difficulties facing rugby. The other is a lack of financing. ``Rugby teams have a difficult time getting playing fields, and almost all the costs and expenses of rugby at the club level are paid by the players,'' says Lee. The biggest exception to that rule is the national men's rugby team, the American Eagles. When the Eagles travel, all but their entertainment costs are paid for by sponsors.

Women not only lack sponsorship, but have to deal with the attitude that they should be ladies and not attempt what Eagles captain Fred Paoli calls the ``civilized combat'' of rugby. Mr. Paoli, a Colorado lawyer, criticizes women for trying to associate their game with the men's. ``I think that the women's game is very different from the men's,'' he says, ``and they should try and build their own image separate from the men.''

Paoli also thinks rugby needs an improved image overall. Lately, men's teams have made an effort to curb rowdy and drunken behavior at games like the Can-Am Tournament, because acts of violence could keep teams out of future competitions. Paoli would like to see men and women doing their share.

``We're trying to sell this sport to the American public,'' he says, ``and so we have to be very image conscious. We're trying to get kids involved, and if parents see that kids want to play a sport where socially unacceptable behavior is going on in public, we're not going to get any kids to play the game.''

What Paoli refers to is indiscreet homosexual behavior by women at rugby tournaments and related social events. Officials on the women's committee of USARFU say that as far as they know, the issue does not affect recruitment and has not been brought to their attention by tournament directors or referees.

``I think there are some lesbians who play the game,'' says Leisa Meyer, a US team member from Madison, Wis. But she says that issue is an example of the labeling women athletes face wherever they're perceived to threaten traditional male and female roles. Women's rugby is especially susceptible to this, because of its highly aggressive nature.

Although it's a tough game, many players, such as Madge McClure, captain of the Beantown Rugby Football Club, say that physical fitness and knowledge of the sport go a long way toward preventing injuries. ``You can make it as rough a game as you want, but you have to be prepared to play,'' she says. ``You have to know the game. You can't be tentative.''

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