Women’s Rugby Requires Aggressive Play, Not Aggressive Players

Also published on Boston.com.

Imagine you’re tackled while playing football. You hit the ground hard and expect play to stop. Instead, bodies suddenly start flying every which way. Teammates and opponents slam into each other all around you. Your opponents want to strip the ball; your teammates want to clear a path for you to hand the ball off (while you’re still on the ground, remember). And if you do hand the ball off safely, you have to get up immediately and take the new ball-carrier’s place as a potential tackler.

What would you call this mass chaos? You’d call it rugby. And the women’s rules are the exact same as the men’s.

On Sunday, April 3, the Boston University women’s rugby team is taking on Radcliffe College at Harvard University’s Cumnock Field. White lines on the synthetic grass mark a 70-meter by 100-meter field with two “try lines” to mark the front of rugby’s scoring area, and two dead-ball lines to mark its end. H-shaped goalposts stand centered on the try lines.

Players score in rugby – whose name comes from the Rugby School in central England, where the sport originated – by touching the football to the ground inside the goal area, resulting in a five-point “try.” A two-point “conversion” attempt follows, in which the ball must be kicked through the uprights and above the crossbar. The ball can also be drop-kicked through the uprights for a three-point “drop goal.”

For the conversion the ball must be positioned in line with where it was touched down for the try, so runners will often enter the goal area, then head towards the center before touching the ball down.

BU gets on the board first when senior fullback Sarah Appleton breaks two tackles and runs over a third before downing the ball to the far left of the goalpost. Appleton’s conversion attempt – kicked directly into a gusting, 18 mph wind – sails wide right. 5-0, Terriers. But Radcliffe responds with a try of its own to tie the game.

If the ball goes out of bounds, a lineout is awarded against the last team to touch it. The opposing team throws in the ball, and each side has two players grab a third by the shorts and lift her into the air. The two elevated players vie for control of the ball.

BU is awarded a lineout near its own try line, but Radcliffe gets control of the ball and punches it in for a 10-5 lead. Poor lineout play will plague the Terriers all game.

The Radcliffe women score five more unanswered tries, converting three times, to go up 41-5 early in the second half.

The football cannot be thrown forward, so players run with the ball as far as they can, then pass it laterally or backwards to a teammate, or they are tackled. When a player is tackled, teammates form a protective “ruck” around the downed player, attempting to push opponents out of the way long enough for the ball to be handed off to a teammate.

BU’s only real scoring chance during Radcliffe’s streak comes late in the first half, as forward (forwards tend to be the stronger, heavier players) Aubrey Macgill barrels through Radcliffe tacklers as she approaches the try line. But she reacts too quickly as she is tackled, not waiting for the ruck to cover her, and she throws the ball away. Macgill turns the ball over several times during BU’s game.

If a player runs ahead of the ball (“off-sides”), or pushes it forward with his or her hands (a “knock-on”), the opposing team is awarded a “scrum.” Eight players interlock and form a three-tiered battering ram that slams shoulders-first into the opposing eight, trying to push the other side backwards while using their feet to feed the ball back to teammates, who restart the running.

Radcliffe’s women are on average a bit taller than BU’s, which gives them added leverage in the scrum. They are able to push back and nearly over-run the Terrier defenders. By the time BU recovers, Radcliffe is running at full speed, easily cutting through BU’s first line of defense, then dragging the remaining Terrier tacklers for extra yards before the next ruck.

Late in the second half, BU is awarded the ball after Radcliffe’s scrum-half illegally rolls the ball towards her teammates instead of down the middle of the scrum. BU downs the ball for a try, and Appleton converts.

BU captain Julie Athanasiadis fights her way for another try late in the game, but several rucks just outside the try-line beforehand take too much time off the clock for BU to mount a comeback.

Radcliffe 48, BU 19.

In a sport that requires so much contact, so much physicality, so much hitting, you might think that only the most naturally aggressive women play. You would be wrong.

“We don’t just run around the pitch hitting people as hard as possible,” says captain Teagan Lukacs in an e-mail. “There is a lot of technique involved in tackling to be effective and avoid injury. The focus is to get possession of the ball, not just inflict pain.”

During one of BU’s 5:30 a.m. practices on Nickerson Field, freshman Mandy Garelick describes the game in militaristic terms, using words such as “war,” “survival,” and “soldier.” In the background, BU’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps does drills.

Junior Irene O’Brien says that camaraderie and trust are crucial in a sport where players stand guard over fallen teammates.

“For me, it’s like a protective thing,” O’Brien says of rucking over tackled teammates. “I want to make sure that I get there so I can make it easier.”

Team president Abigail Smigelski says that most players accept the hitting as crucial to winning the game, so their competitive drive fuels their physicality.

Many women first get into rugby through some kind of competition. Mandy Garelick and sophomore Alex Krawczuk both say they started playing through dares or bets. Beth Riley, 23, who played for Trinity College in Conn., said she joined “out of spite” after recovering from an injury that doctors said would keep her from playing varsity athletics.

Rugby players are often stereotyped as stocky lesbians. The BU team has women of all shapes and sizes. One player wears a gray t-shirt that reads, “So gay so what!”

Smigelski says that while the stereotype is unfair, rugby is definitely a sport that welcomes women of all orientations.

Radcliffe vs. BU highlights.


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