So much for sugar and spice. For the nearly 30 undergraduate student-athletes who are members of the Womenâs Rugby Club at the University of Pennsylvania, playing nice is not part of the approach.
Rugby, a blend of football, soccer and wrestling, requires bold athleticism and a military-like strategy. In this tough-as-nails sport, thereâs no room for niceties.
Two teams of 15 players each take the field to run with an oval ball across the opponentâs goal line or kick it through the goal posts. All passes must be thrown backwards. Passing the ball in a forward direction is illegal and results in the team having to give up possession of the ball.
In rugby, the positions are divided into two main categories: forwards, who are numbered 1 through 8, and backs, who are numbered 9 through 15.
The forwardsâ primary job is to get the ball from the opposition and start making their way down the field with it. The backs then take the ball from the forwards in order to score a goal, by any means necessary. In rugby, a goal is called âa tryâ and itâs worth five points.
âUnlike other sports, itâs 80 minutes of non-stop contact, for the forwards, at least. Thereâs no break when someone gets tackled or thereâs a penalty,â Dawson adds. âThe game must go on.â
Dawson has played on the team at Penn since the fall of her freshman year. Unlike most college-level rugby players who are brand new to the game, she got hooked on rugby in high school, when she played for the Union County Mudturtles in her hometown of Berkeley Heights, N.J.
âThere was a negative stigma about womenâs rugby when I started,â she recalls. âThe appeal for me is that itâs unlike any sport out there. Itâs a really tough sport that takes speed, strength and a lot of skill.â
The Womenâs Ruby Club competes all year long and participates in as many as 15 matches, all free and open to the public. All home games are played at Penn Park, usually on Saturday afternoons.
During the fall, the club plays four of the Ivies: Cornell, Columbia, Princeton and Yale. In the spring, they play local teams like St. Josephâs University, Drexel University, Temple University, Brandywine College and Bryn Mawr College, in addition to participating in a few tournaments.
Penn Womenâs Rugby has only been in the Division I Ivy League Conference for two years, but this year they made it to the American Collegiate Rugby Associationâs Sweet 16 Championship Tournament at West Point, where the top womenâs college rugby teams in the country competed in the regional playoffs.
Their biggest Ivy League rival is Princeton, according to Ariana Bray, a junior health and societies major from Chicago. This spring will be Brayâs fourth season as a player, and she serves as the vice president. Like many on the team, she had never tried rugby before coming to Penn.
âRugby is amazing because thereâs a spot for everyone,â Bray says.
âPart of the appeal of rugby is that all the players are learning at the same time,â says Emily Record, the head coach.. âAs a result, players are very supportive; everyone remembers what it is like to be the rookie.â
Rugby is currently experiencing tremendous growth in the United States, particularly among college women. Some players attribute the growth to an increased amount of international publicity.
âUSA Rugby has had an overhaul in the past few years," Dawson says, âand theyâre starting to advertise more matches on TV and online. This is helping to let Americans know that rugby isnât just a European sport anymore.â
But according to Bray, rugby is more than just a sport. She says that womenâs rugby is an opportunity for individual empowerment against gender-based stereotypes and societal expectations.
âGirls have been told by the media that they have to look and act a certain way,â Bray explains. âRugby is my way of saying that girls can look and act however they want but still be girls.â
Rugby levels the playing field because everything is the same and everyone abides by the same rules, Record adds. The only difference between menâs rugby and womenâs rugby is public perception.
âItâs the only contact sport that doesnât have different rules for men and women, which gives us a chance to show everyone weâre just as tough â- or tougher â- than the guys,â Dawson says.
Members of the Womenâs Rugby Club also see their team as being part of a large family.
âA huge appeal for me is the camaraderie and sportsmanship thatâs been present on all the teams Iâve played on. My team is my family at Penn,â Dawson says.
âWhat sets us apart from a lot of teams is our attitude on and off the field,â Bray says. âNot only do we stay positive even when games arenât going our way, but we also make an effort to spend time with each other outside of rugby. Being as close as we are has definitely improved our game.â
Also contrary to the aggressive and competitive nature of play on the field, there is a camaraderie among the teams as well.
Dawson says the best part is being able to play and meet the other Ivy teams because they have a lot in common in trying to balance a rigorous academic schedule with sports.
âAfter games, we hang out with the other team and thatâs unlike any other sport out there,â Dawson says. âWinning and losing isnât always everything.â
The Penn Womenâs Rugby Club is always looking for new players, and no experience is necessary. Interested Penn students can contact one of the officers directly or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.