In brutal sport, Tech women’s rugby hits stride

Photo courtesy of Kaley Findley

Tech’s women’s rugby team began in 2006, the product of an active, spunky group of friends lead by Jenny “Jarz” Rainwater. A few practices cemented their resolve to become an official club, and this year marks the organization’s tenth anniversary.

Current president Mari Nguyen knew nothing about the sport when she first came to Tech.

“My [Peer Leader] was involved with rugby and got me to come check out a game. I saw an alumni game, and I loved it. It looked really fun.

“I went and told her I had been considering joining, and she just looked at me and said, ‘But you’re so small. You’re going to get destroyed and broken.’ And I just told her, ‘Watch me.’ Now I’m president.”

While rugby’s inclusion in the summer Olympics this year encouraged a number of curious rookies to try the sport this year, the team welcomes new members at any point in the season.

“We’re always looking for people to join. We always welcome new people. It’s never too late to join,” Nguyen said.

Rugby has struggled to gain popularity in the United States; fourth-year Elizabeth Fuller has encountered some difficulties in encouraging students to join when many are so unfamiliar with the sport, thanks in large part to its poor publicity in the U.S.

“As much as people at Tech might say that they want to try new things, so many people say no to playing rugby,” Fuller said. “It’s something new, different, really tough and mentally hard to wrap your head around.

“People are comfortable with their academic side. They’re willing to try a club about an interest they might have. But with sports, they don’t usually go for something super new. And rugby, especially in America, is just so new and foreign still.”

Second-year competitor Sarah Violante believes that rugby’s notoriety for physicality also discourages those unfamiliar with rugby from joining.

“I think it challenges the female stereotype, and a lot of girls might not be comfortable with that,” Violante said. “It’s a very rough sport, … but we’re here, and we’re in one piece. It’s aggressive, you’ll get some bruises, and I think a lot of people are turned off by that aspect.”

Nguyen lamented how this crude understanding of the sport not only overshadows other, more nuanced aspects of the game but also leads to misconceptions about the women who play rugby.

“One of the things that I’ve heard throughout campus, and it’s very untrue, is that the girls who play rugby are super manly,” Nguyen said of the way she and her teammates are perceived. “And I feel like it’s said in a very negative way. Even if it was true, it still shouldn’t be said like that.

“Usually any type of stereotype you try and put on people is going to be wrong. We have people that like every major, every activity. It doesn’t really apply to just say manly, or something else.”

All were quick to affirm the true nature of players, with Violante enthusiastically adding, “Rugby people are the nicest people. They go out of their way for you. As a person, they are not this ferocious beast who is going to attack you. Only on the field.”

Nguyen had a particularly vivid memory of rugby while out of the country.

“I studied abroad in Singapore, and because of rugby, I got to play with a local team and get to know all of the non-touristy places. Getting to really know the locals
was fantastic.

“I also got, well, I guess you could call it a serious injury, while playing abroad. I broke my fibula. I got double tackled by the two biggest girls on the other team and I fell sort of weird.”

“At first, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just sprained, you guys can put me back in. I don’t need to go to the emergency room.’ They said ‘Okay, you can sit there until the end of the game, but after that, we’re definitely taking you to the emergency room.’ The whole team came with me and sat with me there for hours. That really shows you what sort of people play rugby.

“I couldn’t walk up to my apartment. I lived on the fourth floor, and there was no elevator. One of my teammates, who was also a student at the university I was studying at, piggybacked me all the way up to my room. And this was in worse humidity than in Georgia. That’s the best thing about rugby. The people like that.”

Everyone nodded, reflecting on their own warm experiences with “rugby people”.

“It’s such a shame,” Violante said sadly. “The people that come out to just one practice will never get to experience that,” before chuckling, “ … never get to know what it’s like to break your leg and have someone carry you all the way up the stairs.”

Even in such a positive atmosphere, some things transcend all. “UGA!” they shouted reflexively when asked for a rival.

Fuller mused, “It’s always nice when you see UGA — or some other team — with like 40 girls, and then there’s us barely fielding 15 sometimes. But … we’re a lot more determined.

“Outside of practice we’re always working on lifting or staying in shape in order to make up for that difference.”