Bruises, sprains … turf burn — when it comes to rugby, these are perhaps as much a part of the game as are things such as good old offense, defense, scoring, and winning. Just ask some of the women from Newtown who, in college, traded in their soccer shin pads and running shoes for — well … bruises, cuts, and turf burn (and bags of ice) on the rugby field.
That’s right, the rough-at-times (make that most of the time) game of rugby — no longer just for men — is the sport of choice for some former Newtown High School girls’ team athletes.
Kelley Sullivan and Jillian Thompson both play at Marist College. Kyra Murray competes at Boston University. Sarah Grose plays on the George Washington University squad. Nicole Davis competes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her sister, Ashley Davis, played last year while studying abroad in England.
Although involvement in organized rugby wasn’t an option for these athletes before college, that hasn’t prevented them from having success in their newfound sport.
“The most unique thing about college rugby in the United States is that a lot of players, especially women, don’t start playing until college. This creates a level playing field for the new girls because they don’t have to be intimidated about joining a team, trying a new sport,” Sullivan points out.
The sport is perhaps most similar to American football, but requires lots of endurance, because of its virtually nonstop nature, like soccer. Most collegiate teams have their main competitive seasons in the fall, and tournaments are held in the spring, Sullivan explained.
Previous experience in other sports certainly goes a long way on the rugby field, too, notes Sullivan, who played soccer and ran track at Newtown High. “Playing soccer definitely helped me with rugby because kicking is part of rugby and I played basketball growing up so that helps with ball handling, and track obviously helps with speed and endurance,” she said.
Sullivan, a 2009 NHS graduate, joined the Marist club team as a freshman in the spring of 2010. Originally on the track team at Marist, she wanted to get involved in more of a team sport, and had plans to set up a walk-on tryout with the soccer team. But a friend convinced her to try rugby. Since then, Sullivan has turned her friends on to the game.
Now she’s a senior captain. Sullivan is an outside center and, thus, has lots of chances to run the ball for scores, and also is responsible for set piece kicking — kickoffs and point-after attempts.
Sullivan also continues to play other sports — intramural soccer and basketball — which help keep her in shape for the rugby seasons. Sullivan also played in a co-ed touch rugby league in Sydney, Australia, while studying abroad last spring.
Thompson, a 2011 NHS grad, knew Sullivan from the Newtown High track team and Sullivan asked her to join the rugby squad in her first year at Marist.
Thompson is a lock, or second row player, and a flanker. The lock players are generally the tallest on the field, she said. “The job of the lock is to bind a scrum together; they are also the driving force behind a scrum. They have strong legs and a lot of power,” she added.
The role of the flanker is to break off the scrum once the ball is out, Thompson explains. “If they are on offense, their job is to get behind the back line and support their team, or maybe even make a play off the scrum. If they are on defense, their job is to make the first tackle and try to get the ball back — if possible. Flankers are quick and aggressive, they are usually the fastest of the pack.
“The most fun part about playing is the team and the adrenaline rush. It is such a blast to play and is made even better by teammates that are like family,” said Thompson said, adding that rugby is probably the most intense sport she’s ever played. “It requires speed, endurance, strength, mental will-power, and sheer tenacity,” she added.
“My background in running really helped me the most. It taught me how to pace myself and gave me a head start with endurance training since all I did for years was just that. It also taught me a lot about mental toughness. In running you often lose a race first in your mind before your do on the track; and the same thing happens with rugby,” Thompson said.
Grose, a 2009 NHS grad (she ran cross country and competed on the track and field teams), plays on George Washington’s Division II club squad after getting her first taste of playing rugby while living in New Zealand last year. “It is basically as important as food in New Zealand, so I decided to give it a try,” she said, half-jokingly. One of Grose’s close friends played on a team and took her to practice. “I was interested in learning, since it’s such an important part of kiwi culture. I fell in love with the game right away and haven’t looked back since,” she said.
Grose joined the George Washington team this semester. She plays the wing and flanker positions. On the wing, she is the outermost player and has the job of making sure opponents with the ball don’t get past her on the outside, she explains. When her teammates get the ball into her hands, Grose runs it up the field in an attempt to score a try.
A try is rugby’s version of a touchdown in football, except it is worth five points instead of six.
As flanker, Grose watches the scrum and, when the ball springs loose, yells out to let her teammates know the ball is free, and she also tackles opposing players.
“The best part of rugby is working together with your teammates and knowing they have your back and vice versa. There is no better feeling then supporting your teammates, or making a great move and being congratulated for it. There are no all-stars on my team, just a bunch of really hardworking, talented girls willing to take and make a hit for each other,” Grose said. “Rugby is a very physical game. This has been the most physically challenging sport of my life. We play without pads, helmets — nothing, just a mouth guard. So I’ve definitely had many bruises, cuts, turf burns, and other countless injuries. But it’s so worth it.”
Murray, who plays the wing position, recalls being hit hard and sent airborne in one game. “I had icepacks taped everywhere. I’m always bruised up during the season, but luckily nothing worse than that,” she said.
Murray, who graduated from NHS last year, plays on Boston U’s Division I club team. Sullivan drew her attention to the game, so the former four-year NHS track athlete decided to give rugby a try.
“Rugby is definitely a tough sport, especially for someone as small as I am,” said the 5-foot-2, 120-pound Murray, noting that her size “is no match for some of the huge girls who are built to crush girls like me. My advantage is that I can outrun all of them. If I can get the ball in my hands and break through a gap, they’re done.”
Ashley Davis, a 2009 NHS grad, was inclined to get involved with rugby because of a variety of factors. She took advantage of an opportunity to play the game while studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, last year.
When Ashley Davis was younger, she saw an episode of MTV’s Made, which was about a girl wanting to play rugby. “I grew up playing soccer, and heard that rugby was a combination of soccer and American football. I was always frustrated with how strict the rules were in girls sports about bumping into others and playing aggressively and thought rugby would be a sport I would enjoy,” said Ashley Davis, who played freshman soccer and lacrosse in high school before knee injuries halted her playing days.
Nicole Davis, a 2012 NHS grad, followed in her sister’s footsteps and joined Carolina’s club team in September. “She had so much fun it got me interested in learning more about the sport,” the younger sibling said.
She played soccer and ran track at NHS. At college, in addition to rugby, Nicole Davis participates intramural sports.
“I love the speed of the game, the physicality, and the camaraderie among my coaches and teammates,” said Nicole Davis, who plays the wing position
Picking up the sport of rugby isn’t so easy, these player acknowledge.
“Rugby is a really confusing game at first. My initial reaction was to compare it to American football, but that actually made it somewhat worse,” said Grose, adding that she’s picked up the ins and outs of the game in recent months.
“The most challenging part of the sport has been learning the skills and strategies of the game. As someone on the small side, learning proper techniques for tackling larger opponents has also been a challenge,” Nicole Davis added.
“The rules are still confusing to me, and I’m going on my second year. They use odd words like ruck, scrum, line-out, knock on, maul. You really can’t understand the game until you’ve seen it played — and even then it may take a more experienced player explaining everything to you. I broke down and bought the Rugby For Dummies book,” Thompson said.
A ruck is the word described for a mass of players going for the loose ball. A maul, as bad as it may sound, is pretty similar to a ruck, only the ball is being held by a player. A scrum is what they call the mass of players battling for the ball.
“The most challenging thing for me when playing was tackling. I was very scared at first and it took me a semester until I actually got the courage to tackle someone in a match. I grew up playing sports, but the rules were very strict in terms of pushing or bumping into other players, so it was hard to wrap my head around the idea that I was supposed to tackle people. I was also scared of getting hurt, even though the more force you put into a tackle the less hurt you will be,” Ashley Davis said.
Speaking of which, the thought of their children playing rugby may have been a little painful for parents of some of these women.
“My mother was quite frightened when I told her I started playing. while my father tried to convince me to try out tennis or a noncontact sport. Once they saw me play in my first game they were a lot more comfortable with the sport,” Sullivan said.