Scrum. Hooker. Maul. Forward pass. Ruck. Which one doesn’t belong? You might think hooker, but you’re wrong. The answer is… forward pass. In the world of rugby, you can’t pass forward but you can most certainly be a hooker (though being one on the field is not much like the world’s oldest profession). Now, all of this is nonsense to you but essential to Princeton University Women’s Rugby Football Club, called PUWRFC for short. Actually, the acronym is just as long as the name, so us ruggers just say “we play rugby” and people get the picture— kind of. The picture they paint and the reality are often a teeny bit different. For example:
Me: “I play rugby.”
Person: “Oh, is it coed? How is it playing with men?”
Me: sigh. “No, it isn’t…”
My other two favorite reactions are “Oh damn! I could never play that… it’s so violent. Aren’t you scared? Don’t you get hurt?!” (cue more sighing) or, best of all “I didn’t know that! Cool. So, do you know so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so?” (a little less sigh, a little more ‘duh’). But after a small burst of my combined rudeness and sassiness, I begin to explain the magic that is rugby.
So here comes the magic. Now, most of people don’t know much about rugby, so I will inform you. I won’t give too much of the rules (they’re a little complicated) but I will tell you that you’re about to experience rugby like you never have before, because chances are most of you actually never have.
As I am a wee rookie, I do not trust myself to explain the rules of rugby to you; I will leave that in the hands of junior captain Morgan Arthur ’14:
“I’ve often heard rugby described as a combination between football and soccer, but in truth it is a category all its own. It has been described as a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen…or in our case women. It’s a tough sport, requiring— as one of our coaches is apt to say— physicality. It’s full tackle, no pads, so you can get started with a pair of cleats and a mouthguard. As for the rest of the rules, you pick them up as you go along.” Physicality indeed— there are two forty-minute halves of continuous play. No time outs for us. Beyond this, as president Devan Kreisberg ’13 believes, “rugby is hard to explain on paper – there’s no better way to explain rugby to people than to show them!” I completely agree. I don’t get much of what my coaches say unless I do it. Rugby is something I find very hard to understand just by listening. It’s something you learn visually and most definitely kinetically.
Speaking of learning the sport, there has to be a reason why I decided to do that very such activity. Why I joined rugby was clear to me: I knew upon arriving at Princeton that I wanted to do some sort of sport– it’s my way of staying active. Rugby made sense to me: rigorous enough to keep me in shape but not overbearing time-wise. The NCAA does not recognize rugby as a varsity sport, so nationwide there is only club rugby. Because of this, most people had never seen rugby before coming to college, assuring me that I would be fine joining without having any clue what I was doing. Finally, based on what I saw at Preview and during orientation, the team seemed friendly, enthusiastic, and close-knit. It all seemed good to me: I could make friends and learn a new sport without feeling dumb! So I went for it. For a lot of my teammates, rugby found them and then they chose it, but I like to think I hunted rugby out. Maybe…
Whether I chose rugby or it chose me, its strong influence in my life is indisputable. Much of my understanding of Princeton and much of rugby are intertwined for me. As I was adjusting to Princeton, I was also learning the sport and integrating myself into the team. I had schoolwork and other commitments, but I also had rugby, which provided structure and a way to begin to understand how this whole college thing works. It was more or less a constant for me while I adjusted first semester; a network in which I could belong to and a way for me to focus my energy (or perhaps distract myself) when I could not bear to think about academics anymore. I had another sort of mental challenge to face.
For me, rugby is divided into two parts: the sport and the team. The sport is what I do on the field: how I play and what I gain from that. This part of rugby is more individual and reflective; it is what I work hard at. There are the obvious benefits to playing: getting stronger, staying healthy, and having the most badass bruises ever. Then there is the glory of winning, of performing well. Those are all fabulous, but as I am quite sentimental, what I appreciate most is what I have to gain mentally and emotionally.
When first playing, I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I was not sure of any terms and I had no clue where I was supposed to be on the field. This, fortunately, is common and acceptable: rugby is a difficult sport to learn and all my teammates and coaches say it takes quite a while to get the hang of it. Learning to accept this uncertainty and to trust my instinct were huge lessons for me to learn. What I think was most important in my understanding these aspects of rugby was the never-ending patience and guidance of both my coaches and teammates. The coaches are very supportive, emphasize that rugby should be hard work but also fun, and strongly believe in our ability. Just as helpful as my coaches’ support is the support of my teammates. Everyone on the team helps each other out, one returner to another, one rookie to another. This is where the two parts of rugby overlap: we have the sport, and the second part, which is the team. Kreisberg believes that rugby is “a sport about teamwork: the whole team plays offense together, the whole team plays defense together, and often the person who scores is only the end of a long chain of people working together.” Working together unifies us: Emilie Burke ’15 describes, “[as rugby players, we have] different shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds and experiences. Yet, we’re all connected by this one common goal of getting low, hitting hard, and wanting to win.” To demonstrate the physical differences, we have players who can sprint like no other, myself who certainly cannot, players as fragile as porcelain, and one player who one who can squat 331 pounds. You need not be large to play rugby, you just need to be aggressive and passionate. There is a place for everyone, as there are two main positions one can play that differ in their nature: forwards and backs. Forwards tend to be larger and stronger as they engage in most of the contact. Backs are smaller and more agile: they gain yardage by running with the ball and weaving through, rather than hitting, other players. Yet forwards must protect their backs and backs must play the ball when the forwards busy engaging in contact. The nature of the game does not allow any one person to be the star. Forwards run in pods of a few players: if someone goes into contact, there must be other forwards there to hit the next player. If a back is running with the ball, another back must be with her to take the ball if she gets tackled. It is this dependence we have on and trust we have for each other that makes our team so close: we cannot play good rugby if we are not communicating and thus working against each other. From the dependence that rugby as a sport necessitates grows a bond among the team that is lasting beyond the field. As Burke says, “[PUWRFC members are] not just people I practice with day in day out. They’re my sisters. There’s something about playing a sport with people where you’re all willing to put your bodies on the line for each other.” This holds true: on the field, we are literally slamming our bodies against our opponents so our other teammate does not have to. Off the field, we are there for each other just the same.
Beyond our team’s bond is a bond that comes with rugby culture in general. Arthur says that “at the end of the day, when the tackling is finished, there exists a community unlike any I’ve experienced before.” This is so true. After every game, despite who is the victor, the two teams come together and eat a meal, sitting on the field and intermingling with each other. We are polite and get to know our opponents. While we’re brutal during the game, once that is over, community is formed.
This sense of community was especially apparent to me on our tour to England this spring break. First of all, even getting to England was a feat: since we’re a club sport, we do not receive much funding from the university and our ability go to London depended on the team’s hard work fundraising, the generous contributions of alumni, and donations from parents. Seeing how much people cared about sending us to play really resonated with us. Once abroad, one of our opponent teams, Thurrock, gave us rides from the local train station to their pitch so we could play against them. Their fans supported us along the sidelines, too, complimenting our playing ability.
And our ability is pretty good. While there is always room for improvement, our team is resilient and tough. Our final game was the 28th, and for both our fall and spring seasons, we only had four losses total out of nineteen games. We made it to the Round of 16 for Nationals. Despite seven seniors leaving us (though one will still play as a grad student here), PUWRFC will continue dominating the field in the future. Our closeness and our dedication will only allow us to succeed and excel, and perhaps people will finally take notice of this mysterious and intense sport.
Rugby is a magical sport—a whole new realm of its own, with lots to gain from it. Rugby is fierceness, dedication, and passion. It is support, encouragement, and compassion. Ruggers are a tough but loving bunch, a fantastic community that I am extremely proud and grateful to say I belong to.