By Benny Harris
Riverfront Park in Eugene, Oregon borders the embankment along the Willamette River. The sound of rushing water echoes throughout. Every Saturday morning UO’s rugby teams come here to play. The women’s team plays from 9-11, the men’s (usually) from 11-1. It’s a cool, sunny day. Perfect weather for UO Women’s to play ORSU (Oregon Rugby Sports Union) Women’s Rugby. It’s their Civil War game. The enthusiasm amongst the teams is contagious. Unfortunately, the crowd is meager. Outside of a few boyfriends and girlfriends, there aren’t many spectators. Still, those few in attendance seem as eager and ready as the team.
At the opposite goal post, each team forms a circle. They wrap their arms around each other’s waist and, together, stomp their feet against the dirt. This leaves a giant O. It’s supposed to stay imprinted for weeks. They separate. They turn and run out to the field. The women are ready for war. Both teams approach the middle of the field. They form lines. They turn and face the onlookers. One woman makes the first kick as another girl lifts her teammate in the air who catches the ball. It’s on.
According to the US. “It’s the second largest sport in the world. It has a full World Cup as well. Twice it was a full Olympic Sport, in ‘24 and ‘28. It was the Olympic games in Paris. Both times [it was] won by the United States.”, the ten-year coach for UO Women’s rugby, the sport wasn’t always so unknown in
He’s correct on most accounts. The USA Rugby team played at the 1920 games in Antwerp. The rugby union Cal-Berkley had just returned from their tour of British Columbia. They played undefeated. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) granted them permission. They played France. The U.S. won team won 8-0. In the 1924 games in Paris the US team played against Romania. The U.S. won 37 to 0. Then the U.S. defeated France 17-3. The U.S. was the only team to win gold twice in the sport.
However, besides a pitch invasion [when a crowd of people who are watching a sports game run in to a field to celebrate or protest an incident] during the final whistle at the U.S. vs. France game, no one seems to know why, exactly, rugby faded in to obscurity in the west.
The women play hard. They play to win. They scrum. They tackle. Their bodies twist in the air as they belly flop against the mud. One might think for a split second, they were watching the men’s team play. Women know how to play rough. For these women it’s, certainly, a thrill.
“Women play all these sports where they’re told not to hit people. [In] basketball you hit someone it’s a foul. In softball you slide tackle too hard and get thrown out. In women’s lacrosse they’ve got to wear skirts and no pads and they can’t even check each other,” Farrell said. He says women either love rugby or hate it. For many of them, it’s their first exposure to full contact sports: A sport where you’re meant, and taught, to tackle and hit somebody. Boys, usually find this out at a young age. They get to play peewee football or similar activities. Girls aren’t exposed to that until, literally, they get to a game like rugby. Farrell said he, honestly, can’t think of another sport, besides ‘tae kwon do and karate competitions,’ where you’re meant to hit somebody. Most of all, “It’s a good team sport. [This] appeals to a lot of gals as well. It’s not an individual thing. You work together as a team.”
Alexis Ferrera, a team member and UO marine biology major, agrees that comradeship and full contact are what attracts women to rugby, but that’s not all,
“I’ve played other contact sports but [with] rugby there’s definitely a lot more technique involved to make sure you don’t get injured,” she said. “When you tackle somebody you have to know exactly where to tackle them to not injure yourself. It’s a team sport, yet it’s different than soccer, or anything like that, because you really have to support your team members.”
Ferrera’s teammate Rachel Cohn, a UO business major begs to differ about the contact aspect, “I’m an anti-contact person. Contact is the part of rugby I don’t like. I think I’m one of the few people on the team who feels that way. But I like all the other aspects of the sport. I don’t mind getting tackled or tackling. I like the tricky plays and breaking free.”
However, she adds, the comradeship plays a huge part, “My best friends are all on my rugby team or have been (but have since graduated). Most of my college friends are now on my rugby team [too].”
The weather shifts from sunny to grey. A light rain starts to drizzle. This seems to reflect the somber attitude felt at the end of the game. It was a good one, but, unfortunately, UO lost. The final score is 15-12.
The men’s game has been delayed by an hour. At its usual time, the girls’ teams are still vacating the field. This gives the men more time to stretch, warm up, chat and recite drills. Today’s game isn’t their Civil War game. That’s not for another two weeks. They’re about to play a Division 2 ORSU team. There’s, certainly, more spectators present than for the women’s team. Still, it’s meager. The crowd, mostly, consists of the player’s girlfriends and buddies. The men’s team has the same pre-game routine as the women’s. The only difference is they place their arms around each other’s shoulders. The chorus of their voices builds to a husky and cacophonous crescendo. They head out to the field that’s shifted from dirt to mud. They’re ready for war.
John “Duffin” McShane II is the head coach for UO Men’s Rugby. After playing rugby for over ten years he became an epileptic from accumulated head trauma. He explains, “After insurance I still had $15-20,000 left that we [him and his wife] had to pay out of pocket. All the rugby teams I coached, or played for, had fundraisers and raised enough money that I didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket.” Duffin also received donations from the east coast and California. From players he neither coached or played for. Rugby is a fraternity, a brotherhood. There’s tenacity between players that’s unseen in any other sport. ‘[T] that’s something you get from rugby: It’s a sense of community,” he said.
Tyler Carrington, a team member and UO journalism and film studies major, says he became interested in rugby after he watched, on television, a nine-minute documentary about Nelson Mandela receiving an honorary ESPY award for his involvement with South African rugby teams (this was the basis for the movie Invictus). When Carrington first arrived at the university he looked for a sport to play. First, he tried water polo. “I lasted a day [laughs],” he said. He decided to give rugby a shot. He’s played it ever since (two full seasons).
“[Rugby] requires a lot of athleticism. It’s multi-faceted athleticism, which, I think, I possess. It’s fun. It’s kind of a macho thing. There’s this whole manhood aspect to rugby. It’s a real tight community. You can go anywhere there’s ruggers [rugby players] and you, instantly have this bond,” he said.
Carrington’s teammate, David Charleton, a UO business major says he got in to rugby after the UO wrestling program was cut. “Rugby just seemed a pretty good choice. It turned out to be great. It’s one of those sports that no one really knows of. So no one is really fantastic. You’re not going to get blown out of the water by the average guy coming out,” he said.
At the end of the game, both teams are sufficiently caked in mud. UO lost. The score is 15-20. It was a good game. They played hard. Each teammate shakes hands with a member of the opposite team. They turn and go their separate ways. The shouts fade. The sound of rushing water returns. There may come a day when the rugby crowd outnumbers the players. When UO rugby fans will have to buy tickets. When there will be bleachers, even a stadium at Riverfront Park. Something almost every player mentioned is how rugby sevens [seven players per team] will be featured at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It’s true; rugby may once again see the light of day. However, maybe that’s why now there’s such a brotherhood between ruggers: Compared to a sport like football or basketball, there’s a select few players. Therefore, they’re more accessible to one another. This might also be why rugby attracts such a dynamic, diverse group of people. In the end, rugby’s popularity will be viewed as either its success or undoing.
Rugby was absent from the Olympic program in 1912 but after World War I was recognized as an Olympic sport at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. The USA Rugby team played. They came from Cal-Berkley and had just returned from their tour of British Columbia where they played undefeated. The US team wad coached by Daniel Carroll, a student at Stanford who, in 1913, played against the New Zealand All Blacks (the All Blacks won51-3). The Romanian and Czechoslovakia rugby teams were also chosen for the Olympics. Unfortunately, both teams withdrew at the last minute. This left only the US and France teams as the two remaining. The U.S. beat France. They won 8-0. They surprised the French with their vigor and the precision of their defense.
At the May 11,1924 Games in Paris the US team played against Romania, at Stade Colombes (or Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir). The U.S. won 37 to 0. This ended the Romanian campaign in the Olympics. On May 11, the U.S. played France at the same Stade Colombes. They defeated France 17-3. The U.S. was the only team to win gold twice in the sport. Carroll became rugby’s first Olympic double gold medalist.
Rugby Sevens at 2016 Olympics
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the 2016 Olympics will include rugby sevens [seven players per team as opposed to fifteen]. This gathered 81 votes in favor while eight were against and one abstained. “This is an historic moment for our sport and for the global rugby community, who were united in their support,” said IRB president Bernard Lapasset. Historic indeed in that this is the first time since the ’20 and ’24 Olympics that rugby has been featured as a sport.
This decision has made waves through the rugby community. Rugby’s world governing body, the IRB, has promised to end its World Cup Sevens event in order to allow 12 men’s and women’s teams to take part in the competition.
Other proponents were: former Argentina captain Agustín Pichot, Cheryl Soon, captain of the Australia team that won the Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2009, Kenya Seven’s captain Humphrey Kayange, Anastassiya Khamova, one of Kazakhstan’s top female players and New Zealand All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu.
Lomu, a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist, said: “To see my sport in the best arena would be fantastic for rugby, men’s and women’s. We are very passionate about it – you just have to say where we have to play and the best players will come. I can speak for all of them – they will turn up.”