Rugby is growing in popularity in the United States and successful collegiate clubs, like the Spartans women’s team, are leading the growth.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – It’s a rough, even violent sport, that usually calls to mind burly athletes.
But the usual view of who plays rugby is changing, as Michigan State’s women’s rugby team is showing female athletes share the same toughness and athleticism.
Women’s rugby is one of the 28 club sports offered by MSU. The club sports program is an effective way for MSU students to still participate at a high level in sports. The challenge of club sports is that the teams and athletes do not receive any funding from the university, meaning the athletes finance their program.
Women’s rugby is growing in the U.S., with the majority of the collegiate teams standing at the club level. There are 21 institutions with varsity-level rugby, leading the NCAA to designate women’s rugby as an emerging sport.
Michigan State has had a women’s rugby team since 1984. The 2019 Spartans have a roster of 50 players, and are aiming to reach the national tournament. They will play versus Kent State on Nov. 16, with the winner advancing to the tournament.
“Here at State, we are focusing on developing them into strong fundamental players,” said Coach Erin McGowan, who is a veteran player and now coaching. “This is with the hope of progressing into some game theory once they are all on the same page.”
Last fall, the team finished the season ranked seventh in the nation and third in the Big Ten. The season is split into two parts: fall and spring. During the fall, each team has 15 players on the field, and they play 40-minute halves.
In the spring, they play sevens: seven players per side for seven-minute halves. The tempo of the game is faster during the spring, yet most players prefer the traditional, 40-minute structure.
“Sevens is a whole different mentality,” said sophomore Sophie Lamphier. “With 15 players on the field, only four can really be in the mix at one time; there is a lot more time to catch your breath.”
Even though the games are quicker in the spring, Lamphier believes that the spring is their “fun season.”
The fall season moves at a fast pace; incoming players become familiar with the rules and team, and just a few months later, compete for a spot at the national tournament. The spring is a great chance for them to get closer as friends rather than just teammates by enjoying out-of-state tournaments and other trips together.
Playing 40 or seven-minute halves makes no difference as to how physically demanding the sport is. The only piece of protective equipment that is mandatory is a mouthpiece, yet some players wear a scrum cap to protect their head from collisions.
Lamphier has been playing with a sprained ankle for the past couple weeks, and just recently dislocated and broke her ring finger in three different places – she plans to compete against Kent State regardless.
The sport’s toughness and competiveness demands that the players rely and look after one another every play. MSUWRFC’s team motto is “Ohana,” originating from the Hawaiian term family. For most players on the team, this is their first time trying out the sport –most of the women on the roster haven’t had any prior experience playing the sport until college.
“I had actually never played or really knew anything about rugby until college,” said junior Sarah Greenwald. “At the first practice, everyone seemed so nice and fun, and I fell in love with the game and the team immediately.”