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Why More American Women Are Playing Rugby

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Emma Powell was flattered and excited when her church recently asked her to be the organist for their Sunday services—until she remembered that she couldn't do it. "I had to say no because I've got a broken finger at the moment," she recalls. "When the minister asked me how it had happened and I told him 'playing rugby,' he said, 'No, really, how'd you break it?'"

The church-going, homeschooling, mother-of-six from Kyle, Texas, gets that reaction a lot when she shares that her life's passion is rugby, the full-contact sport best known for being the more violent cousin of American football.

Actually, that's not true. "People think rugby is dangerous because you play without pads, but it's a pretty safe sport," says Powell. "A broken pinky finger is the worst that's ever happened to me, and I've been playing this game a long time." She explains that tackling in rugby is a totally different thing than tackling in American football. Because players don't wear protective gear there's a big emphasis on learning to tackle safely (as in, not with your head), teaching strategies that can be used instead of tackling, and following a strict safety code of what's allowed on the field and what isn't. (To be fair, the safety of rugby is a hotly debated topic with a large New Zealand study finding that rugby has four times the number of "catastrophic injuries" as American football.)

Rugby is the fastest growing team sport in the U.S. with clubs now found in every metropolitan area in the country as well as in hundreds of smaller towns. Its popularity was cemented when rugby sevens was added as an official Olympic sport in time for the 2016 summer games in Rio. The appeal becomes clear as soon as you watch a match—rugby has the strategy of football, the fast-paced excitement of hockey, and the deft athleticism of soccer—and it's luring away some of the best players from those sports.

Powell herself started as a high school soccer player. "I was terrible at it," she says. "I was always getting penalized for body-checking, for playing too rough." So when her science teacher suggested she play on the boy's rugby team he coached, she really liked the idea.

It helped that her older sister Jessica had also played for the boy's rugby team a few years earlier and had made a name for herself in the sport. (Jessica would go on to found a women's rugby team at Brigham Young University in 1996.) Even though Powell was smaller and less aggressive than her big sis, she decided to follow in her footsteps and discovered she also loved the rough-and-tumble sport. The next year she earned a spot on the first girl's high school rugby team in the U.S.

Things got a lot harder for her after high school, though, as she struggled to find an adult league to play in. "It's tough finding a place to practice that will even allow rugby." Women's rugby teams were scarce, requiring a lot of travel to play games, and she had to give it up for almost two decades. Last year, just after her 40th birthday, she took her kids to watch a Texas State rugby match and was "recruited" to play on The Sirens, a local women's team. "It felt like fate," she says, "and it was just so good to be playing again."

What does she love about it? Powell's always down for any opportunity to "get physical," saying that the minor scrapes and bruises make her feel "tough and alive." She credits rugby with helping her get in shape after losing 40 pounds the year before by improving her fitness and overall health. Plus she's a fan of the strategy, history, and gamesmanship involved. (Rugby has been around since 1823.) But mostly she says she loves the spirit of camaraderie in the sport.

"There's a culture of playing rough, but you leave all the intensity on the field," she says. "Both teams go out together afterward, with the home team often hosting a barbecue or picnic for all the players and families. Everyone congratulates the others and rehashes all the best plays—on both sides. What other sport do you see that happening? It's a community of instant friends."

She also finds the sport to be uniquely empowering for women. "Women's rugby is a good metaphor for modern feminism; you're in charge of your own body and power," she says. "Because there's no boy's club mentality there's less sexual harassment than in other traditionally male sports."

That helps explain why the number of women playing rugby has increased 30 percent over the past four years, compared to football, which has seen a steady decrease in total participation over the last decade.​ 

But if you ask Powell, the appeal is a little more romantic. "The game never stops for tackles," she says. "It just flows, like a brutal, beautiful dance."

Interested in checking it out yourself? Check out USA Rugby for locations, rules, clubs and more.

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