If you’re unfamiliar with rugby, watching the Virginia Tech women’s team play in their benefit tournament in Blacksburg on March 23 will raise a lot of questions.
What’s with the bunching up and pushing each other around like human bulldozers? What, no penalty for knocking that girl flat? Why am I hurting just watching this?
Rugby is a rough game. It’s called the father of American football, sans equipment, but the game seems the sporting equivalent of a demolition derby.
Back in Britain, rugby was known as a “hooligan’s game played by gentlemen,” and still today it is seen as a rough game played by rough men.
Except that it’s increasingly played by women.
In fact, women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. The trend began years before women’s rugby’s debut in the 2016 Olympics, but the global acknowledgement didn’t hurt.
“I like its physicality,” said Jayme Kokkonen, a member of Virginia Tech women’s rugby team. “It’s more fun than other sports. Rugby is more physical than we’re usually allowed to be.”
“Physical” is the word Roanoke College rugby coach Garrett Thompson uses when asked why the Virginia Tech women’s team is the No. 3 team in the nation, despite having no official coach and nearly half its 45 players new to rugby. Thompson helps the Virginia Tech team as a volunteer coach one evening a week (Virginia Tech and Roanoke College don’t normally compete against one another).
“The Virginia Tech rugby women for the most part are mentally tougher than men,” Thompson said. “They are also a super physical team. They out-physical everybody else. Bruises don’t bother these women.”
Michael “Mick” Lee co-coaches the Virginia Tech men’s rugby team, but he’s a volunteer coach for the women as well. Lee, a New Zealand native who’s been playing since age five, has worked with the women on body mechanics for the past year.
“The women are undefeated this season, and they are playing better and better teams,” Lee said.
Thompson and Lee each coach at least one of the women’s five practices a week. If neither can make it to one of the women’s national Division I level competitions in the Mason Dixon conference, a high school rugby coach from Washington, D.C., fills in.
“We do some teaching,” Thompson said, “but really the rugby club is run by the girls themselves. They are super organized, committed, and have a phenomenal work ethic. For example, the day after they beat East Carolina, they posted this on their private Facebook page ‘If you didn’t play yesterday, you run 4 miles and send us proof. If you did play, you should run 1.5 miles.’”
No pain, no gain
Running is important in this intensely physical, non-stop game. Unlike American football, rugby has no timeouts, no pauses. It’s a game of endurance.
The women ruggers practice at 6 in the morning and as late as 10 at night — whenever they can schedule the practice field. They run. They do drills. They practice with the men’s rugby team. It’s all part of learning to be invincible.
The team is guided by a player leadership group of four co-captains: Kirn Kaur, Collegiate All-American Jetta Owens, Gracie Pierce and Amelia Griese.
In addition to not having an official coach, the women sometimes don’t have a playing field on game days. It’s a club sport without the funding of a varsity sport. When their designated field was flooded on March 2, they had to move their “home game” against Pittsburgh two hours south to Emory & Henry College.
Despite losing their hometown advantage, the Tech women won 67-7. They shut out East Carolina 66-0 two weeks earlier. They beat North Carolina State by a record 104 points last year. But their biggest victory was just 21-19, a Feb. 23 nail biter against UVa. Tech has only bested their main rival twice in the past 20 years.
The Virginia Tech women’s team was founded in the late 1970s, disbanded in 1990 and re-founded in 1992. Only two members played rugby before arriving at Tech. Like many of her teammates, Tiara Hollins is an athlete who wanted to continue playing sports in college. The junior computer engineering major had distinguished herself in basketball, but hadn’t played rugby before.
“Everybody helps the newbies,” said Kaur, who is also team president. “Rugby is full-on tackling. Girls don’t do that. But they learn. We teach them the fundamentals; then we throw them in with the pack. You get good by playing folks who are better than you.”
Kaur is unusual in that she played rugby during high school. It was youth league rugby; her high school considered rugby too dangerous, she says.
“My best friend played rugby,” Kaur said. “She’d come to school with bruises on her legs, but she said it was so much fun. So I went to a practice. I hit people and tackled. But the girls were so nice, so welcoming. You got over being attacked in the game. I fell in love with it.”
Like football, rugby begins with a kickoff. The team consists primarily of forwards and backs. Forwards do the hard work — and get injured more — and the backs typically score the points, Kaur said. There’s no forward passing; rugby players may only pass the ball backwards or laterally. If the ball goes out of play, the game restarts with a scrum – the bulldozing action where players pack together, heads down, and fight for the ball.
Unlike football, the game lasts 80 non-stop minutes. In some tournaments, it’s Sevens – seven players playing 14 -minute games.
“In the beginning, it hurts — maybe a lot,” Kaur said. “But at some point, the game just clicks and you go all-out go for it. You still get banged and bruised and maybe a tooth planted in your forehead — I’ve had that — but you don’t care.”
Rugby is rough, and it is played without protective equipment. No helmets. No padding. But players sustain far fewer concussions than do football players. Rugby prohibits hitting anyone’s head during tackling. Players use only their arms to bring down an opponent. Sometimes forcefully.
A graduate student in biomedical engineering is working with the team to determine the force of their tackles. Each is fitted with a sensor-equipped mouthguard to measure the impact when she is tackled, crashed into, or thrown to the ground. The results will be examined later in the year.
No matter how rough the game, all is soon forgiven. Tech always invites the other team to hang out and eat with them after the game.
Rugby is a dual season sport – with games in the fall and spring. Kaur says juggling her Virginia Tech engineering courses and rugby practices was hard at first, but she got lots of help from the team.
“Lots of engineers played on the team. We had study sessions. The team does homework at a certain time, so you sit down and do it. The first two weeks of the semester are hardest because we have no rugby practice. You put off doing your homework. When you have practice, you know you have to study at a certain time. It’s easier that way,” Kaur said.
Part of being a member of the Hokie team is knowing who is Carmen Farmer. Farmer, a 2003 alumna, played on the United States women’s national rugby team in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — the first Olympics to include women’s rugby.
“Deep down, I think many of us have dreams of the Olympics,” Kaur said. “We want to play as long as we can. A lot of us line up our rugby team along with our job.”
Kaur, who graduates in May, already knows the team in which she’ll be playing. Going to work in McLean, she will play with the Scions, who have sent players to the Olympics.
Relationships are also important to the team. Off the field, they are actively involved in the community, raising money for the ALS Foundation and Habitat for Humanity. The March 23 tournament Knockout ALS is a charity event hosted by the Virginia Tech women’s rugby and lacrosse teams in honor of the mother of Tech rugby alumna Abbey Coleman.
Coleman’s mother died of the neurodegenerative disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, while her daughter was at a rugby retreat. The team rallied around Coleman, and has hosted an annual tournament to raise money for ALS research for the past four years.
Knockout ALS will be held across Southgate Drive from Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium on the Upper South Recreation Fields at 637 Beamer Way. Eight visiting teams will play, including Roanoke College. Games start at 8:30 a.m.