Cut From a Tougher Cloth

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Broken legs, broken arms, dislocated fingers, strained tendons, muscles and facial fractures — these are all common injuries in rugby.

Not everyone can withstand the rough and competitive nature of the sport, but the women of the UC Santa Cruz rugby team are an exception. Off the field, their fierce and competitive nature might be masked, but as soon as they hit the field, all hell breaks loose.

“I remember the first time I got hit, it hurt for a second but you become addicted due to the adrenaline rush,” said junior and outside center Marisa Leone. “The people who stick around love the sport and the physicality of the game.”

Rugby is far from one of America’s more popular sports. The game hasn’t come close to reaching the prominence in the U.S. that it has in countries like England or Australia. At UCSC though, with the men’s team being the oldest club on campus, and the recent success of both teams, rugby’s popularity is growing. It caters to people looking for a sport on the rougher side and who aren’t afraid to hit somebody.

“There is a running joke in my family that I am going to turn into my brother,” said junior and forward prop position Joanne Lamas. “My brother is a 6-foot-3-inch, 200 pound middle linebacker, so they are always joking about that. My friends like joking about it when we go to a sketchy place. They say, ‘We should bring Joanne, she will be our bodyguard.’”

Like Lamas, senior and co-captain Synthia Wright grew up around football, which developed her affinity for grueling sports.

“My dad is a football coach so I grew up around physicality — it wasn’t anything new to me besides being a new sport for me,” Wright said. “I got to college and at the OPERS fair a girl came up to me and she told me, ‘Play rugby, you get to hit people.’ It’s like a sorority without the cattiness.”

 

Synthia Wright nurses her right arm in a sling with an ice pack on her shoulder after the Slugs defeated the Wolfpack 19-15. Photo courtesy of Marisa Leone
Synthia Wright nurses her right arm in a sling with an ice pack on her shoulder after the Slugs defeated the Wolfpack 19-15. Photo courtesy of Marisa Leone

Wright said she and her teammates sometimes face stereotyping when they’re off the field, as if it’s impossible for them to drop their tough in-game personas.

“Usually when I tell people I play rugby they are always like, ‘Oh man should I watch out?’” Wright said. “When I play I usually growl but off the field I wear skirts, paint my nails and put on makeup to the max. It’s pretty versatile.”

Playing rugby requires any player to be mentally and physically tough. The sport is a way of releasing the stress a college player accumulates from school and work. For these women, tackling and stiff arming opponents is like stress therapy.

“I feel overwhelmed when it comes to the same routine of school, study and sleep, so when I get on the field I take it out on my opponents,” said senior and team captain Kelly Scherer. “Even though my body is aching, I still want to go out and play to keep calm.”

The rugby team doesn’t really take any breaks since there is no offseason. During the fall quarter they train and teach new players the fundamentals of the game. When the women aren’t playing rugby, most of them are practicing or watching games. Because it’s such a brutal sport, most of the players are rehabilitating injuries they attained during the season.

“I broke my hand running with the ball and two of the forwards from Fresno State tackled me. At the same time one of them grabbed me from the top and the other grabbed me from the lower body,” said senior and rugby team president Yvette Aguirre. “The ball flew out of my hand and rolled over my left hand. Due to the force of the girl’s body smashing against my body, it created a spiral fracture over my hand.”

The men’s and women’s rugby teams support each other by going to each other’s games and holding joint socials. Both teams practice together with non-contact drills and also advise each other on areas of possible improvement. Every year, both the men’s and women’s rugby teams organize the alumni game to commemorate their seasons.

This season the women’s rugby team went 4-2 in league play, suffering losses only to Fresno State and Humboldt. Having lost only two games, the team made it to the playoffs, but lost in the play-in round against the runners-up of the tournament, Cal State Northridge.

Some of the women on the team didn’t play rugby as their first sport, but it didn’t take long after discovering and participating in a match to realize it was the game for them.

“I played soccer, volleyball and track and field previously and I just wanted to start fresh, and rugby seemed just like that ­­— they were teaching from the bottom up.” Scherer said. “It’s dynamic, it gets you in shape and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.”