UVA and Va. Tech women’s rugby teams battled for the inaugural Commonwealth Shield this weekend. Photographs by Dr. Ernest Marshall
Virginia Tech women’s rugby coach Heather Booher looks to her left with a wistful smile on her face, “This is the first one,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll own it next year.”
She’s watching four women – two in the orange and blue of UVA, and two in the grey and maroon of her visiting Tech team – pose with the Commonwealth Shield trophy. It’s a beautiful wooden shield studded with 26 smaller, silver shields that wink in the November sunlight. Thanks to a dominating 51-0 win, Virginia’s women will have their names on the trophy first and they’ll own it until Booher’s women take it away.
“People like to say that soccer is a gentlemen’s sport played by barbarians,” says Virginia Women’s Rugby head coach Nancy Kechner. “We like to say that rugby is a barbarian’s sport played by gentlemen, or, in our case, gentle women. These girls will all go have a social together after the match.”
It is rather astonishing to see this level of casual bonhomie in the wake of an 80-minute grudge match between the state’s arch-rival schools. The short, hard words used to describe the sport adorn a t-shirt favored by the Tech team: Scrum, Ruck, Maul, Repeat. Rugby’s pack formations often baffle those new to the sport, as burly forwards link arms and go head-to-head in a battle for possession of the ball. The rules governing the sport can seem impenetrable to a novice viewer, but Booher assures me that it all falls into place quickly.
“Most of my players had never even heard of rugby before they got to college,” says Booher. “We teach them everything they need to know.”
Captains of the UVA and Va. Tech women’s rugby teams pose with the Commonwealth Shield trophy. Dr. Ernest Marshall photo
Spend one afternoon in UVA’s Madbowl, and you’ll get the basics. It’s a marvelous place to watch a rivalry match, with fans and reserve players lining the slopes that surround the field of play. When the teams huddle up for pre- and post-match chants, their voices echo off of the Jeffersonian brick buildings that rise above the grassy pitch. The field itself is well below the surrounding street level, creating a crucible of sorts for the athletic endeavors that take place.
Rugby’s rhythms are often baffling to fans of American football, in part because they are often so similar. Just when you think you know what’s going on, the game throws a curve. For instance, a scoring run is called a “try”, and it’s worth five points. On the gridiron, it’s enough for a millimeter of pigskin to cross the plane of the goal line, but in rugby, the ball must literally be placed on the ground before it is officially scored, making a “try” more like an actual “touchdown”. Conversion kicks after a try are worth two points, and three-point attempts can be made on drop-kicks in the flow of play or on penalty kicks. There’s no such thing as a specialized kicker who warms up on the sideline – conversions, penalties and drop goals are attempted by players whose uniforms get dirty just like the rest.
Confused yet? Don’t be. Just enjoy the action. The graceful part of the game is completely intuitive. There is no forward pass in rugby, so there’s plenty of broken-field running and lateral passing. Scoring runs often resemble the glorious helter-skelter of a gridiron kick return, and there are spin moves, stiff-arms and tackles galore, with one important difference.
“Rugby is a contact sport,” says UVA’s Kechner. “Whereas football is a collision sport.” Rugby tacklers – mostly unprotected in shirts and shorts – must at least attempt to wrap their arms around an opponent during a tackle, or be called for a penalty. It’s hardly gentle, then again, nor is it quite so bone-breakingly violent as the American game. “As soon as you give someone pads or a helmet, you’ll find a coach who will teach you how to use them as a weapon,” says UVA men’s rugby coach Ernie Marshall.
When a rugby player is subbed out of the game, there’s no coming back, so the women who play for Kechner and Booher know the difference between pain and injury. An incidental elbow to the face, a hard tackle, fingers stomped in a ruck: play goes on, and the women unfailingly climb to their feet and get back in the game rather than take a seat.
To be fair, it’s probably much easier to get back up when you’re playing as well as Virginia’s women have in the inaugural Commonwealth Shield match. The women in blue and orange score their first try after 25 minutes of play, but then the floodgates open. Nine tries are scored by four UVA players, led by Kiley Naylor’s* four successful scoring runs. Brianna Kim kicked three successful conversions to make the final score 51-0, and had to laugh when one attempt clanged off the crossbar. “We always feel like those should at least count for one,” jokes men’s coach Ernie Marshall.
The winning UVA Women’s Rugby team poses with the Commonwealth Shield. Dr. Ernest Marshall photo.
Rugby’s world cup is second only to soccer’s similarly-named event in worldwide popularity, but it struggles to gain a toehold in the cluttered sporting landscape of the United States nonetheless. Supporters of the sport, which began in England the early 1800s, hope that the debut of Rugby 7s (a faster, shorter version of the game played with seven players on a side instead of the full game’s 15) as an Olympic sport for the 2016 games in Brazil will bring some American eyeballs to the game. But local coaches like Booher and Kechner know that the real hook comes from getting kids involved in the action.
“A St. Anne’s Bellfield student has actually contacted me, and (she) practices with us,” says Kechner. “So we think we might be able to go through STAB and hopefully get larger from there.”
Rugby is a club sport – not part of the official athletic department at UVA – so the volunteer coaches, players and supporters are not bouyed by bursting recruiting budgets and first-class facilities, but rather by determination and love of the game.
Well, that, and glory. Even a first year with no concept of what rugby is or how it is played knows that it’s a big deal to beat Virginia Tech. Tapping into that rivalry through the battle for the Commonwealth Shield – the men will play for their version of the trophy in spring – may be perfect way to make rugby personal for local fans and potential players.
Because the ladies in maroon and grey have a year to wash the taste of 51-0 out of their mouths. You can bet they’ll put in the hours of practice over the next 365 days, preparing for the all-important rematch. The Virginia women must bring the trophy with them to Blacksburg next year, and it’ll take everything they’ve got to make sure it comes back home.
*A previous version of this story said "Kylie Nelson’s four successful scoring runs."