Here in the United States, it’s a feat in and of itself to find someone that has a remote understanding of the sport of rugby, let alone someone that understands why we chose play it in the first place. Rugby is punishing, it is unforgiving, and it doesn’t need or want you; thank you very much.
At 5’1 and 95 pounds, I spent my high school career as a cheerleader, winning national titles, and cheering on my football team on Friday nights. Never in a million years did I think the wind would blow me in the direction of rugby, but that’ why it is so amazing, rugby didn’t need me or want me, but I sure as hell needed it.
After a life changing experience in South Africa, I saw how one sport had the ability to unite a nation after the divisive and tumultuous era of Apartheid segregation. Rugby, with a little help from Nelson Mandela, united people of all races and ethnicities toward a more progressive South Africa. For some reason, this really spoke to me. So, I got up every ounce of courage in my tiny body and showed up to the women’s rugby practice at my university.
I was greeted by some of the most incredible people I have ever had the privilege to know. The captains saw my potential; they saw my speed, not my size. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like I was being judged for being too small, or not small enough. I was just the speedy girl on the wing that could definitely afford to learn how to tackle. Rugby is about finding your niche and becoming the best at what you do so that you can be there to support your teammates when the time comes.
Rugby doesn’t stop. Play doesn’t end after you take a hit, it isn’t like football, it keeps going, for eighty grueling minutes. It is your job to be there to support your teammates, which is the beauty of the sport.
I’ll admit, I let quite a few girls blow by me before I completely grasped this concept. I thought I was too little to make the hit, or that I wasn’t good enough, so I figured I better let the fullback handle it. But one day it just clicked. (Okay, it was the last match of the season, but it finally clicked). I looked at the people on the field with me, and completely decked some girl girl. To this day, I don’t ever think that I’ll find that same feeling again.
Rugby is about defying expectations, which is exactly why I do it. Because no one, not even myself, expected this. Maybe it’s because no one took me seriously as an athlete in cheerleading. Maybe it’s because I felt that I had something to prove. Either way, rugby made it clear that I am much stronger than anyone ever imagined I could be.
Rugby is about empowerment and equality. There is no difference in rules or play between men’s and women’s rugby; proving that women can do anything a man can do in this sport. This feeling of empowerment leads female rugby players everywhere to know that they are truly strong athletes, and that they are capable of achieving anything.
Rugby is about family. If you don’t do your job, your teammate gets laid out, that’s just a fact. You protect your family. You ruck for your family. You bleed for your family.
Rugby is about being part of something bigger than yourself. It is about being a part of an international community of athletes and fans. It’s about cheering on your favorite team even though it may take years off of your life (I’m looking at you, Springboks). It’s about beating the living crap out of another person on the pitch, then sharing a few beers after the match. There is nothing like the rugby brotherhood, which is why it is so addicting.
This sport has given me more than I ever even thought possible. I have never been more confident in myself and my abilities, and I owe it all to rugby. I have an incredible family that I otherwise would have never even spoken to. I have a sense of discipline, as well as a few scars, but I wouldn’t trade this past year for the world. So, rugby, thank you. You didn’t need me, but I needed you more than I ever imagined.