A League of Their Own
Women’s rugby growing at BU
It’s 5:30 a.m. on a recent Monday—and despite the early hour, dozens of women move across the shadows of Nickerson Field practicing full-tackle scrums and doing conditioning exercises. They are members of the BU Women’s Rugby Football Club (BUWRFC). For the next 90 minutes, under the watchful gaze of coach Nick Hildebidle (SED’13) and assistant coaches Kate McCabe (SED’05) and Jamie Howard, the women go through a series of drills, preparing for their game against rugby powerhouse Norwich University the next night.
“That’s our time of the day,” says Alex Hubelbank (SAR’14). “You can tell, it really proves how dedicated a lot of the girls are, that they’re willing to get up at 4:45 in the morning and start walking to practice.”
Hubelbank fell into rugby by accident. After arriving at BU as a freshman, she attended Splash, the annual student activities fair, expecting to sign up for club soccer. But at the last minute she decided to choose rugby, despite never having played before.
“I heard it was pretty intense, and I had seen the movie Invictus,” says Hubelbank, about South African President Nelson Mandela’s efforts to enlist his country’s rugby team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. “Turns out it’s not like that at all.”
“It’s like playing five-year-old soccer again,” she says. “The only way to learn is just to do it—9 times out of 10, everyone is coming in at the same point. You don’t know anything about rugby, you’ve never seen a rugby ball, you’ve never picked one up, and you don’t know any of the rules, so we’re all kind of learning together.
“It’s also one of the scariest moments of your life,” Hubelbank says, “because you literally don’t know what to do and they just tell you, ‘OK, just get the ball and run or tackle anyone that has the ball, as long as they’re not on your team.’ B-side ball is entertaining to say the least.” B-side, or “developmental side,” is equivalent to junior varsity.
The club team was established in 1998 and today competes in Division I of the New England Rugby Football Union (NERFU). The team plays seven or eight games a season against the University of Connecticut, Northeastern, Boston College, and others. Currently, there are not enough Division I teams to allow women’s rugby to qualify as an NCAA sport, but that’s expected to change in the coming years, as more women enter the sport.
BUWRFC sports a roster of 35 to 40 players, and 15 play at any given time, which means a good deal of the roster has to sit out. As a result, there is an A-side and a B-side game, with the varsity team playing in the former and the junior varsity in the latter. The A-side game is the one that counts towards the standings, while the B-side is a way to get everyone on the team involved. So far this season the A-side has a 3-1 record (the team lost to rival BC October 14) and is positioned to make the playoffs, scheduled to begin November 3.
Rugby is the only collegiate sport where men and women have the same rules. The sport’s positions are very different from those of soccer, for instance. Instead of forwards, midfielders, defensemen, and so forth, rugby features fly-halfs, hookers, and a prop. Fly-halfs like Deanna Nash (SAR’14) are playmakers, while props like Aubrey MacGill (CAS’13) must use their size and strength to provide bone-crushing hits.
“Her hits make the world change,” Hubelbank says of MacGill. “It is terrifying. There’s only one person that I would probably not want to play against and it’s Aubrey.”
There has been an explosion in women’s rugby at both the high school and the college level in recent years. The number of registered high school players has grown from 50 in 2002 to more than 6,000 in 2010, according to FirstPoint USA, an NCAA-certified agency that works with athletes. And the number of women participating in collegiate rugby club programs is believed to be around 11,000.
“I love rugby because of the culture,” says Ashley Donahue (SAR’14). “It’s like no other sport. It requires a cohesive unit to succeed, so your team becomes your family. If one person fails, you all fail. So we literally pick each other up and keep going.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Hubelbank.
“Rugby is a whole different animal. In other sports, you work as a team, you love each other, you’re working for the person next to you. In rugby, you’re not only working for that person, you’re protecting that person. You’re protecting their body. I think it’s brought our team closer.”
The BU women’s rugby team takes on Norwich University on Saturday, October 20, at Nickerson Field. The A-side competes at 7:30 p.m., the B-side at 9:30 p.m. Find more information about the women’s rugby club here.
Paul Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Comments