Unlike heavily padded football players who clash each fall weekend, the gladiators meeting on this particular Saturday had minimal protection. They had mouth guards, neoprene sleeves, and bandages, but no oversized helmets, hulking shoulder pads, or hard-plastic knee braces. The two teams featured broad-shouldered, powerful women and fleet, sinewy women, tall and short, young and not-so-young. The oval ball moved laterally across the field as often as it moved vertically toward the try zones. The pace of the game was quick, and tackles were fierce. Everyone was involved. Every uniform had dirt and grass stains. Afterward, everyone was smiling.
Welcome to women’s rugby.
“Socially and athletically, there really isn’t anything like the sport,” said Boxford’s Elizabeth Peterson, 43, of the Lynn-based North Shore Women’s Rugby Monsoons. “Full contact, and using our bodies in such a completely physical way, is so unique and new and different.
“When you coach boys in rugby, you’re often ‘unteaching’ them some of the tackle and contact techniques they learned in lacrosse or football,” said Peterson, who began playing at Boston University in 1999. “With girls, you’re giving them permission to use their power and strength.”
Undoubtedly, the game requires a steep learning curve. Though football traces its roots to rugby, and both are defined by controlled mayhem, they’re very different. Rugby matches are 80 minutes, not 60, with 15 players on each side who play both offense and defense. The positions alone — scrumhalf, flyhalf, hooker, loose-head prop, and tight-head prop — can be puzzling. On the field, the object of rugby is the same as football, which is getting the ball over the try line (football’s goal line). But players can’t block, and forward passes are forbidden, though the ball can be advanced by kicking it. Once the ball carrier is tackled, she must release the ball immediately, so the game can continue uninterrupted.
However, if you know men’s rugby, you’ll understand the women’s game.
“The best part about rugby is that it is the exact same game for men and women,” said Kate Miller, 29, of Beverly, a physical education teacher who played ice hockey and softball growing up near Buffalo. “The ball is the same size, the field is the same size, and all the rules are the exact same. That’s so refreshing after growing up not being allowed to check because we played girls’ hockey.
“Besides the game itself, rugby goes far beyond the field,” said Miller, who plays for Amoskeag Rugby in Manchester, N.H. “It’s an entire culture. You have an immediate bond with anyone else that plays the sport.”
The rugby culture also crosses gender lines. Most clubs offer men’s, women’s, youth, and “old-timer” squads. Team members typically support their club mates. That, in turn, cultivates special relationships. Many women’s teams identify as “women plus,” welcoming players who may be transitioning.
“I’ve played with and coached former gymnasts, cheerleaders, figure skaters, soccer players — such a range. But I think there’s a common personality trait of [being] willing to challenge both physical limits and social expectations,” said Peterson. “Socially, the sport attracts people from exceptionally diverse backgrounds, very often people who are willing to challenge social norms. What comes with that is a culture of respect, acceptance, and inclusion.”
Beverly’s Erin Johnston, who works for the arts immersion nonprofit Express Yourself, agreed, saying: “No matter who you are, there is a place for you in rugby. Women’s rugby is a very queer-friendly community and accepting of all players. It’s empowering and exhilarating. It’s glorious chaos in motion.”
“The biggest surprise I had rejoining rugby was how much it improved my mental health. It gave me a safe and supportive place to be exactly who I was, a valued member of a team, and unending fun,” said Johnston, 32, who learned the game growing up in Alberta, Canada, and plays for the Monsoons. “I adore my team. It’s made of some of the hardest-working, kindest, and most passionate people I’ve ever met. We’re all so different, and yet we support each other 100 percent.”
Those differences extend to body types. “I’ll never forget watching my first rugby game,” said Quincy’s Franki Mullen, 27, who plays for the South Shore Sirens. “I saw so many different sizes and shapes of women, all beautiful and perfect for the sport in their own way.
“There was no, and is no, ‘one size’ for a rugby body,” said Mullen. “That, to me, is what truly makes rugby so special.”
What “ruggers” do share is a certain mentality. “We always joke that you need to be a little crazy to want to play the sport,” said Miller.
Different players describe rugby’s mentality differently, but there’s a common theme. “Rugby is special because it goes way beyond being a sport. It’s not a just team, a hobby, or a club,” said Sesha Manning, a UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology graduate student who plays for the Sirens. “When you sign up for rugby, you’re signing up for a second family.
“The rugby motto is ‘15 as one,’ meaning that all 15 players must play as one family in order to win,” said Manning, 25. “All mistakes and victories are the responsibility of the entire team. No single bad tackle or amazing try can determine the outcome of a game. If the entire team believes in each other, then anything is possible.
“What makes it special is that any sport can be won by skill, but rugby must be won by trust — trust in yourself, trust in your teammates, and trust in the entire rugby family will always lead to success,” she said.
Likewise, Grace Moroney of Salem, who captained Hamilton-Wenham’s championship cross-country squad and played for Elon University’s men’s club hockey team, began playing rugby with Amoskeag last spring, drawn by “the team collaboration and intensity.”
“Anyone can play, if they have the heart for it,” said Moroney, 24.
Players need to have heart and a high pain threshold. Rugby’s collisions invariably lead to injuries, which players accept as collateral damage.
“As long as you come out without any big injuries, it’s always a good hurt,” said Brighton’s Kylie Bartram, 28, a forensic chemist who plays for the Charles River Rugby Football Club’s River Rats. “There’s often a bruise picture thread in our group chats on Sunday or Monday after the games.”
While rugby’s trademark codependency creates incredibly tight bonds, those bonds can test the body’s limits.
“The older I get, the more I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck,” said Vikki Thomas-Marini, 31, a Fairhaven video producer and president of the Sirens. “But thankfully, after 13 years, I’ve only broken a finger.
“While [rugby] may look and seem violent, there really are a lot of rules that players have to follow to ensure proper tackling, that the rucks and scrums are safe, and to keep player safety at the forefront to uphold the integrity of the game,” said Thomas-Marini.
When she started playing at 19, Peterson said she felt like “I couldn’t wait until next weekend” and the next game.
“How do I feel after a game at 43? I cannot believe I’m still playing this sport, and I need to make better life decisions,” said Peterson, the mother of a teenager. “I train really hard off the field to stay injury-free and fit enough to be a good support to my teammates. I plan on playing at least until I’m 50. "
Rugby’s intensity can lead to in-game dust-ups, but those moments are usually (though not always) left on the field. “There is quite a bit of heightened emotion and adrenaline that comes with playing a game that is so physically demanding,” said Bartram. “I do think that honor and pride play the biggest role in those intense feelings. When I’m playing, I want to do my best because I know how hard every person on that field is working.”
In addition to some quirky traditions — players celebrate their first “try” by chugging a post-game beer from a used cleat — opponents will gather after the contretemps for some good-natured socializing.
“What is so fantastic about rugby and passion is that we will play 80 hard minutes against 15 other people, and then meet up for food and drinks, and give awards for best players on the other team,” said Mullen. “We even sing songs with the other teams. Rugby truly is the sport that bridges gaps between opponents.”
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.
Teams in the region
Amoskeag Rugby Football Club
Charles River Rugby Football Club/River Rats
North Shore Women’s Rugby/Monsoons
Providence Women’s Rugby/Rhode Island Rugby Football Foundation
Seacoast Women’s Rugby/Great Bay Rugby
South Shore Rugby Football Club/Sirens
New England Rugby Football Union