For 17-year-old Lily Stewart, her first practice session with the Essex County Bulldogs, a 19-and-under girls’ rugby squad playing its inaugural season, was an eye-opening experience.
“I realized that everyone in rugby, no matter your build, is useful. There’s a place for everybody,” said Stewart, a junior at Ipswich High and a champion sled-dog racer in the winter months.
“It really doesn’t matter what you look like, because everyone has a purpose on the team. That’s really cool.”
Teammate Adai Clifford, an eighth-grader at the Amesbury Middle School, added: “They accept you for who you are. You don’t have to be someone that the sport says you have to be.”
The catalyst behind the first-year program is the Ipswich daughter-father duo of Zoe and Michael Duffield.
Two years ago, Zoe decided she wanted to play rugby, and the pair settled on the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, a boys’ squad based in Canton.
“It really is a sport for anyone,” said Zoe, 14. “All other sports say that, but with rugby, you really can be any shape or size to play. There’s a position for you on the team. And it’s a great team-bonding experience.”
However, the location was less than ideal, and the Duffields sought an alternative closer to home. One option was to start an all-girls’ team.
“Rugby is a great sport for girls,” said Michael Duffield. “It gives them a rare chance to be physically unrestrained and courageous.
“It’s unlike any other game available to girls,” he said.
“The closest might be hockey. The reason is rugby accepts any kind of body shape. A heavy girl can be a forward. She’s not instantly excluded from the sport. That means that it’s very inclusive.”
Zoe Duffield hung posters at Ipswich High School and located a number of like-minded girls, including Stewart and Kia Castonguay, a 15-year-old freshman who also plays hockey. Both girls overcame an initial reluctance over rugby’s rough-and-tumble reputation.
“When I first started, I thought about the tackling, and that scared me a lot,” said Stewart, who weighs only 115 pounds. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get so hurt.’ But, honestly, I haven’t gotten hurt at all. A big part of it is, when you tackle someone, you wrap your arms around them and squeeze them. It’s almost comfortable.”
Castonguay was taken aback by the lack of protective gear.
“You’d think, as a contact sport, you’d want to wear padding to protect you, but you don’t wear anything but a mouth guard,” she said. “But I like the competitiveness of rugby, and I really like the contact. I’ve always liked playing contact sports, and that’s why I got into hockey. I like the tackling.”
David Hill, treasurer of the successful Essex County Youth Rugby (ECYR) program — the U-19 boys are reigning state champs — provided the organizational structure, and the Duffields ran with the idea of a girls’ team.
“Not all male rugby teams would be quite so gung-ho to help the girls,” Michael Duffield said of the ECYR coaches.
“But those guys said, ‘We want it to happen.’ ”
Another critical component: finding a coach. Duffield initially filled that role, but this spring, the team recruited Morgan Roberts, a Maine native living in Stoneham who plays for the North Shore Rugby Football Club.
“I’m so amazed by my team already, and I’ve only been working with them for a couple months,” said the 31-year-old Roberts. “They’re just so eager to learn. They’re funny. Some are 14, some are seniors. And they’re already starting to bond and find their places on the team.”
Based in West Newbury, with practices at the Pipestave Hill fields or the Amesbury Sports Park, the team has attracted players from throughout Essex County, including Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Danvers, Andover, and Amesbury.
“I really like getting to meet girls from all over the place,” said Stewart. “It’s nice to get outside the Ipswich bubble, and meet girls who share the same feelings you do about sports.”
Roberts said: “It’s good for them to get to know people from different schools, and understand that there’s a bigger community outside of just the town or the high school.
“We’re a county team. So the girls have to communicate. It’s instantly forcing them to work together and understand the things behind the team other than having a jersey handed to you and getting on the bus.”
The Bulldogs U-19 squad now has a core group of 16 girls, which is barely enough to field a team of 15 required for a traditional rugby match. “The one difficulty we’ve bumped into is just getting the word out there,” said Michael Duffield. “But once we let girls know it exists, the interest is really high.”
Given the enthusiasm of the current players, it’s only a matter of time before the program grows.
“Everyone is a good sport,” said Phoebe MacCurrach, a senior at Hamilton-Wenham Regional who car pools with classmate Sophia Zizza.
“It’s not like other sports, where everyone is aggressive and rude off the field. Yes, people are aggressive on the field, but when you get off the field, we’ll have a barbecue together afterward.”
Duffield added: “There’s certainly room for an individual star, but it’s really a sport that requires team play. . . .
“In the rugby games, when someone knocks you down and the whistle blows, they help you back up,” he said. “That’s rugby’s reputation.”
The club’s schedule is evolving, but this spring, the Bulldogs will play squads from Lincoln-Sudbury, Algonquin Regional, Newton South, and the Berkshire Rugby Football Club in Pittsfield.
The players are “building their team,” said Roberts.
“Michael and I are there to help them, but this is their team. They have ownership of this. And I think they’re actually falling in love with it.”
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.