Macalester women's rugby: all about playing it safe?

By Will Kennedy

People always say that appearances can be deceiving, but according to women’s rugby social captain Hannah Kinney ’10, this week’s culture sport proves it. “Despite all the tackling and trying to beat the s$#t out of each other,” she said, “[Rugby] is really all about safety.”As this contradicted everything anecdotal evidence and those delightful Foster’s ‘Australian-for-beer’ commercials had taught me about the sport, I set out to find just how true that statement was and what else exactly I didn’t know about rugby.

As it turns out, I had everything to learn, or at least enough to write the next great American short story collection. The rule book for rugby contains 35,000 words, many designed to protect the unpadded players mobbing each other on the field. Couple that with hours spent practicing the right way to tackle and the right way to fall and you have a sport dedicated to safety, Kinney says, but we will return to that later.

First I wanted to get a grip on just how rugby works and Kinney and her fellow captain Molly McLane ’09 were kind enough to sit down with me and explain how the game works, as well as the particulars of Macalester Women’s rugby. On the surface the game seems relatively simple. A team is divided into seven backs and eight forwards, McLane said. “Forwards do a lot of pushing and backs do a lot of running.”

From there, for your average American, rugby gets strange. It’s weirdly similar to its predecessor soccer and its successor American football, but not similar enough so that someone familiar with either game would intuitively know what to do on the field.

The women’s team plays the brand of the sport which differentiated itself in the late 1800s (90 years after a young boy at the Rugby school in England cheated at a no-hands soccer-like game and was gang tackled by his peers) when those who thought that financially compensating people for playing compromised the purity of the game and formed Rugby Union.

Played with 15 women or men to a side and an oval ball, the object of the game is to score the most points at the end of the two 40-minute halves. A team does this by advancing the ball to the opponent’s goal zone without any forward passes and touching the ball down for a “try,” worth five points. Teams can also score with one of three kicks (a conversion after a try worth two points, a penalty kick after an infraction, or a drop kick during live play each worth three) performed by the forward known as the hooker.

Meanwhile, the opposing team desperately tries to tackle the offensive players and here the game gets technical. In rugby union, after a tackle, the fallen player releases the ball and members of both teams challenge for possession by shoving one another in what is known as a ruck. If a tackle halts the progress of the ball carrier but does not bring them to the ground, then sides attempt to push the hapless player toward the opposing goal zone in the process appropriately termed “mauling.”

Penalties can result in free kicks or a “scrum,” during which a team’s eight forwards form an interlocking wall of limbs and face their rival counterparts. The ball is placed in between the parallel squads and the teams push against one another in a battle for position while the hooker attempts to guide the ball behind her line with her foot in order to gain possession.

Several other formations and rules dictate game play and Kinney and McLane admit that, despite a solid grounding in the general aspects of the sport, they have their moments of confusion out on the field, especially when it comes to penalties. “Basically we don’t really know [all of the rules],” Kinney said. “The ref tells us.”

A team composed primarily of inexperienced players, whose careers began after the Macalester Org. fair, the nuances of competition are hazy for many players, but competition is not the focus of the team. As the existence of a social captain implies, post-game and after practice activities hold a certain importance for the squad.

Often, rugby activities are a combination of both elements, and social gatherings with other teams after a competition form a significant part of rugby culture. “Rugby is about playing until you’re beat up and then socializing with the other team,” McLane said.

Kinney echoed her teammate and summed up the rugby lifestyle more directly. “Play till pain and then drink beer to make it better,” she said.

Along with the athletic and social components of their lifestyle, the team regards itself with a mixture of self-mockery and pride. Reforming in 2004 after a several year hiatus, Macalester women’s rugby is far from a club-sport powerhouse, but the team managed to challenge St. Olaf this year, losing by less than 10 points.

“We were in the low 30s, they were high 30s,” McLane recalled. “We actually looked like we were playing rugby.”

Kinney broke the situation down for me a little further.

“That’s close for any game and ridiculously close for us because we suck,” she said candidly. “We don’t usually score.”

Rugby isn’t a joke for the women on the team, however, as the obscurity of the sport in the U.S. combined with its complete disavowal of feminine stereotypes make it a strong point of pride. Kinney holds the sport over many popular American ones because rubgy has few stoppages of play and minimal time to rest.

“After a full game,” McLane agreed, “you feel like you actually did something.”

Kinney added, “you get cool bruises.”

Unfortunately, the team has suffered more than just bruises recently. After leg injuries and a brutal ear-tearing ailed the team last year, several concussions and shoulder injuries dropped the team’s early roster of 20-plus women below the 15-player minimum required to field a team this season.

For an allegedly safe sport, rugby seems to have a high casualty rate. Kinney explains that while the referee is on the field primarily to protect players and each woman has learned exactly how to tackle-cheek to cheek and not like a waltz-by getting low and guiding their head to fall on their opponents body instead of hitting the ground, accidents happen, fairly often.

Rugby then may be all about safety, but ultimately it really isn’t that safe. However, McLane said, perhaps that’s not the most important thing to consider. “I guess it would be safer to stay at home,” she reflected, “but, whatever, Rugby is more fun.