(Host) In Vermont as well as across the country, the sport of rugby has tended to attract more men than women. So building and sustaining a women’s rugby team in a relatively small city like Burlington has been challenging, though successful because now, after years of ups and downs, the women of the Burlington Rugby Football Club are going to nationals. The women will play in the 2011 Division II tournament in Virginia Beach Friday.
Earlier this week, VPR’s Kirk Carapezza caught up with members of the club at Jaycee Park in South Burlington to learn how they’re preparing for their highest level of competition yet.
(Carapezza) It’s the evening of her team’s last practice before the nationals, and Coach Tiffany Renaud is having her players review the fundamentals of the game.
(Renaud) "You want to be able to explode. So you’re bent at the knee a bit, right? And when you explode: Boom!"
(Carapezza) Under the lights, her players lock arms, smash heads, and run this drill designed to prepare them for a scrum. For the uninitiated, a scrum is a play that restarts the game after an infraction, like when the ball is knocked or passed forward.
Created in England, rugby is popular across the globe. It’s a bruising, contact sport, but players don’t wear pads; they don’t wear helmets. Just a pair of cleats, a mouth guard, and a scrum cap.
(Renaud) "Awesome! Awesome! Good work!
(Carapezza) Coach Renaud stands on the sideline, a sturdy 5-foot-2.
(Renaud) "On a good day!"
(Carapezza) At 47-years-old, she’s been playing rugby since she was 19. She honed her skills at the University of Michigan, and she says many women are drawn to rugby for the camaraderie.
(Renaud) "I love the contact. I love being able to dig as deeply physically as possible and still be able to walk off the field."
(Carapezza) On the field, Renaud says Burlington’s club welcomes women of all sizes – and of all ages. But she says playing against bigger cities like Boston and Hartford, CT, has made it difficult to maintain a competitive team from a smaller pool of talent.
(Renaud) "When we get players who’ve played in college they come out and they’re way ahead of the game. Some women come out and they’ve never even seen rugby, or tackled anyone, so we’ve got to teach them from scratch. And they may be 35-years-old, but they’ve got that drive. They want to be part of this team."
(Carapezza) The Burlington squad has been practicing twice a week since mid-August, and it’s clear many of these women have also been hitting the weights.
(Royer) "Rugby has been the first sport where I felt like I can contribute to a team and really embrace the sport."
(Carapezza) At 5-foot-6, Liz Royer plays in the back line. She’s still recovering from a case of hypothermia after an especially cold and wet playoff game two weeks ago. She’s also postponed her knee surgery that was scheduled for Monday so that she can play in the national tournament.
(Carapezza) As she and her teammates practice an offensive play, Royer says it’s all worth it. When the team formed 14 years ago, it was difficult to even get enough players to practice. Five years ago, the team nearly folded.
(Royer) "That was a down period. We’d show up at practice and there might be five people here and it was like, ‘Should we go for a burger or should we actually have practice tonight?’ So it’s great to have 15 to 20 people here every night at practice."
(Carapezza) Rugby rewards calmness and fearlessness, speed and patience. Chris Davis was a founding member of the men’s team in Burlington more than 35 years ago. He’s seen the women’s team use patience as it waned and then rebounded in the last few years.
(Davis) "There were always a few naysayers but I think, by and large, there was a lot of support. And there’s always been coordination between the two teams. Sometimes the men have been stronger than the women, sometimes the women stronger than the men. Even though both are moving on to the playoffs, the women are moving on to the nationals so this is their year hopefully."
(Host) The Burlington women are one of the top eight teams in the country going to nationals, and near the end their last practice Coach Renaud says her team has earned it.
(Renaud) "Every player out there has dedicated so much time and effort this season and last season and off season, and we support each other."
(Carapezza) And whether or not the team wins the championship on the field this weekend in Virginia Beach, Renaud says the lasting victories will be off the field – the bonds they’ve formed and the memories they’ve made.
For VPR News, I’m Kirk Carapezza.
Note: The women’s Burlington Rugby Football Club will face off against Albuquerque Friday, November 11, at 11 am. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 11-11-11 at 11 o’clock.