Radcliffe Ruggers Short on Size, Long on Bruises, All-Out on Field
The game of rugby has a long and hallowed history, almost (but not quite) dating back to Norse times. Much more than just football without pads or a derivative of Australian rules football, rugby allows the most physical play to be combined with the subtlest of efforts.
But you don't have to tell Radcliffe women that--their rugby team is alive and well. Although rugby is just a club sport at the collegiate level, the Radcliffe women's rugby club does not consider itself second-tier. The players are building the club on and off the field and creating a tradition as they go along.
Only One Way To Go--Straight Up
Rugby is a rough sport, and, to be honest, Radcliffe is not the biggest team out there. But the players more than get by, using a combination of speed, strength, guile and technique. Women's rugby, which is less than 20 years old at Radcliffe, had a 6-2 record in the fall season and hopes to improve on that next year.
Although its record was not good enough to qualify for the Easterns--only two teams make it, and this year it was Dartmouth and Amherst, the only two teams that beat Radcliffe--the team members do not despair. The Black and White won the Mayor's Cup Tournament in the fall hosted by the Beantown Club team (whose players and former players coach Radcliffe),beating Amherst for sweet revenge in the finals. And the players express confidence that winning the Easterns and thus earning a trip to the Nationals (which has not yet been achieved by Radcliffe) is in the near future.
To be precise, the team's chances will improve next year because, due to the proliferation of teams in the east compared to other regions, the eastern region will probably be split in two. Since currently only the top two teams in the east go to Easterns, the Black and White's chances in 1996-97 will get a lot better. And the team looks strong for next year.
"We have a better shot next year of going to Nationals because we aren't going to lose many players," junior Sarah Schooler, who is president of the club, said.
The Nationals take place in the spring, so Radcliffe's omission leaves it to play only the Ivy League Tournament and unofficial matches in the spring season. (Its fall season is played under the auspices of the New England Rugby Football Union.) Radcliffe placed second in the Ivy League Tournament to Dartmouth last weekend.
A Club For All Seasons
As important as the results on the field are, what the players do off the field hardly takes a back seat in the proverbial car. Like all club sports, the team receives minimal funding from the athletic department. Radcliffe, the Undergraduate Council, parents, and $45 a season dues bring in most of the money. The current players are also trying to fund raise through alumni, like the men already do.
"We're really trying to build an alumni network like the men," junior back-captain (in rugby, there is one captain for the backs and one for the forwards) Patty Seo says. "The men have about 100 years on us. Valeria Scott ['92] really worked hard to start one."
The financial constraints put on the team are not terrible, but are not illusory, either. The team wanted to go to England for spring break, but could only afford a trip down to the Washington, D.C.-Virginia area.
Like the men's team, women's rugby is open to all who come out for it. The club then fields as many 15-member teams as the numbers allow, ordering the teams (A side, B side, C side, etc.) based on ability. This year, there are 35-40 regular players, meaning only a A and B side have been consistently fielded. (But tournament performances are judged by how A side does.) Last year, however, a C side regularly played.
And the social side of rugby should certainly not be underestimated. Going against the trash-talking grain that has been set by the more 'popular' sports, at the end of each fierce rugby game the opposing teams gracefully congratulate each other. Moreover, a party for all the combatants usually follows.
"Traditionally, after the game we socialize with the other team," Schooler says. "That's pretty unique to rugby."
Seo adds that regardless of what goes on between the lines, all the participants are sportsmanlike afterward.
"Some teams say we're mean on the field, and some teams say we're nice," she said, "but after the game we always have a good time with the other team."
But as enjoyable as fraternizing with opponents is, it does not compare to the friends at Harvard that the players make on the team.
"The social aspect [within the team] is definitely great," Seo says. "Of all the people I've met at Harvard, the rugby players are definitely the most diverse. People come from random places."
There are many different reasons that people came out for rugby. Most start playing as freshmen, and a lot of the members played sports in high school and at Harvard. Generally, players are attracted to rugby because, with only three two-hour practices a week, it is not as time consuming as other sports. But at the same time, the competition on the field is intense.
"I played soccer in high school," Schooler says. "There are a lot of former athletes, but it is very diverse. There are around 10 people who have played a varsity sport at Harvard. And we definitely take the game seriously on the field. We play to win."
The players do not overly stress the physical aspect of the game. Despite the fact that only mouth guards are worn in this full contact sport, they say that strategy and finesse is the most enjoyable part. This is especially true for Harvard, which is smaller than most teams it plays.
"Probably when I started, I liked the physical aspects more," junior forward-captain Liza Studen, who played field hockey in high school, says. "Now I like the strategy and offensive side more. Size-wise, we're smaller than almost every team we play. We really use our skill and speed."
Schooler mostly concurred with Studen.
"It's true that people come off the field with bruises and scratches, but I wasn't attracted to the sport because of the physical play," Schooler says. "People enjoy it for both the aggression and strategy."
Seo also emphasizes that each of the 15 players on the A side has different physical strengths and weaknesses, and that the diversity of athletes on the field is incredible.
A case in point is Seo. She stands five feet tall and played softball and tennis in high school. She says that one of the reasons she likes rugby is that it challenges her physically more than other sports she has played. To illustrate the physical dimension, she described an incident that occurred when Harvard played the Northern Virginia club team over spring break.
"After we beat Northern Virginia, which was much bigger than us," she says, "these two women, both around 6'2" 200, came up to talk to me. They thought it was the funniest thing that someone my size played. One of them was a house painter, and one worked for Arthur D. Little. They claimed I was 4'11", and asked me a lot of short questions, like if I can see the top of the fridge."
(Seo declined to ask them "tall" questions, perhaps because she already got the last laugh with a `W'.)
Radcliffe is mainly coached by Lisa Gardner and Darlene "Bubba" Connors, and part-time by Mary Dixey. Both Gardner and Connor used to play on the Beantown Club team while Dixey currently plays on that team.
Gardner receives a minimal stipend from the athletic department, and all three are paid a little bit more by the Radcliffe women's club. But their salaries are at most token, and their dedication to the Radcliffe team is unquestionable.
"We're definitely one of the bestcoached teams," Seo, who was effusive in her praise for the coaches, says. "They practically do it for free, and they are great."
And, importantly, good coaching allows Radcliffe to make up for its lack of size.
The Redcliffe connection to Beantown extends to this Saturday, when the Black and White play Beantown's B side. Beantown has won national tournaments, so this should be a real test for Radcliffe.
But whatever the outcome, women's rugby a Radcliffe will have already created momentum for future years. The appeal of the game and of the club have made it almost irresistible.
"It's really both the physical activity and the camaraderie that's attractive," Schooler says. "It's a great group on and off the field."
The men's alumni game is at 1 p.m. this Saturday, and the women will play at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. All action will be at Soldiers Field.