What Is It About Women’s Rugby?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Women’s Rugby has 18 new players this season–a number that more than exceeds expectations. That means 60 percent of the players are fresh faces.

If you’ve never met a player from women’s rugby, it would be impossible to comprehend the energy that defines Swarthmore’s tenacious team. But that energy helps explain the recruitment success.

Several other theories exist to explain the sport’s growing presence on campus. Heavy recruiting through multiple media and increased campus visibility played a role. Joan O’Bryan ’13, back captain, explained, “We are known on campus as a really empowered and bad-ass group of girls, and the team has been involved in a bunch of other campus events in a really positive way.”

Another theory is that misconceptions of the sport have waned with time and more see the sport for its strengths. “People are slowly realizing that rugby isn’t this scary, taboo thing–it’s a fun sport that anyone can do,” said Sara Fitzpatrick ’14, a first-time Swarthmore athlete.

There may not be one answer to why more players are joining this year than in the past, but the important part, Anna Gonzalez ’16 said, is that “We all just saw the light of rugby at the same time.” Some players join on a whim, to try something new, or for the sport itself—but once on the team, they discover a family within the Swarthmore community. They discover pride in commitment to a sport that is athletically and physically demanding, while tackling gender stereotypes and double standards.

Rugby is a physically intense, highly active contact sport that requires constant communication, support, and tenacity. The team practices three times a week and has a game each Saturday, so even for new players, the learning curve is steep. Tackling is, of course, a big part of each game—and a big source of stigma for women’s rugby. But rugby players love their sport for the same reason others fear it. At a recent game, a freshman player emerged from a maul (a group free-for-all tackle) with a minor injury and was assisted off the field. The first words out of her mouth were, “that was so fun.”

That sentiment was echoed in the avidly attentive players watching from the sidelines as their teammates battled on the field. “It’s a lot of fun. You are basically just running around and tackling people,” one player said of why she loved the sport. When, later in the game, a rookie player individually tackled a member of the opposing team, an older teammate told her, “you made it gorgeous.”

For Anna Gonzalez, that enthusiasm for hardcore athleticism is a big part of what sets rugby apart. She said, “You have to be very mentally and physically tough to play well and play smart rugby. I find rugby a very welcome challenge every day–you have to learn a lot of rules, techniques, and also perform at your highest level of fitness and stay fit so that you’re less susceptible to getting injured. During games especially, since we’re one of the smaller teams in the league, we also have to be brave enough to run directly towards girls with fifty pounds’ advantage on us, with the full knowledge that we’re about to hit the ground.”

Sara Fitzpatrick shared her reasons for joining the team, emphasizing the environment that the team provides for athletes; “I’m highly competitive and wanted to try a sport but was embarrassed about starting with no prior experience, especially as an upperclasswoman. I always worried that it was too late to start. The rugby team is so welcoming of women regardless of body type, experience or previous athleticism, and I really responded to that.”

Fitzpatrick also described the pride that comes from playing a different kind of women’s sport. “When there are so many voices telling women that we have to be helpless, running out and tackling someone is really empowering. I tell people I’ve started playing rugby and they’re shocked–just today a friend told me I’m too small and the other girls will break me. It feels so good to prove them wrong.”

Co-president Trish Zarate ’14 spoke of the impact that the sport’s intensity has on the team spirit. “Personally, rugby has helped foster my tenacity more than any other team I’ve played with and I think it’s because everyone is fighting for every yard with everything they’ve got. With your team physically battling it out right beside you, you get inspired to do your best.”

Joan O’Bryan further explained what the rugby mentality gives the players. “Not to be too gung-ho, but it’s a little like war. When you’re on that field, it’s a battle. And rugby is a very in-your-face contact sport. It’s also a team sport to the extreme. Just check out a picture of a maul to see how close we get to each other (SO CLOSE). You can’t go through that kind of experience together and not feel really bonded afterwards. After all, you’re in the trenches together.”

And the bonding continues well off the field. In addition to practices and Saturday games (which take place in Cunningham Field), women’s rugby has post-game socials on Saturdays with the teams they play and regularly organizes Pub Nite festivities.

Zarate said that on women’s rugby, “you learn to not just be a part of a team but more importantly how to be there for your teammates, how to commit to them, and how to create this reciprocal relationship of respect, trust, and dependence.”

All photos courtesy of Gabe Benjamin ’15.


  1. After years of struggling to field any team at all–forfeiting matches due to lack of players and borrowing people from the other team–it’s amazing to hear so many Swattie women are getting into the sport.

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