Contact defines the game of rugby.
The sport combines the tackling of American football, the constant motion of soccer and the roughness of hockey — all without any pads or helmets. But the rough-and-tumble nature of the sport isn't something that UNC women’s rugby players shy away from.
If you spend any time with the UNC women’s rugby football club, they’ll tell you the matches allow for a lot of aggressive play, but that teamwork and the bonds it fosters offset part of the game’s intensity. In fact, match secretary and UNC senior Rachel Nguyen noted that because of the nature of the game and its physical demands, rugby requires a group effort.
"Once you’re tackled, it’s not like the play’s over. Once you’re tackled, your team has to be there to protect you and the ball," Nguyen said. "That’s a big teamwork aspect. Also, the physicality of the game is very scary, so having other people there, experiencing it with you helps a lot too.”
With each team fielding 15 players, it’s crucial that the women know their teammates’ styles of play so they can work together to succeed in matches. This level of teamwork is what cultivates the close-knit community among the players, and translates off the field as well.
In rugby, "contact" doesn’t even end when the final whistle blows. One of the sport’s traditions is to socialize following the games. The social chairs from each team get in contact and plan a postgame get-together at one of the teams’ houses or a local restaurant. The same women who fought it out on the field will find themselves singing rugby songs together a few hours later. They might be tired or sore, but it’s clear why they keep coming back.
“It’s mainly to just show sportsmanship and also to get to know new people and create a friendly environment in the game of rugby,” social chairperson Rebecca Lee said.
Things are a bit different with COVID-19 restrictions in place. In a contactless world, the rugby team has been seeking out new ways to stay close, and they started even before returning to campus.
In early August, the team held a Zoom call and the underclassmen read their odes to the seniors who missed out on the end of their final spring season due to the pandemic. Typically, this tradition is carried out in person late in the spring, but it was important to the players to still be able to give the graduating seniors a proper send-off.
“We were all laughing and talking. It was just really, really great to see everyone’s faces again, ” Amy Chau, a senior at UNC and the club's president, said.
The team also felt the urge to connect to communities outside of their team. It held a virtual fundraising run to raise money for a team donation to a Black Lives Matter organization. The players got people to sponsor them with pledges for a certain amount of money per mile before they all ran their respective distances in August.
“It brought all of us together virtually because we knew we were doing it for a common goal, and not only that, it brought all of our alumni and our families together to help us throughout the whole process,” Nguyen said.
One effect of COVID-19 has been postponing recruitment. Each season the club holds a New Player Camp that's promoted heavily through FallFest. Chau said the club normally gets over 100 signatures signing up, and about 50 to 70 of those people actually attend the camp.
However, with restrictions from UNC Campus Recreation on activities this semester, the team has not been able to hold its New Player Camp. They’re hoping to hold one in the spring, but for now, they’re planning on having Zoom meetings for recruits who want to join so that they can introduce them to rugby and have them meet the team.
Unlike many other sports, only one player on the women’s rugby team had any experience playing rugby before joining the team. A’sja Abron, a sophomore who joined the team last year, described how welcoming the club was to new members and how easily she made friends on the team. Abron now holds a position on the team as a Recruitment and Retention Officer.
“Carolina rugby is this big brand and legacy that we’ve built up over the last, like, 20 years, and it’s (our) job to keep it like that,” Abron said. “And that’s why going to practices, and being energetic, being a team, building camaraderie is important. I joined the team mid-fall, and that was something that was really highlighted. I really want to be a part of keeping that legacy going and not letting this COVID bump in the road let all of the hard work diminish.”
Moving forward this year, the team is planning to use UNC’s Outdoor Education Center for socially distanced team bonding activities, such as a ropes course.
In the meantime, though, the team is doing its best to stay in touch. Players have been working out together while social distancing, and Chau said that the team GroupMe has been buzzing in the past few weeks with texts like, "Hey, we’re going out to pass today if anyone wants to join!"
Even though the sport's championships are not until the spring, the season is year-round. In the fall, teams typically compete in conference matches leading up to nationals that determine whether or not they qualify. However, due to COVID-19, no matches will be held in the fall, which leaves the UNC team, especially the seniors, hopeful for a full spring season before leaving Chapel Hill.
“It’s a huge bummer," Chau said. "I can’t speak for others, but for me, it’s gonna be hard to have other opportunities to play rugby once I graduate. I wanted this to be my best season, my last season, and to just give it my all because I don't think I’ll have many opportunities to play after this. ... Some of my best friends are on this team, and it’s like damn, I wanted to play alongside them one last time."
As fall begins, the women’s rugby team will be looking to each other for support, especially as they try to keep up the momentum and stay active. Although this year’s season may feel different, it’s clear that the team is still embracing the “full-contact” nature of the sport — even if that contact is virtual.
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