Rugby has not quite found its footing in a country that’s still American football-centric.
But the UNC women’s rugby club has built success and interest in the sport through its community over the last few years, competing in 15- and seven-player competitions throughout the Southeast. And its hard work has paid off — the team won the Cape Fear 7s tournament in Wilmington last month.
“I’m someone who's always loved sports," Madison Carney, the recruitment and retention chairperson for the 2020-21 season, said. "And I've never really had a large community of women that I've played sports with. People join it for a plethora of reasons, but I think the community is the coolest part.”
The hiatus from competition due to COVID-19 was difficult for athletes around the world, and members of the rugby club are no exception. A fixed environment to meet people and release any pent-up energy was something players of every skill level missed.
“During COVID, people just wanted to get out and about, and we were like, ‘This is a great way for you to just get moving outdoors, meet some new people,’” Amy Chau, who served as president of the club last school year, said.
Chau said it was an especially great way for first-years to meet people, and the club did a lot of recruiting before the University shut down last fall.
While everyone had to grapple with the risks of interacting with anyone outside of their homes during COVID-19, the women’s club rugby team also had to field and develop a competitive team for a sport that some players knew very little about before joining.
Coaches were not allowed on campus due to the virus, so Chau became the de facto coach as president — a role she had never been in. The situation would have been difficult to navigate even if players did not have to socially distance themselves.
“I had been a player my whole life and I've never been able to coach rugby, so it's just like we were trying to find the proper progression for these new players who have never played rugby,” Chau said. “I just really wanted to go out there and tackle someone, essentially, but we couldn't because of COVID.”
The majority of players had never played a full-contact sport before their time on the club. Rugby is one of very few sports with the same contact rules for men and women, which is a point of pride for those on the team.
“Everybody’s a rugby body,” said Sophia Sherman, the incoming recruitment and retention chairperson and a former soccer and lacrosse player. “I’ve always liked physically aggressive sports, but women's lacrosse is nothing compared to men's lacrosse. I was excited to get into the physical aspects of being able to be in full contact.”
But the opportunity to compete with like-minded women has been as much of a draw for those on the team as the desire to tackle people.
“It was a really nice kind of change-up to be able to meet other athletically inclined women who are supporting other athletically inclined women,” Carney said. “And that's the kind of a community that I feel like a lot of times is difficult to find as a woman.”
After enduring a confusing spring 2021 season with only one exhibition match and no competitive games, the hard work paid off. The team played in summer tournaments, winning the renowned Cape Fear 7s tournament in Wilmington on June 27, beating out 19 other teams in the 7 vs. 7 competition.
As opposed to the grueling, slower pace of 15 vs. 15 play, 7 vs. 7 rugby demands tireless conditioning, the kind that the team primarily focused on during the school year. With seven-minute halves played on the same field used for 15 vs. 15 matches, what's referred to as “sevens” looks completely different from what most people associate with the sport. Individual play and accountability take on new importance, making this victory a true testament to the dedication of the squad year-round.
“With sevens, it's just faster. Everything is sprinting and the training is a lot different,” Chau said. “In 15s, it's like tackle after tackle after tackle. In sevens, there’s a lot more breakaways, there's a lot more flow in play, and you're just running through a lot more gaps.”
The club had not competed in many sevens tournaments prior to Cape Fear 7s, but it intends to develop that side of its squad going forward. The team members said the victory not only gives them the confidence to win future tournaments but also instills belief as they resume 15s in the coming school year.
While COVID-19 prevented women’s club rugby from developing consistency, the community that the group has developed bodes well as they begin this next chapter on the other side of the pandemic.