Women ruggers revel in playing the 'hardest sport'

When Laurel Hess was in high school, she wanted to play rugby, but her mother gave her a choice: Play sports or dance ballet. She chose ballet.

But once she got to the University of Oregon, Hess turned out for the Women’s Rugby Club.

“It’s one thing I always wanted to do but never got to do,” said Hess, a senior and co-coordinator of the team. “I like using my entire body.”

Hess is one of about 25 women on the UO squad, nicknamed the Dirty Ducks. The team, established 13 years ago, plays other collegiate squads in the Northwest and California, as well as non-collegiate club teams in a season that runs from October to April.

“We play who we can play,” she said. “It’s hard finding games.”

Rugby, developed at Rugby School in England in the 18th century, is like American football’s older, grittier brother. 

As in football, the goal of rugby is to score by getting the ball into the end zone, or by kicking it through the goal posts. (Though rugby rules require a player to touch the ball down in the end zone, a score is called a “try,” not a touchdown.) A try is worth 5 points, and a successful conversion kick is worth 2 points. A kicked goal is worth 3 points.

Unlike football, forward passing is not allowed. Players can only lateral the ball, or advance the ball by kicking it downfield.

The game is physically demanding, requiring a high level of fitness as well as toughness. Players engage in scrums, rucks and mauls, all intended to drive opponents off the ball.

“I love that it’s very dynamic and athletic,” said Julia Rettig, an exchange student from Germany. “It’s not so violent like the rumors say.

“But it's tough game. You have a lot of team spirit. You have to work with each other in order to score. That’s really nice.”

Hess said there’s a misperception about what kind of girls play the sport, one of 51 club sports played at the UO.

“We have girls on the team that fit into both cultures — being feminine and an athlete.”

After a recent game against Reed College, UO freshman Paris Hart had her right hand taped up, and said she may also have suffered a cracked rib, though she stayed in the game.

“Yeah, it happens,” she said, smiling. “Broken ribs don't mean a thing, don't mean a thing.”

“It's really hard,” said Crystal Parker, senior fullback. “It's like the hardest sport. It's really fun.”