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Lindsay Allebach of the Doylestown RFC prepares to fend off a defender as she charges towards the goalie.

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Women’s Rugby: Coming to a Pitch Near You

Almost any human endeavor concerns itself at some point with it’s continued growth. Nations, businesses, opportunities, wealth and really, even life itself. Sport is no exception, and the sport of rugby, or rugby football, is one of the fastest growing in the world. According to recent statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, rugby is the fastest growing team sport in the United States. And as the Collegiate and High School Rugby Championships are being held in the Philadelphia area this year, June 1-3 literally some of the best in rugby is coming to a pitch near you! But upon further review, maybe some of it it is already here, especially on the women’s side.

With all of the sports we occupy ourselves with as players and fans, the most attention still focuses on the big four: baseball, football, hockey and basketball. But that was not always the case, and may not be in the future. Youth participation in football and baseball/softball, and even basketball is actually declining, And now there are currently over two million kids playing organized rugby in the US. This pipeline will not only feed and grow the existing high school and college game with players, but also develop future fan bases.

On the women’s side of the sport, rugby along with ice hockey. gives female players a long overdue opportunity to compete in a major contact sport. There is of course, some contact in all almost all sports. Even Dancing With the Stars is a contact sport, to paraphrase none other than Vince Lombardi. But contact is such a key ingredient in rugby that it, like ice hockey, stops just short of being a collision sport like football. Usually, but not always. In fact, several players in the National Women’s Hockey League compete in rugby as well in the off season. NWHL players Ashley Johnston of the New York Riveters, and Sophia Agostinelli and Elena Orlando of the Connecticut Whale are all ruggers as well, embracing both the unique but complementary skill sets and physicality of both sports.

And they are not alone, as is is not just women like these professional caliber athletes who embrace the sport. There are thousands of others who fuel a huge player pool which exists in addition to the more often acknowledged Olympic, NCAA college, and high school programs. Rugby’s great strength and appeal is in the grassroots nature of the women’s sport. Women’s rugby is inclusive, tough,inviting and invigorating as well as challenging and competitive.

Many women’s leagues and clubs are aligned with USA Rugby, the governing body of the sport in our country. Teams and leagues are divided nationwide into Geographical and Territorial Unions, to facilitate tournaments and development of the sport and it’s athletes. Within that there is a three tier division set up among the Unions. The clubs are populated by a wide range of players, from off season professional athletes as noted, to weekend warriors. Women’s rugby is a popular sport at the USA Rugby Division II level in our area, and you can catch a game most fall or spring weekends from the Philadelphia area to metropolitan New York. Southeastern Pennsylvania is a hotbed for the sport, with strong programs at several local clubs.

In fact, Angela Johnson of the local Phoenixville White Horse Rugby Football Club is the Women’s Competition Coordinator of the Collegiate Rugby Championship. In Angela’s Mid-Atlantic Region, the Club Championship was recently contested between the Harrisburg Harlots and the Doylestown Dragons women’s squads. Harrisburg prevailed 20-17. Members of both the Harrisburg and Doylestown squads talked about their experiences and gave their insights into what rugby means to them. Annetta Haversack Comstock of the local Harrisburg Rigby Football Club (who have made it to the quarter finals three years straight) explained her journey in rugby this way. “When I first saw a rugby match, I was in high school. There was a men’s team in my hometown of Clearfield, Pennsylvania. I saw the athletic side and I wanted to be able to run and tackle people.”

She was ginally able to get her minutes on the pitch as she continued her education. Annetta revealed “When I made it to college in 1994, I saw a poster for women’s rugby. There was no doubt my mind that I was going to that meeting. I went to Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, and that’s where my rugby career started. Back then we didn’t have a lot of other teams to play or elaborate playoffs. We lost every match but we always came back. The mindsets and the camaraderie of the sport kept everybody together as one, and we were always there for each other. Even if circumstances came up that someone couldn’t play rugby that semester, they were still part of the team.”

Annetta next touched on a unique aspect of play in the Rugby Unions. “This was also the first time that I ever socialized with a team that I played against. This has been the absolute best thing about rugby for me, I have friends from all over the world because of rugby. When I travel I look for local rugby teams, I know that if I reach out to them I will make new friends and have the best host in town.”

She continued “Over the years I had to take a break from playing so I coached. I couldn’t imagine not having any aspect of rugby in my life. Practice and matches are what I do, and schedule everything else around it. I look forward to seeing my teammates and coaches. We all continue to grow and learn together each time we set foot on the pitch”

Annetta concluded “My motivation to keep going is how I have seen my own kids grow and learn by being part of rugby. They go to practice and matches with me, they workout with me on off days, they have made best friends, and they have so many Moms they will never get away with anything! We are a rugby family! That T-shirt that says “Yes, Mom. I still play rugby“ was made for me!”

Gabrielle Hondros and Lindsay Allebach, coach and player respectively, of the Doylestown Rugby Football Club are both passionate about their sport. Gabrielle related.”The growth of women’s rugby on all levels is just phenomenal. I believe the growth has to do with girls finally finding a sport where there is just as much contact as the men’s version”

Gabrielle was also someone who first discovered rugby as a collegiate at Eest Chester University. . “Rugby was my saving grace in college. I can be very shy and find it hard to make friends but as soon as I joined the team I was treated like family. It is such an inclusive sport. The respect among players, officials, coaches, and fans is the best of any sport I have ever participated in. My only complaint is that I wish I would have found it sooner!” A big part of the agenda of rugby clubs focuses on the introduction and development of young rugby players through youth outreach, clinics and leagues. This is what is fueling the growth of the sport, with more women joining the collegiate ranks as experienced players.

Lindsay Allebach’s participation in rugby came even later, following her graduation from West Chester. She touched on some of the sense of community and culture in rugby with her remarks.
“To me, rugby is one big family. Ever since I started playing a few years ago, I’ve become involved in this wonderful community. From the flag rugby, high school teams, the women’s and men’s teams, to the old boys and old girls teams, everyone does whatever they can to help teach, coach, and support one another. I have this wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the place and from all walks of life. I’ve made so many new friends and have experienced so many things Ive never dreamed of. All just from playing and being involved in rugby.” She thinks that a sense of family is what is fueling the growth of her sport. “It’s growing and becoming more popular because we are all one big rugby family. We all respect each other, and just want to have fun doing something we love. It’s a wonderful amazing thing!” And as you get to know them, wonderful and amazing are apt adjectives for the players.

As the Philadelphia area prepares to welcome the Collegiate Rugby Championships, they are also revealing something to the rugby world. The region region as a burgeoning wellspring of rugby as well.

Wayne Heinze
Wayne Heinze

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