| SCRUM OF THE EARTH: Oregon Rugby Sports Union tussles with the Twin Cities Amazons in a pro rugby game. |
IMAGE: Haley Rhoades
Tucked behind a grove of trees along Interstate 205, Fuller’s Farm is little more than a football field, a grandstand a few rows deep and a gravel parking lot.
The setting would be a beautiful one for preteen boys playing Pop Warner football. But for 40 adult women playing semiprofessional rugby for Oregon Rugby Sports Union, it’s pretty bare-bones.
And the result this fall day against the Twin Cities Amazons is no brighter than the setting. The team loses 25-3 to take its record to 0-4 after going down one player because of penalty cards midway through the game.
The game ends, and 25-year-old forward Tonya Ansel heads onto the field with team chiropractor Randy Leavitt riding piggyback on her. That wouldn’t be notable, except Ansel is out for the season with a right ACL tear suffered against the Emerald City Mudhens.
Tough women are not in short supply here.
The Oregon Rugby Sports Union consists of two men’s and two women’s teams. The team playing this game in October is the top ORSU women’s squad and is in its first season with the eight-team USA Rugby’s Women’s Premier League. The league plays at the highest level below the women’s national team, which competes against other countries’’s squads. ORSU lost again to the Amazons and the D.C. Furies in the WPL playoffs Nov. 8 in San Francisco.
Last year, the team played in Division 1, a 22-team league with entries from cities such as Chicago and Seattle. Its record was seven wins and one loss.
“Games in that league were not very competitive,” says Jarred Power, a former pro rugby player from New Zealand and head coach of ORSU’s women’s team. “USA Rugby decided that with the World Cup coming up next year, they wanted to get some of the better players going against better competition.”
ORSU was selected as one of those eight teams after finishing ninth in Division I the prior year. Because it can carry only a 23-member roster to Premier League games, ORSU has a women’s B team to accommodate its roughly 40 players. The B team now competes in Division 1.
Portland is no stranger to women playing brutal sports traditionally considered masculine redoubts, such as roller derby and mixed martial arts. “We get a lot of women from the [University of Oregon’s] rugby program,” Power says, “and we get people that just show up and don’t know anything about rugby.”
Rest assured, women’s rugby isn’t like other major sports. Players are unpaid, and teams will take anyone. ORSU features teachers, lawyers and college students, with talents ranging from novice to international. Four players are members of the national team, the USA Eagles.
One of those Eagles is Beckett Royce, a 38-year-old carpenter who has played with ORSU for six years. After the October game against the Twin Cities Amazons, she’s sporting two scuffed-up, muddy knees, taped fingers on both hands, and dried blood under her right eye.
“Nothing major,” she says.
It seems major until a player from the Amazons runs to the home team’s side of the field, looking for a medic. One of the visiting players has torn open the stitches she received in her head a couple of weeks prior.
“She’s freaking out because she doesn’t want to go to the hospital and miss her flight,” the player says.
The tickets for that flight came out of her own pocket, as they do for all the WPL’s players. For every road match, whether it’s to Minneapolis or Berkeley, ORSU’s players pay their way. They consider themselves lucky to have gotten jerseys from Adidas.
The high cost of living out their dream—Ansel says half the team often doesn’t know how it will pay for its flights—forces rugby players into unique circumstances. Players will let their visiting opponents crash on their couches and eat from their kitchens. They travel together to the fields where they cut, sprain and break one another’s bones. If there’s time, they’ll share some post-game beers.
“It’s very social before and after the game,” Ansel says. Prospects for rugby’s popularity and financial support received a boost earlier this fall, when the Olympics accepted the sport starting in 2016. Although seven-on-seven Olympic rugby is a variation of the 15-on-15 matches ORSU plays, Power says the news helps rugby in America.
While acceptance into the Olympics is good news, its full meaning for ORSU depends on a player’s age. By 2016, Royce will be too old to play competitively. Ansel is young enough that the Olympics remain a realistic goal. But the Olympics is just a bonus, not a reason to play at places like Fuller’s Farm.
“You play because you love the sport,” Ansel says. “It’s hard to spend all your spare money on rugby if you don’t love to play. The Olympics are a long ways away. We just want to get people involved and interested, and keep playing.”