Rugby grows in America as DC women tackle expectations

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Washington, D.C. has another football team worth watching. However it's not playing traditional football or even soccer. Try full contact rugby.

Rugby is taking shape throughout the nation in preparation for its return to the Olympics in 2016. Rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in the United States over the past five years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

American University's rugby club team practices on a small triangular field at the corner of Van Ness Street and Nebraska Avenue during rush hour. Rugby may seem out of place so there's good reason it's catching the attention of commuters, but one aspect that causes drivers to double-take: it's a women's team.

"Rugby is a unique sport in that we are tackling other people. And people are like 'women are fragile and delicate,'" Maddie Ecker said. "I think that's like ridiculous."

Ecker is a junior playing for American University Women's Rugby Football Club. She says rugby is a difficult game but that won't stop her.

"I think that people should, in all women's sports actually, take a step back and not be shocked but be in awe that women – just as much as men; just as much as anybody – can exhort themselves passed the point that people think that they can," Ecker said.

One of the unique elements of rugby is that the playing field is equal. Men and women play by the same rules. Few sports can say the same. Even fewer in that list include contact.

Rugby is similar to soccer and football. Rugby play is continuous, similar to soccer, as the clock runs for 80 minutes split in two 40-minute periods. The soccer game clocks runs for 90-minutes in two 45-minute periods.

At its core, the goal while playing rugby is to carry the ball across the goal line for a try, the equivalent of a touchdown. The team that scored then has the opportunity for a conversion by kicking the ball through goal posts.

Does it sound like football yet?

The term touchdown actually stems from rugby where the player must touch the ball to the ground of the in-goal area to count.

In the early years of rugby, an inflated pig's bladder was used as the ball, which was later replaced with leather to retain its shape. The football design originally copied the rugby ball's shape although it has been modified since football's inception.

Youth rugby participation is increasing dramatically. Will Brewington says there are many rugby leagues in the area that are available to ease players as young as five years old in to the game.

He says most youth programs begin by offering touch leagues for the youngest children and tackle leagues for 10 or 11 year olds and older.

Brewington, a former rugby youth league coach in Maryland, played the game for years and introduced his kids to the game. He works with the Ellicott City Express youth program in Howard County, Md.

"It's one of those things where it kind of sucks you in," Brewington said. "It becomes something you really want to get involved with and stay with."

No pads, full contact. That's the rugby way. It's physical and very exhausting although, according to American University "rugger" Emem Obot, it isn't a dangerous game.

"I think it's probably safer than any other game like football even soccer," Obot said. "We take a lot of precautions and make sure to learn how to tackle correctly."

Rugby can be intimidating though. Watch New Zealand All Black's Haka introduction ritual:

Rugby can be played with teams of seven or 15 "ruggers" on the pitch.

Sevens, typically the spring sport, will be the version in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics while the game's standard is played with 15 "ruggers" in the fall.

Local rugby leagues exist for all ages throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Next time you want to toss around "the old pigskin," consider rugby and pull out the original pigskin.


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