PORTLAND — Members of the Portland Women’s Rugby Football Club started spring season practices early this year in order to prepare for their first international games.
In the Portland High School gymnasium recently, the players ran laps, plowed into tackle bags, practiced lifts and passes, and sweated through their unadorned PWRFC T-shirts. Their Irish-accented coach, Michael Quinlan, imparted words of advice at the end of practice: “We gotta have that ‘all for one’ attitude out there or we’re gonna get hockeyed.”
Twenty-two players of the PWRFC, the only woman’s club team in Maine, are traveling to Ireland this week to play two games near Abbeyfeale and a final game in Dublin before returning on March 21. Abbeyfeale is the hometown of their coach, Quinlan, a former men’s rugby player.
“We’re very excited. It’s our first time playing internationally,” PWRFC President Deirdra Wadsworth said.
Last fall, in the New England Rugby Football Union regular season, they were undefeated until the final game against Albany, where they lost. This meant that they missed the chance to go to Nationals, but they were still Division II champions – and more importantly, ready to make the trip to Ireland.
“It’s been a dream of ours to play there. We decided to springboard off our success last fall and put some numbers together to make this happen,” Wadsworth said.
One of the founding members, Sarah Harris, admitted some concern amid the excitement. “It’s going to be hard to balance the sight-seeing and socializing with the challenging games,” she said.
The Irish teams are guaranteed to be tough matches. Portland’s first game is against the Tralee Woman’s Rugby Club, considered a top team in Division II and their opponent at Dublin’s Trinity College, is one of the top ranked University teams in the Irish national women’s league. And the Irish teams have been playing games throughout the winter, since the weather in Ireland is suitable to play outside year round.
The game of rugby is taken very seriously by the PWRFC, but so is the socializing. “A lot of people joined the team for the social aspect of the sport and stayed when they fell in love with the game,” said Wadsworth. “(Quinlan) has several pubs on our must-see list and a Guinness tour.”
“We like to go out with our opponents after games,” Harris added, “but we shouldn’t go out drinking the night before.”
The first women’s rugby championship game played in the United States was won by a team from Portland in 1978. That team dispersed and interest in the sport dwindled in the 1980s.
“We’re still in contact with a few of the players from that team. They support our club in various ways,” Wadsworth said. The current team was founded in 2005. The sport is increasing in popularity in the U.S., but has been popular abroad for almost 200 years.
The PWRFC welcomes newcomers. Players don’t have to officially tryout. According to the team’s website and their Craigslist ads, a new player is initially required only to bring a mouth guard and a pair of shorts. But you also have to be willing to tackle and be tackled, or you won’t make it past a few practices.
“We all know what it feels like to be brand new because most of us have been doing it only a few years. It’s not a sport you grow up playing because it usually isn’t offered before college, although that is starting to change,” Wadsworth said.
Tara Roberts, who also co-coaches the Portland High School girl’s rugby team with teammate Jaime Madore, says that she has tried to introduce rugby at youth camps where she has taught, but it hasn’t caught on yet. The PHS Super Sows are role models for the younger generation of players. They have traveled to Nationals several times and made news last year for missing their senior prom to play an away game.
“I think that there is still a bit of a stigma against the sport here in the U.S., that it is too dangerous … especially for girls,” Roberts said.
Despite the lack of headgear and padding, rugby players are taught the safest way to fall and tackle. The usual injuries are just muscles soreness and bruises.
“I’ve been playing for almost six years. I can’t recall seeing an ambulance,” Wadsworth said.
“It’s aggressive. You can’t be shy about it,” Roberts said.
“But you can learn to be more confident. I feel that the sport has made me more confident in life as well as on the field,” Harris added.
So, what is their goal after Ireland?
“We’d like to have more of an identity beyond the actual team,” Wadsworth said. One goal is to recruit an executive board that isn’t made up of current players. Right now the members of the board who organize field rentals, dues, game dates etc, are also players on the team.
“It would be great to have our own field someday for home games and to have more senior and youth teams in the area,” Wadsworth said.
Rugby isn’t a flashy sport.
“We don’t really chant anything. We put our arms in the circle before a match and say, ‘Portland!’ and at the end of the match we chant a thank-you to the ref and our opponent,” Wadsworth said. “I guess, we do chant and sing in the bar after a game.”
And what about a mascot? “We’ve thought about it,” Harris said. “Any suggestions? PWRFC is a mouthful to say … we’ve never really settled on a name either.”