Most sports junkies have seen, in person or televised, the sport of rugby, a rugged sport that began overseas but later became part of the American sports landscape.
Women’s rugby, like men’s rugby, is a full contact team sport that also began overseas and crossed the Atlantic, with two former Halifax County High School and current Longwood University athletes, Jeri Lynn Tyler and Sydney Wilborn recently embracing the sport in joining the women’s rugby club at Longwood.
Women’s rugby is similar to men’s rugby in that both are full contact team sports based on running with the ball in hand.
Both sports are played with the same equipment and same-sized pitch, or field, and Tyler and Wilborn quickly realized the differences between rugby and softball, their sport of choice in high school.
Both began playing rugby at Longwood in March 2020, shortly before COVID-19 protocols shut the sport down, and following spring practice, the team is expected to hit the pitch again this fall.
“I was just finishing my first year right before COVID hit,” said Tyler, who, along with Wilborn returned to Longwood during the fall of 2020.
Wilborn, along with Tyler, wanted to try something different having primarily played softball most of their athletic lives.
“I wanted to try something different having played softball in high school,” explained Wilborn.
“It’s just something different. Jeri talked about how different it was from high school sports, and I love it.
“The best part is meeting new friends and new teammates. Once you try something new, you have a better understanding of what it takes to compete in sports.”
The ball is tossed laterally or behind a player in rugby, and Tyler and Wilborn had to made adjustments once they started playing rugby.
“We went from throwing the ball forward all of our lives to throwing the ball backwards,” noted Tyler, adding that rugby is normally played with seven players for each side in the fall and 15 per side in the spring.
“More girls come out for the sport in spring,” explained Tyler, who’d never seen rugby before.
“I joined it completely blind. One of my professors is the rugby coach so he convinced me to join, and I told Sydney about it.”
“When I got there, he asked if I was ready to get tackled, and I said I didn’t know what he was talking about, and at our first practice I just got totally annihilated by another girl when I got tackled,” Tyler added.
Wiborn had heard that rugby was a physical sport, and she noted that tackling was something she had no experience with.
“It has all kinds of different aspects to it,” explained Wilborn. You throw the ball behind you, run as fast as you can and prepare to be tackled.
“The mechanics are different, and it’s hard to learn different mechanics from a sport you played all of your life.”
Wilborn is a “scrummy,” one of the mass of players from both sides colliding in a “scrum” to gain possession of the ball.
“We’re the main people on offense, you go get the ball and determine to go left or right,” she said. “You’re in charge of the offense with the ball.”
A scrummy by definition can be compared to a quarterback on a football team, while Tyler is a “wing” and plays on the outside of the formation.
“In rugby you form a diagonal line. “I’m one of people on outside of the line, and I have to hear from Sydney where to run,” explained Tyler.
“As soon as you’re tackled the scrummy has to get to your position and form the line in three seconds.”
“You can’t wear pads or anything but what you may not know about rugby is everybody knows how to tackle,” added Tyler.
“It’s very strategic in how you tackle somebody. When I first joined my whole practice was getting tackled and learning how to tackle.
“Rugby is really a very strategic game and not all about tackling, and I never realized it until we scrimmaged.”
Players have mouthguards and some choose to wear goggles to protect their eyes, according to Wilborn, and players wear cleats much as many athletes such as football players.
Players without the ball are allowed to break through the line while players on offense lateral the ball down the line, sometimes resulting in a breakaway, Tyler noted.
“I learned that on defense when they passed to the next player, I’d run between them and steal the ball, and usually on a breakaway it’s just me,” Tyler explained.
“I’m always thinking ahead of possible scenarios,” noted Wilborn, who played short stop and second base in high school.
Tyler was an outfielder to take advantage of her speed.
Both Tyler’s and Wilborn’s parents were a bit apprehensive when they found out their daughters planned to play rugby, especially one that involved a lot of tackling and physical play.
Brian and Vicky Tyler, as well as Chris and Sandy Wilborn were cautious at first but once they heard how much their daughters liked the sport, as well as the measures taken to protect the athletes, they supported them.
“Once you explain the sport, things get better, and they get a better understanding of it,” noted Wilborn.
Tyler’s parents have become more accustomed to the physical nature of rugby, and they tell her about the rugby highlights they’ve seen on television sports programming.
Wilborn, like Tyler, has grown to like the sport.
“The physical side of rugby is new, but I enjoy the overall experience,” Wilborn concluded.