Guts & Gooseshit

Witnessing womens rugby with the Eugene Reign

*Everybody thinks we should have moustaches and hairy arses, but in fact you could put us all on the cover of Vogue. — Helen Kirk, on womens rugby teams

The Collision, as I’ve come to call it, occurred at high noon on a cold, gray Sunday, Feb. 26, at Riverfront Field. It was vicious. We could all see it coming seconds before it happened, but even so, none of the spectators had time to brace for the sheer anatomical violence of the impact. I myself witnessed it from a good 50 yards away, and that wasnt nearly far enough ‹ the sound still haunts me. If you shot two sides of beef point-blank at high velocity from opposing meat cannons, you might be able to replicate the sickening thud of those two women coming together at full tilt.

After it was over, only one stood up. The other player lay there, motionless, silent, in a fetal curl, her legs oddly twisted ‹ until at last you heard a wail of pain rise into the chilly air.

I offer this not as an example of the brutality of womens rugby — though brutal it can be — but rather as a testimony to the ferocious, frenetic, downright feral quality of the game itself, which is as physically grueling as wrestling, as endurance-testing as soccer, as punishing as football and as hit-happy as hockey.

Most of all, though, rugby is non-stop action. Its a game of bottlenecks and bursts ‹ of growling, grunting Greco-Roman aggression marked by flashes of fluid speed and grace. One-on-one tackling, like the jackknife blows sending some poor player whap-flat on her back, can be as swift and startling as a gunshot. At other times, the game becomes an undistinguishable orgy of arms and legs, as scrumming players ‹ tangled and livid like some David Cronenberg flesh-machine — bulldoze each other over the loose ball.

All this, and the only protective equipment most rugby players use is a mouth guard ‹ and even that isnt mandatory. A few players, one or two on each team, wear whats called a scrumcap, which is a thin, pithy helmet that looks like the old-school leatherhead on the Heisman trophy. Thats it for armor.

Ive heard tell that, compared to mens rugby, womens rugby is more ballistic, more fierce and gutsy. So, for any of you dudes out there still spellbound by the archaic notion that women represent the øfairer” or øweaker” sex, I submit the Eugene Reign: a tribal band of serious bruisers. Try telling these women they throw like girls. Try telling them they should stick to tennis and baking and babymaking, and leave the rough stuff for men.

Youll be on the ground, knocked senseless, before you can yell “scrum.”

The Ground Rules

When youre on the ground, youre part of the ground,” explains Brittany Stepnioski, president of the Eugene Reign, a womens rugby squad that just last year joined the Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union. Stepnioski ‹ a perfectly amiable person over coffee who, as I learned that Sunday, is a total monster on the field ‹ is explaining the game to me, and so I write that down in my notebook: øWhen youre on the ground, youre part of the ground.” I thought it was a cool quote, in an Old Testament sort of way. You know, ashes to ashes and all that.

Honestly, though, everything Stepnioski told me during our interview prior to the Feb. 26 game ‹ it didnt really register. I asked questions and nodded and scribbled stuff down, but I didnt get it. Like the idea of New York City, which looms as a gothic myth in the minds of the uninitiated, you simply have to see rugby to believe it. Standing on the sidelines as the Reign played a øfriendly” non-league match against the UO Ducks, the sport proved way more impressive and exciting and violent than I ever imagined. It might just be my new favorite sport.

Listen: That øpart of the ground” quote aint no metaphor; its literal as a slap to the face. Lying tackled with the ball on a field of thawing mud, ripped turf and goose shit ‹ and with a dozen-plus opposing players wanting what youve got like a birthday wants a cake ‹ there is nothing to protect you from getting a wicked face full of cleats.

Nothing, that is, but your wits.

Stepnioski, who grew up in Portland, first started playing rugby as a student at Seattle Pacific University, where she spent two years getting familiar with the basics of the game. She also played two years for the UO Ducks, and after graduation she took a year off ‹ partly to secure a health insurance policy. With that in place, she joined the Reign. Flashing a sly smile, Stepnioski describes herself as a ørugby whore,” meaning shell sometimes drive up to a Portland match just to offer herself as an extra for another team.

The most appealing thing about rugby is øthe roughness of it,” Stepnioski says. øIts so hardcore. Its non-stop.” She says that, for her, øthe happiest place on earth” is on the pitch (the rugby field), where play øis exhilarating, exhausting and bliss all at once.”

Beyond this rough-and-tumble aspect, the game is just flat-out physically demanding, requiring a rare combination of strength, stamina and speed. øOn a pro level, rugby players are the most fit, toned athletes,” Stepnioski says.

On the flip side, she points to the seemingly oxymoronic traditions of sportsmanship and fair play that inform the sport. For instance, tackling is a strictly formalized activity, a singular event where øyou are responsible for the person youre tackling,” she says, including that players safety. øYou cant just chest bump them down,” a no-no known as dump tackling. øI still talk crap to the Budd Bay girl that dump tackled me in my first game with the Reign,” Stepnioski says. øIts all in good fun, though.” A proper tackle can hurt like hell, sure, but it doesnt have to break your neck. The rules of rugby ‹ called laws ‹ strive to avoid long-term damage.

Reign coach Susan Berg reiterates the idea that caution is the better part of valor in rugby. “For me, coaching rugby is teaching the game and techniques in a safe manner,” Berg says. “With every game, even if we lose, if no one gets injured it’s a win for me.”

Of course, short-term damage is another issue altogether. Scrapes, scratches, bruises and bloody noses abound. øIt is usually nothing a little beer cant help,” Stepnioski says.

Reign vice-president Amber Shaffer says she first heard about rugby from a friend in high school. Shaffer played for the Eugene Housewives a few years back, though she found most of the players lacking in motivation. Like Stepnioski, she took a year off, and then she and Berg øgot a big group of people who wanted to start out,” and together they built a team from the ground up. The Reign is entirely self-financed, with gear and traveling expenses coming out-of-pocket. The players also hold several fundraisers, such as car washes, garage sales and events where they auction off things like work and lap dances. øA lot of our time, when were not practicing and playing rugby, were doing other rugby things,” says Stepnioski.

Last fall, as a first-year øassociate” team in the PNFRU, the Reign made the postseason, losing their playoff game to Olympias Budd Bay Bandits. Both Stepnioski and Shaffer admit that the Bandits are the most dominant team in the league, but theyre hoping to take them down in the fall, when official league competition begins.

Playing forward on the pitch, Shaffer presents a towering figure, a fearless, fearsome dynamo of grit and determination. øI like tackling, its probably my favorite part,” she says. I’m hard to tackle, too. It makes it fun when you get the ball. I really like how competitive it is, too.”

During the Feb. 26 match against the severely outsized Ducks, Shaffer often had three or four opposing players hanging off her, struggling to bring her down as she plowed ahead with the ball. She scored two of the Reigns three tries (Stepnioski had the other). The most important part about rugby is your aggression,” Shaffer explains. Youre not going to win the game if youre not ball-aggressive.”

Rugby Refined

Given the decidedly primitive and unflashy nature of rugby, you might guess its era of invention to be roughly Paleolithic. In fact, rugby hasnt been around all that long. One apocryphal but highly cinematic story dates the games invention to 1823, when a student playing soccer at Englands Rugby School suddenly picked up the ball and, hey presto, started running with it ‹ after which, Rugby School ran with it too, putting up a commemorative rugby plaque in 1895. In 1848, British students set down the laws of rugby in writing for the first time. And so it began.

There is a delicious irony in the fact that the first kids to play a pigpen game like rugby were from class-conscious colleges like Eton, the alma mater of George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Hugh Laurie. Its like discovering that curling was invented by the Yanomamo. Rugbys tony origins, however, may explain the very un-American propriety and politesse that often governs the game ‹ such as when everybody on the field takes a knee if a player is felled by an injury.

Referee Jonathan Sowins, who headed up the Feb. 26 match, says his priorities as an official are overseeing the safety of the players, maintaining sportsmanship and simply letting the ruggers play the game. øThe referee is the sole judge of fact and of law during a match,” Sowins adds.

Still, its not necessary to understand or even know all the laws to enjoy a rugby match. From what I can discern, the game is as arcane and mannered on paper as it is chaotic and gorgeously cluster-fucked in reality. Most of the laws have been written piecemeal and retroactively to clean up the game here and there over the years, like a sort of rugby Geneva Conventions.

But the smashing continues, without pads, remorseless, constant, with none of that huddling or hiking or halting that characterizes games in the NFL. If football is Billy Ray Cyrus, rugby is Johnny Cash. øThey just hit to knock down the player and thats it, the play stops,” says Reign forward Shaffer of traditional football. øIts funny, in football theyre starting to use rugby terms,” she adds of words like scrum.

And, as opposed to the smack talk and ego-preening and off-field shenanigans of the NFL, rugby is defined by an odd sense of decorum and humane, even polite, conduct. Referee Sowins said this is what makes rugby different from any other sport, øbecause of the camaraderie after the match and throughout life. Ruggers have respect for other ruggers, all over the world.”

We beat up each other on the field, then shake our opponents hand and hang out with them after,” Stepnioski says. øAny smack talk is usually in good fun.”

Sure, there are dirty rugby players. As referee Sowins points out, because ørugby has laws, the players do their best to bend them.” And Shaffer and Stepnioski give examples of particular players on certain teams trying to pinch their sides, pull their jerseys off over their heads or step on their faces when theyre down.û

But again, when the game is over, everything is left on the pitch. Shaffer said that a player laid out by a monstrous hit often congratulates her tackler after the match. And then, as Stepnioski explains, the two teams usually head off for a get-together of øcarbolicious food, mingling, a keg or two of beer and lots of lewd, offensive songs.”

After the Reigns impressive 15-5 victory over the talented Ducks ‹ who rallied in the second half, making a game of it ‹ several Reign players invited us to join them for a post-match fiesta, which included one keg of øpiss” and one keg of Ninkasi (a Reign sponsor, along with Duck Inn, Diablos and Balls Out! Rugby). I asked one of the girls which keg they were going to drink first, swill or Ninkasi? She smiled. øThe piss is for the other team,” she said.

Rugby is Life

Sports is human life in microcosm,” legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell once said. Well, heres how rugby is like life: Most of the time, its a grunting, grasping, groaning gang pile of chaos and contention, as irresistible force meets immovable object, each heaving itself forward to advance just a few precious inches. And then, every once in a while, you suddenly break free for a moment, busting ass for the goal, the fabled try line ‹ only to meet, all too quickly, another stubborn obstacle in your path.

Unlike much of life, however, rugby is never dull. Its war all the time, endless Sturm und Drang, and its a freaking blast to watch. øIt is the best spectator sport, live and on TV, because the action is always around the ball,” rugby lawman Sowins says. True that.

Remember elementary school, when you first heard that punchy, three-word warning about what to do if you suddenly find yourself on fire? Stop, drop and roll. To capture the spirit, if not the strategy, of rugby, simply reverse this dictum: Run. Catch. Go. Repeat.

And like a fire roaring, rugby has the appearance of madness incarnate, a furious storm consuming everything willy-nilly ‹ though any arson expert will tell you all buildings burn with an invisible inner logic, according to the immutable laws of physics. øContrary to how it may look, there is strategy,” Stepnioski says. øWe have plays and, yes, we do have positions. There are great *old man tricks Ive learned from playing touch with the mens team that I call strategy,” she says, though øothers may call it a last resort of exhaustion.”

øWhen my players step on that pitch, its their game,” says coach Berg. øI have little say in what they do in the game, meaning they make the decisions.”

So far, in its first two matches of this øfriendly” spring season, the Reign has been making the right decisions. At a casual game on March 5, they dominated the newly established Willamette University team to such an extent that, at halftime, the two squads swapped a handful of players to even things up. Stepnioski, Berg and Shaffer all say they are encouraged about the way the team is cohering and gaining momentum.

øOur biggest problem in the past has just been getting out there and letting people know that there is a womens rugby team in Eugene ‹ to help, of course, with our recruiting,” says Shaffer. øWith recent sponsorships, some fundraising events, flyers and word of mouth, were finally starting to get into a comfortable position with our numbers, and we dont have to scramble to make sure we have enough players before a game.”

øWe smashed the Ducks, and that is no small defeat,” Stepnioski says. øThey are a great team. It was a great high point to start the season on, and after seeing how well our rookies did I have high hopes for the rest of the season. I would really just love to get our team well established in the Eugene community.”

Rugby Rules

The Eugene Reign plays a version of the sport similar to the international Rugby Union: Fifteen players to a side, comprised of eight forwards and seven backs. (Oscar Wilde called rugby øa good occasion for keeping 30 bullies far from the center of the city.”) Games are divided into 40-minute halves, and there are no time outs. The ball is advanced via running, punting or pitches from teammate to teammate, laterally or backward; forward passes are against the law.

Scoring is achieved by running the ball into the try zone (similar to footballs end zone) where, unlike football, the play isnt over until its downed for five points; a point-after kick through the goalposts is worth two more points. A player also can attempt to kick the ball through the goalpost from the pitch (called a drop goal), which is worth three points.

A tackle rarely stops play. When a carrier is brought to the ground, she places the ball away from her body, often keeping a hand on it; sometimes this causes a ruck, which is when three or more players tangle up and push each other around, trying to free the ball for a backline runner to gain possession. Whenever action is stopped by an infraction, the ball is put back in play by a scrum ‹ that interlocking, head-to-ass huggermugger of crouching bodies pushing each other to free the ball. A lineout ‹ which happens when the ball goes out of bounds ‹ is a bizarre, balletic formation where one player from each team is hoisted into the air by her hips or ass or shorts as she tries to grab for the ball being thrown in bounds.

Eugene Reign

Spring Season Schedule

March 26 at Seattle: Round-robin tournament w/Tacoma & Seattle

April 9 at Bend

April 16 at Portland Pigs

April 23, noon: TBA at Agnes Stewart Middle School

Eugene Reign rugger Brittany Stepnioski grinds for the try line. Photo by Trask Bedortha
Amy Peterson of the reign drops ducks in her wake. photo by Trask Bedortha
Hoisted aloft for a lineout. Photo by Todd Cooper
Eugene Reign forward Amber Shaffer (#1) refuses to let a few Ducks get her down. Photo by Trask Bedortha
Lauren Ling of the Eugene Reign, post match, Feb. 26. Photo by Todd Cooper
A Duck kicks the ball up the pitch. Photo by Todd Cooper
Eugene Reign ball carrier Jessamy Fabricant prepares for contact. Photo by Trask Bedortha