The outlook at UNH's Bremner Field is grim. Ominous clouds hover and there is a prediction of heavy rain. But on the pitch, as the field is called in rugby, ponytails flap, shirts are yanked and players hit the ground hard. The players ruck, scrum, hook and maul their hearts out for the handful of rugged fans that have braved the deluge.
On the sidelines, Penny Hurley, mother of player Jessica Hurley '09, no longer struggles with these colorful rugby terms. "I bought 'Rugby for Dummies,'" she says as the players set up for a line out, the equivalent to a throw-in in soccer.
Rugby is a notoriously physical game--most think of men, mud and muscle. But the play on this early spring morning is athletic, graceful and intense. During the line out, a group from each team lifts a player into the air, suspended with arms outstretched in a balletic pose, to vie for the ball. As the team progresses down the field, a staggered line of runners passes the ball back--the only direction you can pass in rugby--like a cascading waterfall of movement.
Almost everything is a group event. In the well-known "scrum," which results from a foul, eight players from each team remain linked, arm in arm, until the "hooker" is able to scoop the ball with her foot back and out of the roiling amoeba of competitors.
Head coach Sue Westfall '95, who played when she was an undergrad and has coached the team since 2002, says, "This is a really nice community." The UNH club is open to all comers, and during a match every player gets a turn on the field.
At Bremner Field, Denise Metcalf is waiting in the drizzle for her daughter, Lindsay '09, who was recently invited to join the WSBE honors program, to get in the game. Denise and husband Jim were more than a little surprised to hear that their daughter was playing rugby. "It's a little scary when your daughter is 5 foot nothing," says Denise. Jim counters, "I was shocked at how tough my daughter is." Westfall notes, "When you say 'women's rugby' people get this picture of big women. Our girls don't fit that image."
At UNH, the first women's team began playing in the 1980s for the St. Pauli Girls, a club sponsored by the beer company. "We were not officially supposed to say we were UNH," says former member Heather Grant '91, "but we did anyway."
The first club disbanded in the mid-1990s, and a new breed, more focused on athleticism and sportsmanship, came back with a vengeance in 2001. In 2002, they won the Division III championships and the following year moved up to Division II, where they advanced to the playoffs, losing to Bowdoin College in the finals. For two years in a row, they have fought their way to the finals in the Beast of the East, one of the largest college tournaments in the country.
"Our girls are serious athletes and are serious about being healthy," says Westfall. Many in the club, like co-captain Mary Fiset '08, who stands at a diminutive 5 foot 4 inches, were three-season athletes in high school, but at UNH only play rugby. "This is an exciting sport," says Fiset. "I love the big hit, the big run and the big stiff arm. But that's not my main reason for playing. This team is my favorite. These are my girls."Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents