Tough enough

Women's ruby football club helps players tackle stress, get a great workout and score some fun


Marinda Reynolds likes to call them anger management sessions. She attends twice a week, but doesn't meet with therapists or participate in support groups.

She plays rugby.

"I can tell when I haven't been playing for a while because I get angry easier," says Reynolds, 26, of Cockeysville. During the spring and fall, she looks forward to game days, when she can release built-up stress on the field (or "pitch," as it's known to those who play).

Reynolds is one of 25 members of the Chesapeake Women's Rugby Football Club, which has offered organized games and practices for Baltimore area women since 1974. The players -- a mix of students and professionals from a variety of occupations -- range in age from 18 to 40.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about women's rugby in Friday's Health & Science section incorrectly quoted a traditional description of the men's game. It should have described men's rugby as "a ruffian's game played by gentlemen."
The Sun regrets the errors.

Known in its all-male incarnation as "a gentleman's game played by ruffians," rugby combines the ebb and flow of soccer with the physicality of American football -- played without helmets and pads.

Playing well takes serious conditioning. And, if their internal team dynamics are slightly more civilized, the women play as rough as the men.

Some, like Reynolds, assistant director of sports clubs at Towson University, come from athletic backgrounds. She played high school basketball, but "was always in foul trouble." When a teammate who went off to college discovered the game there, Reynolds decided to give it a try the next year at the University of Rhode Island.

"My mom said, `Just come back with all your teeth,'" she says, laughing.

Others, such as Katie Howell, 26, a housing analyst for the state who lives in Baltimore, had no organized athletic experience until they found rugby.

"I pretty much didn't run unless someone was chasing me," she says. But at the University of Georgia, "I had friends on the men's team and thought it would be fun."

Rugby is thought to have gotten its start at England's Rugby School in 1823. During a soccer match, the story goes, player William Webb Ellis "decided to add a little excitement to his football game and, in blatant violation of the rules of soccer, picked up the ball and ran with it," according to, the athletic Web site of the University of California, Berkeley. Women's rugby took another 150 years to evolve.

Depending on the league, the season and the number of ambulatory players available, rugby can be played with either seven or 15 on a side. The object is to score points by carrying, passing, kicking and grounding an oval ball in the scoring zone at the far end of the pitch.

It's a fast, continuous 80-minute game that works almost every muscle and requires a combination of stamina, strength, power and speed.

Players are split generally into forwards and backs. The forwards need strength, because it is their job to scramble and chase to gain possession of the ball -- and periodically bunch up, shoulder to shoulder, to physically force their opponents out of the way. The backs, who get the ball from the forwards, need speed and maneuverability -- they are expected to run, pass, kick and score.

The rules for the women's game are the same as the men's, and so is the intensity of play. But the team dynamics are different, according to Chesapeake's coach, Rick McDonald, who joined the team this year.

"They bond quicker as a team," he says of the women, noting that his players remind one another about items to bring to games or practices. "It's the female psyche. They're mothers; they're nurturers," he says.

Before the team's first scrimmage this spring, McDonald adds, one of the women sent an e-mail saying, "I'll make the brownies."

"That blew my mind," he says.

Still, when it comes to games, McDonald said, "They're very committed and very competitive."

Rugby is not a sport for the dainty. Like the nation's letter carriers, rugby players boast that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep them from their game (although they do cancel for lightning).

"Landing in a half-frozen mud puddle is not fun," acknowledges team captain Suzanne Atwell-Keister, 26, an environmental chemist from Baltimore.

Then there are the injuries. Rugby players are continually tackling or being tackled without the protective padding used in American football -- although ruggers argue that their game avoids the head-on collisions that make football so violent.

Still, it's not uncommon to see cuts and bruises, concussions, broken noses, eye injuries and popped rib cartilage, among other wounds, according to Dr. William Howard, medical director of sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital, who played the sport for 28 years.

Also common is "cauliflower ear" -- a condition often found in boxers and wrestlers, in which the ear become swollen and deformed from repeated blows.

Overall, Howard says, the game has gotten a bit more genteel than it was when he started playing in 1961. For example, there are time-outs. Substitute players are permitted. And injured players can leave the game and get treatment.

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