by Alexandra Robbins, USA Today, 12/17/98
Two years ago, University of Colorado coach Bob Lyon was lucky if he could convince 15 players to show up for practice, even though the Buffaloes, the oldest women's rugby squad in the nation, have fielded teams since 1972.This season, 70 women showed up for the first week of practice. "Not only do we have more women who played high school sports, but also five of my freshmen this year have already played rugby," Lyon said. "There's been a tremendous change, which you can trace to Title IX, because the high schools have had to start women's sports and the colleges have had to continue them."
The number of women's rugby players has more than doubled in the last five years, according to Bill Sexton, the USA Rugby Football Union Collegiate Committee Chair. In 1988, 110 colleges offered women's rugby teams. By 1993, the number jumped to 129; this year, 249 teams are officially affiliated with a university.
As they learn of rugby's existence, increasing numbers of athletes become curious mainly because of the social culture of the sport, Brandeis (Mass.) player Vicki Adiel said.
"Unlike other sports," she said, "where you slap hands after the game and then badmouth the other team on the bus back home, during rugby you beat each other up without mercy and afterward you go out with the other team like you're all best friends."
Several coaches attributed the mostly club sport's rise in popularity to the increasing number of girls who are exposed to aggressive team sports in high schools.
The rise in popularity has led colleges to increase more support to teams, coaches said. In August, Eastern Illinois became the first to grant varsity status to its women's rugby program. The upgrade is accompanied by university funds of $10,000 this year, $20,000 next year and $30,000 in 2000 and has helped team morale, according to Scott Crawford, who, with his wife, Penelope, coached the team this season as an unpaid volunteer.
Unlike varsity teams, club organizations receive no university funding.
The financial support has allowed the team to participate in more tournaments, send more players to events and provide full-time athletic trainers.
"Last year, if a player had a bruised nose or a broken finger, there was no expert there to provide medical care. This year, every time we played, we had two trainers to look after the injuries," Crawford said. "People claim that $10,000 can't help that much, but it has truly made a tremendous difference to our team."
USA Rugby officials said they expect numbers of players and varsity teams to increase as the U.S. national team develops a strong international presence.
The team, which has a 24-5 international record since making its debut in 1987, fell to New Zealand in the World Cup championship game in May. The USA won the inaugural World Cup in 1991 and finished second to England in 1994.
Last month, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that it would provide a $24,000 grant to USA Rugby for elite player development in the under-23 women's program. This announcement marked the first time the USOC has provided a grant for either gender to USA Rugby, which became an Olympic-affiliated sports organization in April.
Although USA Rugby has not yet decided how the funds will be specifically allocated, some of the money will be used to subsidize camps so players will not have to bear all of the costs of the training themselves, USA Rugby executive director Paul Montville said.
He also said he expects colleges' awareness of rugby to rise because "the affiliation with the Olympic movement lends an air of legitimacy."