On a frosty Saturday morning in early December, Martin Stadium rings with the thud of tackles and calls for a pass. Football season ended two weeks before, so the voices on the field aren’t quarterbacks and safeties. They are the voices of the fly-half and fourteen other players on the WSU women’s rugby team facing off against Eastern Washington University.

In dark crimson jerseys with black letters and striped crimson-and-gray socks, the WSU women quickly take command on the snow-dusted field with strong team play and swift runners. Players pass the ball—roughly the same shape but larger than a football—run or kick as they advance down the field … until a tackle sends them sprawling, the ball gets dropped, and the game continues without pause. It slows down only after balls go out of bounds or for “scrums,” when players link together and work to free the ball for their team following a penalty.

The team plays well in the cold, skillfully executing passes, kicks, runs, and set plays like scrums, a familiar scene for the squad after their astoundingly successful season last winter. The WSU women’s rugby team took third in the nation in the 2008-09 season, after going undefeated in league play and cleaning up in the West Coast Regionals.

However, rugby is unfamiliar to many Americans. That was true for Michele Roseburg, the team president and a senior from Moses Lake, before she came to WSU. “I’d heard of rugby and thought it was just some funny sport they played in Europe.”

Most of the ruggers, like Roseburg, hadn’t played or even watched rugby before joining the team, making their rise to Division II national competition more impressive. “The whole time we were considered a dark horse,” says coach Leah Hammon, a senior from Longview. “We were the only west coast team, and we learned a lot just from watching high-caliber, Division I east coast teams.”

Team member Megan Bonny notes how many on the team were awed even at the regional championships. “We get to the field at Stanford and see how beautiful it is. Everyone is freaking out because there’s grass on the field—we’re not playing in mud or snow.”

Bonny plays inside center, a fast-paced back position, and her twin sister Alexis plays fly-half, another speedy running position. The sophomore from Yakima says, “Alexis and I had been to state competitions in other high school sports, but going to nationals took the level of play up a notch.”

Her teammate Erika Lund had played some rugby in high school, but it took some adjustment. “No matter how similar rugby is to other sports, it takes getting used to. After playing soccer all my life, once I got on the field for rugby I’d wonder ‘what is going on right now?’” says the junior from Tumwater.

I’ll confess I’ve never played rugby, and have watched it far less than football or even soccer.

Yet elements of the sport are familiar. Like its descendent American football, rugby is a sport of territory. Like soccer, rugby has relentless movement.

Here are the basics: Two teams of fifteen players each try to maintain or gain possession of the ball, moving it up the field with runs or kicks, and lateral or backward passes to keep the ball from falling into opposition hands. Teams get points from putting (or grabbing) the ball over the goal line and kicking goals. Defense can tackle, knock the ball loose, and impede the offense’s progress.

Here’s where it gets tricky. After a rule infraction—such as a forward pass—a scrum occurs. Eight players from both teams link arms and collectively push against the other team while the ball is rolled between them. Similarly, “rucks” and “mauls” involve team members literally joining together to gain possession of the ball. Play continues even after tackles.

“It’s really intense because it doesn’t stop,” says Roseburg. “There are no timeouts or breaks except half-time. Since the ball’s the line of play, you’re always focused on where it is, and where you need to be to support team members and advance the ball.”

The fast tempo and wide open play attract students looking for an athletic outlet, but a real draw for many is tackling. “Full-on tackling’s great. It gives you a rush,” says Alexis Bonny. “I think when people get that rush they want more, and that’s how they fall in love with the game.”

Most of all rugby’s a sport of organization within chaos, and team strength over individual performance. “There’s nothing quite like rugby. You can have fantastic players, but you need a solid team to be successful. In rugby, you can’t just rely on one or two star athletes to win,” says Hammon.

She sees growing popularity for the sport, especially on the east coast. We may see even more rugby. Last October, rugby fans learned that the game had been reinstated for the 2014 Olympics, after a 90-year hiatus.

For the WSU women ruggers, the chance to compete comes with other rewards and challenges. The team members grow close, as Roseburg points out. “We’re such a tight-knit group. You get to know each other from practice three nights a week and games on Saturdays, and build strong friendships.”

As a club sport—like men’s rugby, ski team, and 23 other sports—women’s rugby funding comes primarily from fundraising, with some matching funds from student fees. The team sells concessions at WSU women’s basketball games, and has a “Rugger for hire” service where two or more ruggers do odd jobs for $10 an hour, from painting and pulling weeds to cleaning gutters.

The team keeps a strong connection with alumni, says Hammon. “Once a rugger, always a rugger. We have the annual game against alumni that’s kind of ridiculous, and a lot of fun. We all wear prom dresses. Trains litter the field.” A barbecue and alum stories follow.

Back at Martin Stadium, WSU’s ruggers win the game against Eastern to the applause of diehard fans in the freezing aluminum stands. The players thank “the sir,” as the referee is called, and Hammon reflects on the team’s future.

“I think we certainly have a chance to go back to nationals. Our biggest disadvantage is we’re a west coast team and we don’t get the competition we need to prepare for that level of rugby,” she says. “We’re definitely under-exposed. I don’t think a lot of people even know WSU has a women’s rugby team and certainly not that we’re a national-caliber team.”

On the Web

Women Cougs grab national rugby championship (WSU Today, May 3, 2010)

WSU Women’s Rugby

WSU Men’s Rugby

WSU Sports clubs

Rugby Union rules and equipment :: BBC

Playing rugby union :: Wikipedia

International Rugby Board

How to speak rugger

Like any sport, rugby has its own lingo. Here are a few words you’ll hear on the pitch.

Try – One of the main ways of scoring in rugby, worth five points. A player holding the ball puts it on the ground over the opposition’s goal line or presses down on a loose ball over the goal line.

Line-out – A set play when the ball goes out of bounds.

Scrum – One of the hallmarks of rugby, after an offside play or other infringement eight members of each team link up and push against the other team to gain possession of the ball.

Ruck – Players from both teams converge on the ball after a player is tackled.

Maul – Three or more players are in contact together while the ball is being carried.

Sin-binning – When a player is sent off the pitch for ten minutes due to a penalty.

The breakdown – The defense’s purpose: to stop the ball carrier through tackles and gaining possession through a ruck or maul.

Hooker – A player who kicks, or “hooks,” the ball out of the scrum. (You can read about all rugby team positions at the BBC’s rugby website.)

Truck and trailer – When a player acts as a screen in the maul, blocking tacklers from reaching the ball carrier.

Garryowen – A short kick which is high in the air to pressure the receiver or catchable by yourself.

Knock-on – Losing, dropping, or knocking the ball forward from a player’s hand resulting in the ball being awarded to the other team in a scrum.

Read more about rugby lingo