Women And Rugby – A Powerful Salve Of Body And Mind
Purplefeather needed physical, mental and emotional release. She found time to herself, a friendship group and more with women’s rugby. Roller derby isn’t the only full-contact sport for women of all body types…
Photo: Essington Womens’ RUFC (where Purplefeather now plays)
She has played previously with Cannock Lionesses RUFC.
A friend texted me one Sunday morning to ask whether my son would like to join her own son playing rugby. It was a warm, sunny morning and we drove to our local rugby club. Within two hours we had signed him up for the year and he was given a pair of stripy club socks to wear.
My son had done something I had never done: by joining the U6 team he had joined a sports team. I was so proud. At his age it was just “TAG” rugby, where tackling involves pulling off Velcro’d tags from a belt. “Run forward, pass back!” was the motto of their coach, who seemed to have the patience of a saint while organising a dozen 5-to-7 year olds in passing and catching, and a little game.
Several of other of their classmates began to join over the next few weeks – including a couple of girls, who seemed to be more gutsy and bold than their male peers, joining in with spirited enthusiasm. Many of their fathers got involved shortly afterwards, swelling the club’s mens’ teams’ numbers. But not our son the honour of that particular source of paternal pride: the year before my husband was involved in a serious accident which left him severely disabled.
I was run down. I had no time to myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I decided to exercise.
Right, I thought. I was drowning under my full-time job as a teacher, being responsible for two young children and caring for my husband. I need to do something. And as Daddy couldn’t be their role model on the pitch, I guess that was something else left to me.
Back in school, I was the sort of girl who would, in collusion with my best friend, be the first to sign up for the sports options each term (so as to avoid anything that involved anything that resembled “sport” whatsoever), We’d get onto the badminton or softball groups, or, if we were unlucky, netball. But never, ever, hockey! The thought of turning up one cold Monday in January to do something sporty didn’t fill me with much confidence, despite my resolve to carry the parental torch sportswise. Being weighty, I had heard it said that rugby was a sport with a position for anyone. Let’s put that to the test, I thought.
I lingered near the entrance to the club wondering whereto go but within ten minutes I’d been given a pair of boots from lost property, and a couple of others who were waiting for the coach to come out started chatting with me. Ten minutes after that and I was standing in a circle, holding a rugby ball and throwing it around. Not too bad, I thought. Throwing and catching? I can do that, but I won’t be able to do much else. Next, a line of cones was laid out with a green pad at the end. I’m approaching my fifth decade, I thought to myself. I can always sit it out…
Instead, I surprised myself as I ran through drills, passing, and a short game of TOUCH. If you’re wondering, that’s a non-tackling version of Rugby Union where the opposition player is “touched” to give up the ball rather than tackled.
It was the fastest hour and a half of my life. Was that really me doing sport?
Just before we left, the coach brought out the “Gilbert” – a large, cylindrical bag which he stood up on one end.
“Think of the person that’s hacked you off the most in the last week,” he explained. I’ve paraphrased: he didn’t use the word “hacked”.
In my mind’s eye I had him. The person who’d hacked me off. The sod who had emailed me on Friday giving me short notice of something that needed doing by Monday, which meant I was robbed of two hours’ of sleep because I had to squeeze it in somehow over my already creaking-at-the-seams weekend. The sly git knew that by giving the job to me, rather than my single, childless male colleague, the job would get done, done right and done on time.
I ran, full pelt, grabbed the “Gilbert” in a bearhug and knocked that bloody git right on his arse. Sitting up in the cold mud, I grinned stupidly before joining the queue to do it again.
“And how was that?” asked Jodie, as the kit was being collected in. She was one of a pair of twins who had joined the rugby team eighteen months ago as a change from netball. As identical twins, she and her sister had their names on their boots.
“Er…wow, yeah…pretty good,” I stammered, adrenaline coursing through my body.
“Are you coming back next week?”
Was I coming back next week? I was cold, and a bit muddy. I’d run forward and passed back (pretty much all you really need to know in rugby). I’d smashed the hell out of my bugger of a workmate in the form of a foam and leather tackle-bag. Hell, yes, I’d be coming back!
After a warm cup of tea in the clubhouse and a discussion about fixtures, I took my leave. A month later, and I was encouraged to take part in my first TOUCH tournament with some other beginners. Three of them teenagers and all of them cared not a jot that I was old enough to be their mother, had I made some different life-choices in my late teens. At the end of the day I was given a medal for “player’s player” for the team. My proudest moment! It beat anything my peers at school had ever won.
I took it home to show my sons, and then wore it to work the next day, telling everyone who asked why I’d got it. I was proud of it, and I deserved to squeeze in two hours to myself to play rugby that week. Even though my elderly mother complained bitterly that I’d abandoned my duties as a wife and a mother when she came up to look after the family! I was not as snarky to her as I might have been because of the natural high I was on. Instead I told her how fantastic it was and let her criticism wash over me for once.
Other offers followed after the TOUCH tournament.
“Do you want to come and see the Leicester Tigers?”
“We have some tickets for Twickenham…”
“The women’s tour this year is…”
Best not to ask about the latter. I did participate in the tour, but that’s another story!
Scroll on two years and I have met some wonderful women, and made some fantastic friends. I know more about my team-mates than I ever thought possible (and ever wanted to know!). They care not a fig that I am still weighty and my top speed is half of theirs.
But here’s the thing about women in rugby. It doesn’t matter what you are or who you are. Not even about your club, as I found out quite quickly when women went to help other teams to make up numbers.
Rugby is a laugh, and a buzz. It is a family, rather than a team; a group of women bonded by the love of a sport and an overarching sisterhood.
If I ever needed the help of any one of them for anything I can be pretty sure I’d get it, and the same would go for me. With women in rugby you will, if you’re very lucky, get the same camaraderie you’d get at school with your best friend. That silent bond in a battle against the world (while listening to Nirvana and wearing Black DMs and hoping that you wouldn’t be found out by your head of year. My friend and I again…).
Once you have held a ball in your hands, thrown it, kicked it, be warned: rugby is more addictive than all the Class-A drugs put together. I’ve found it a much-needed balm for the body and therapy for the mind as you wrap your arms around your opponents’ knees and bring them down so as to fight for the ball for your team. You want that try, or you want to be the player who passed to the player that got that try. You can’t wrap-tackle in netball!
Mum has eased up too, although I have yet to “come out” as a contact player, and she still thinks I play TOUCH rugby every third weekend. One day…
Rugby is for every woman, every girl, every shape, size, personality, age. I really think it is the ultimate universal sport for women. You can smash a tackle bag, have a ball (no pun intended) and feel on top of the world.
And I’m not giving up ’til I’ve scored my first try in a game, either. Maybe this weekend. Wish me luck…
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