Ladies Can Scrum Too: Women’s Rugby at UCI

Phuc Pham/New University

“ZOT, ZOT, ZOT, ZOT, ZOT!” A loud battle cry echoes from a huddle throughout UCLA’s North Athletic Field as the UC Irvine women’s rugby team take on what they supposedly believe is UCLA’s B-team. After breaking the huddle, volunteer coach Roham Mehregan screams from the sidelines

“Start getting violent! Get fucking violent!”

15 Anteaters take the field and form into two lines across the field as they await the kick-off.

“Let’s fucking throw them off their building!” an Irvine player shouts.

A flurry of chaos follows as Irvine advances the ball, only to get stopped by the Bruins’ tough defense. After a hard tackle lands a UCI player on the ground, the player is in a ruck, a period where the opposing defense can’t touch the player tackled, and resets the ball back. After a sloppy pass results in a fumble, UCLA recovers the ball and begins their domination. The Bruins spread the field, showing more organization in their offense. Whenever an Anteater seems close to tackling the player with possession, UCLA immediately laterals the ball to the back to keep their attack alive.

The Bruins’ clean passing and speed leaves UCI distraught and frozen as they continue to find open players who run to the end of the field for a “try,” the rugby term for a touchdown. This happens four times in the first quarter and at the end of the opening 20 minutes, UCLA leads 28-0.

This is UC Irvine’s first season, and at this point in the game their lack of experience is quite obvious. Some Anteaters had only one practice under their belt before competing.

Allison Kelly, a fourth-year English major, founded the women’s rugby team at the encouragement of her boyfriend who is a member of the men’s rugby team. Having spent the first two years in college watching her boyfriend play, her interest in the game grew to the point that she started to pick it up herself. She played for the Belmont Shore Rugby Club for a year before starting the UCI women’s rugby club.

“I spent the first two years watching the men and getting to know the sport,” Kelly said. “I’m from a Texas football family so contact sports is something I grew up with.”

Kelly was fortunate enough to recruit enough players to field a team in the beginning of the 2011 fall quarter. With practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights at the ARC field and conditioning on Wednesdays, building a steady rapport of committed players was slow and difficult, as only a few were able to show up to practices.

The men’s rugby club has been supportive of their female counterpart. Having been founded since 1968, the UCI men’s rugby club has experience and sponsorships from Buffalo Wild Wings and alumni on their side. They’ve been generous enough to lend the girls their uniforms and practice alongside them. One of the alumni from the men’s team, Roham Mehregan, volunteered to be the coach.

Coach Mehregan does not hide his emotions during pep talks, giving advice with a lot of expletives from the sidelines. After the brutal first quarter, Mehregan regroups the team to regain their focus.

“If you want to walk, walk off the field,” said Mehregan. “It’s depressing, to see people stand around the field. You’re tired? Well they’re tired too. Do something that makes you feel awesome.”

UC Irvine stormed out into the second quarter with much more will. The Anteaters react quicker to the scrums and are quick to notice when the ball is back in play. Following their coach’s words, they spread across the field on offense and grittily move into their opponent’s territory.

Being several meters away from the end line, third-year criminology major Habi Hamme receives the ball in play after a ruck and storms her way through defenders and into the end line for Irvine’s first try.

“I was thinking about just running through,” Hamme said. “I only had one practice so I don’t know what I’m doing. But I guess that I’m good at it.”

After looking seemingly hopeless and disorganized in the first quarter, the Anteaters prove that despite their inexperience they can play alongside an established club. Mehregan later learns that they are playing UCLA’s A-team, not their B-team, making their try even more impressive than it is.

Despite preserving their dignity by scoring another try in the third quarter, the Bruins’ speed and physical strength was too much for UCI to keep up with as they lose 93-10. Third-year mechanical engineering major, Ashley Hobson, one of the three players with some experience in rugby, stands under the tent, holding multiple ice packs on her knee.

“I just went in for a tackle and landed on it wrong,” Hobson said. “It’s pretty common, I’m sure a lot girls playing out there are injured right now. But it’s a part of rugby, you get injured and you got to keep digging.

“I think we’re looking at these games as a learning experience. Next year we will be getting money from the ARC, which is nice. We don’t have an alumni base that can donate to us which is tough.”

The women’s rugby team has played seven games this season, none of which has produced a single victory. In spite of how tough their first season has been, the team understands that each game is meant to be taken as a learning experience. At the same time, they want to go out and knock some people on the ground.

“Overcoming that initial fear of contact is the hardest step,” Kelly said. “But usually once the girls hit a couple times, they start to like it and want to go out for more.”

Though they have lost every game they’ve played this season, it’s unfair to say the season has been a failure. For a ragtag group of first timers, some of whom never heard of rugby until joining this club, the UC Irvine women’s rugby club has been aiming toward seeking improvement and finding moral victories. The most important matter is for the team to establish a core group of members to build upon for next season.

“Our biggest struggle has been getting numbers,” Hobson said. “We’re just trying to have a good strong base for next year. We have lot of people who are trying to get people introduced to this sport.”

“If we keep it up, we’re going to have a pretty big team,” Mehregan said. “The more people come out, the faster we can learn the game. I see a great future.”