There are not a lot of sports where a serious injury is almost guaranteed, but for senior Natalia Oliveri, that kind of pure adrenaline and brutality is one of the things that keeps her playing rugby.
“During the game, your adrenaline is flowing and it’s just a lot of shock,” Oliveri said. “Then, you see someone running straight at you and you have no pads on or anything. At first, all you feel is the turf burn, then, after the game, it all hits you.”
Similar to many women on the team, Oliveri began playing rugby her first year at Gonzaga. After seeing a woman in one of her classes wearing a GU women’s club rugby backpack, she decided to ask her about the club.
“I actually just tapped the girl on the back and asked her,” Oliveri said. “I’m 5’1”, so I was like, ‘Do you think I’m just going to get destroyed or do you think I’m too small for this?’”
A common misconception, Oliveri said, is you have to be bigger to play. The technical and diverse nature of the sport means each team needs a variety of players.
“There’s a spot for every type of athlete, any kind of body type too,” coach Sarah Harmon said. “Bigger, slower girls, we want you. Faster, smaller girls, we want you. And anything in between, we have a position for you. It’s a really inclusive sport.”
Oliveri said she did not expect to enjoy it as much as she has. She also didn’t expect it to be as brutal or as painful as it is. During her first game, she broke her collarbone in two places, tore her bicep and pulled a muscle in her shoulder that later resulted in surgery.
As brutal as it sounds, the better and more practiced the team is, the safer the game becomes, Harmon said. The key is in the tackle, which must, according to the rules, “wrap.”
“Rugby [tackling] is a lot different than football,” Oliveri said. “In football, you just want to blow through them and knock them over, so you tackle from the hips. In rugby, you want to get really low and wrap your arms around the back of their knees then shove your shoulder into their thigh and push your shoulder and head to the ground, so they lose their balance.”
The emphasis on safe and strategic tackling is one of the things that makes GU women’s club rugby excel.
“We are very thorough, and we tackle very safe,” Harmon said. “We are one of the best defensive teams in the area, and we’re also one of the safest, which I think goes hand-in-hand. If you are good at tackling, then you’re not going to hurt anyone.”
Tackling safely doesn’t mean any aggression needs to be diminished, however. In fact, aggression is a driving force for some women.
“There is so much stress around school and college, and being able to have this aggressive outlet to just let it all out is so nice,” Oliveri said. “You have no energy left to be mad about anything at the end of practice because you’re just so exhausted. It feels so good to just get everything out.”
GU women’s club rugby finished its fall schedule with a 4-1 record. As its spring season has been cut short in the wake of coronavirus, Harmon has high hopes for the Zags’ level of competition going forward.
Harmon, nicknamed “Utah,” has been coaching GU women’s club rugby since 2010. Similar to many women on the team, she got her start in college, when she attended University of Oregon.
Since beginning at GU, Harmon said she has seen plenty of groups of impressive women. But to her, this year’s group, though only able to play half of a season, made one of the biggest impressions.
“It’s definitely a special group,” Harmon said. “They’re super inclusive and family-oriented, and they work super hard. I have to say, this is probably one of my harder-hitting groups, literally. When it comes to body-on-body contact, this group is pretty fearless.”
Teammates are fearless and friends, a combination Oliveri attributes to both the nature of their personalities and the sport.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had drama on the team,” she said. “There are a lot of girls that are ready to get blown down, the personality of a girl that’s grown up with a lot of brothers.”
This bond can be found outside of GU, on teams across the world. The common thread that brings them all together? Tradition.
Rugby is one of the oldest sports in the world, predating soccer and football, Harmon said. Traditions within the sport, such as songs, have been passed down from team to team across the world. While certain song lyrics may differ slightly, the camaraderie they produce remains the same.
One of the most notable traditions is for the hosting team to feed and socialize with the opposing team after a game. This allows players to get to know their opponent in a way no other sport invites, Harmon said.
“I had never experienced that with any other team sport because I would always feel a rivalry or like I had to have a morally different standpoint from [the other team,]” senior captain Jessica Berg said. “It provided me such a different perspective because they’re a team, too. They have values and expectations, and it was great.”
Although the season was cut short, a major disappointment among the team’s seniors, Harmon hopes to maintain the level of competitiveness that’s been established.
“We’ve started playing bigger schools, and we’re getting wins,” she said. “We have to play like every game is our championship, like every game matters.”
GU women’s club rugby will remain a club, as opposed to a Division I team, for the foreseeable future because it makes the most economical sense, Harmon said. This won’t, however, stop it from playing, and beating, Division I opponents.
“They’re not on varsity, they’re not on scholarship, but these students give so much time to this club,” she said. “It’s so impressive how much time they give and the sacrifices they make for each other, their bodies, their time.”
For the athletes, this sport rewards them for their dedication and keeps them wanting more every year.
“It’s given me a family, a home away from home, my own strength, my own voice,” Berg said. “It’s taught me so many new perspectives on sports and on life. I feel like I’ve been surrounded by such powerful and strong women that I can’t help but try and achieve that in my own life.”