One, two, three.
For the Wisconsin Women’s Rugby Football Club, a fall game day began with a ritual: The team took three deep breaths together, an encouragement to stay calm and centered for 80 minutes filled with sweaty sprinting, mouthguard-muffled yelling and bruise-inducing tackling.
The ritual helped rugby veteran Riss Westaby, who said their mindset during the game was pure focus.
“I'm in my own world, trying to organize the whole field and still looking up to see what the defense is doing. I’m just focused,” Westaby said.
Calm, centered and focused they were, as it took two minutes and 37 seconds for WWRFC to score against the Twin Cities Amazons Rugby Club when the fellow Division II teams faced off at the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex in Cottage Grove, Wis.
Although WWFRC beat the Amazons by a large margin, the teams were evenly matched in skill level, evident by the change in ball possession every few minutes.
WWFRC worked hard to hold their early-established momentum — they remained in the lead the whole game and took the win, 82-12.
WWRFC’s victory was not limited to the field, as the team succeeded in providing a community for women and non-binary athletes by banding together to give that community the proper facilities.
What it means to be a team
Founded in 1975, WWRFC is one of the nation’s oldest rugby teams. The club started as a space for all women in the Madison area who were interested in the sport. In 1998, the team split into WWRFC for community members and the Women’s Rugby Football Club at UW–Madison for students, according to the Wisconsin Involvement Network website.
Throughout Saturday’s game, it was apparent that sport itself was not the only thing that drew the players to rugby.
WWRFC players trusted each other, and each point was a result of that. Players depended on their teammates, passing the ball, which cascaded down the backline. This allowed Jana Jaran, who played fullback, to burst up and sprint through holes in the defense, a strategy that led Jaran to score four times during the game.
Jaran said that this trust and closeness was what kept her so invested in rugby throughout the last eight years, during which she moved countries, navigated college and began her career.
“In high school, when I moved to the U.S., the way that I found close friends was by joining the [rugby] team, and those people all instantly became my closest people,” Jaran said. “And, then going to college was the same thing. They became my community.”
On the first day that really felt like fall, blanket-clad spectators decorated the stands. The crowd of adults dedicated their Saturday morning to watching the sport, because, as the famous rugby chant demands, “Saturday’s a rugby day.”
C.J. Mulder plays for the Minneapolis Menagerie Rugby Club and was one of the nearly 50 spectators in the crowd. Mulder also emphasized the community that rugby clubs like WWRFC offered.
“They are my family,” Mulder said. “I don't have my actual family anymore, and they’ve taken over all aspects of what I would have needed from a family.”
Growing and giving in the community
Throughout its almost 50 years of operation, the club saw growth in the popularity of the sport. Between 2006 and 2018, the number of rugby participants in the United States grew by over one million players, according to Statista.
The several senior, collegiate, middle, high school and youth flag teams that popped up across Madison in the last 15 years were indicative of this growth, according to the Madison United Rugby website.
To accommodate this growth, the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex, home to the WWFRC and one of the country’s best competitive athletic grounds, opened nearly 13 years ago.
The two full-size rugby pitches were accompanied by a clubhouse, born from a grassroots community fundraising effort, the Clubhouse 2020 capital campaign. Thanks to local rugby leaders, members and supporters, Madison United Rugby broke ground on the Championship level facility in May 2021, according to the Madison United Rugby website.
WWRFC is always open to new members, regardless of experience. The team practices August through November at the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex, according to the WWRFC website.
The practice on the Monday prior to the game against the Twin Cities Amazon Club was filled with playful banter, which included the team’s take on Jaran’s freshly cut bangs and heckling their coach for the lack of supplemental light to combat the dusk of their evening practice. But when it was time to focus, the team locked in and showcased their drive and athleticism in their drills and scrimmage.
Andrea "Pogo" Clark, a Madisonian who played for WWRFC for nine years, invited everyone to come to practice and try rugby.
“For anyone that’s looking past college for an organization to join in for a club sport, we really do welcome everyone,” Clark said. “It doesn’t matter if you have no experience; that's the beauty of rugby.”