"Rugby? I didn't even know it existed in Bend," says Mara Burnell in summarizing the common response when the sport is brought up in conversation. There is women's rugby competition in Bend – and at a high level thanks to the Bend Lady Roughriders, whose following is growing as the sport becomes more popular. They have clinched the playoffs in the Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union for the first time and will host the final games April 23 to 24 at Pine Nursery Park.
There are nine teams in the union representing Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The Roughriders are the only Oregon team to qualify for the finals and will host the Tacoma Siren on April 23. If they win, they will move on to the championship game Sunday, April 24, at noon. Their spring success follows years of struggle in building and maintaining a team. In the early years, the Roughriders had trouble fielding a complete team and sometimes played without a full complement of players on the field. Fifteen players play the game and the Bend women's team at times could only field 12.
The Bend women's rugby team was started in 2007 with six players. According to team President Mara Burnell, "We struggled for numbers to even qualify to play our matches for about two years." Burnell says the Roughriders restructured their executive team, practices, and began more fundraising while building their social media presence. "Now, in one year," says Burnell, "we went from last place to second." The top spot is held by the Emerald City Mudhens from Seattle. Burnell joined the team four years ago and had never played a team sport until then.
The league is made up mostly of post-college players from ages 21 to 36, but Burnell says anyone over 18 can play. The game allows anyone to participate despite body size, ability, or athletic level because positions require different skill sets. Burnell adds they have girls from all different walks of life who are business owners, students, counselors, and artists, who came together for the love of the game. "With women the sport is becoming more popular," she explains. Burnell says many women missed playing after college and wanted to start a team in Bend. "We have a lot of women who played in college and helped bring the game to Bend," she says.
The Roughriders want to build the popularity of the sport by introducing it to the middle and high schools in Bend where there are no women's rugby teams at present. Kirdy Molan, the team's vice president, is tasked with that responsibility as coordinator for USA Oregon youth rugby. Molan has started to make the rounds to the Bend middle schools organizing co-ed flag games to expose students to the sport and create excitement about the game. Burnell acknowledges that a lot of people aren't familiar with the game or rules and hopes middle school players will continue to play in high school and college. She also hopes to introduce the sport in summer camps. Burnell points out that Central Oregon Community College fields a men's team but hasn't organized a women's team as of yet.
Burnell admits the sport is rugged and that's what attracted her to it. She likes extreme sports like rock climbing and snowboarding and thinks those individual sports helped kindle an interest in rugby when she first began playing. "When I started playing it was so much fun and the girls became one big family," she says.
Heather Hagler is part of the Roughriders executive team and, like Burnell, also plays. "It's been exciting to see the team grow over the last few years, not only with the players, but our level of play." Hagler says the team's turnaround began with more concentrated player recruitment and more donations, which helped provide better equipment and funding for the team. The team appointed a fundraising officer as part of its restructure. "We started running it more like a business," she explains.
The sport of rugby football has its roots in early civilized history. The early Greeks and Romans played a game that appears to have resembled rugby. In the 1830s running with the ball became common at Rugby School and Rugby School football became popular in the 1850s and '60s in the United Kingdom.
When play is stopped because of an infringement or the ball goes out of bounds, play is resumed using a scrum where players pack closely together with their heads down in an effort to gain possession of the ball. Today, competition is international. The Rugby World Cup is played every four years, featuring the top 20 teams in the world.