In last year’s national championship game against Vassar College, Temple Women’s Rugby club came up short. They received a number of yellow cards and several impactful players left the game with injuries. This year, they’re hopeful to not just make it all the way to nationals, but to also champion the game.
“Everyone played really hard and I think this year, we’re even better than we were last year,” said Faith McHugh, match secretary and team captain. “If we just keep up with our practicing and everything, then we have a better chance honestly, and I hope we see the teams that we saw before so we can show them we’re coming back better.”
For the past two fall seasons, the TUWRC has placed second behind Vassar in the College Rugby Association of America Women’s Rugby Division II National Championship.
This is the season they hope to turn things around. TUWRC is undefeated so far in the 2023 season, and when playing Rowan University, they triumphed in a triple-digit score win. The team also welcomed coach Kevin Golden, who came to Temple from coaching high school boy’s rugby.
The team is part of the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Conference, competing at the collegiate Division II level. However, the club faces higher-level teams who receive additional funding that some DII teams do not.
These teams also have a dedicated coaching staff, athletic trainers, arranged weight lifting times and members who’ve been playing for years before the collegiate level.
Temple classifies TUWRC as a club sport. The team doesn’t make roster cuts, their coach is a volunteer and TUWRC receives a small amount of funding from the university, so they usually fundraise to make ends meet. The team only gets six hours of dedicated practice time weekly, and lifts take place at individual players’ discretion.
TUWRC recruits and molds their own athletes, said Victoria Putkowski, a junior biology major and club president.
“Watching some of these very well-funded or I really should say, properly-funded teams, all they have to worry about is going to practice and eating healthy for dinner and making sure they get their homework done and that they sleep eight hours a night,” Putkowski said. “Versus our team where we have to raise tens of thousands of dollars on our own time and on our own dime with our own ideas.”
Despite their financial limitations, TUWRC competes against well-funded teams that recruit players, pay coaches and provide merchandise and scholarships to players. With large recruitment numbers, a new coach, impactful returning players and excelling newcomers, the club is hungry to win and take home a national championship despite the financial setbacks.
Video by Kajsa Morse
It was hard for students to ignore the women’s rugby team while walking through this year’s TempleFest because of their infectious energy and in-your-face recruiting style.
TUWRC shows out at the club recruitment event every year and typically brings in hundreds of sign-ups. More than 200 students signed the interest form this year because of the team’s energy and influence.
“We love to point at people and say, ‘You look like a rugby player.’ Most of the time the response is, ‘No, I don’t, I’m not strong enough, I’m not athletic enough, I’m not this’ or ‘I’m not that,’” said Abigail Simons, a junior English and women’s gender and sexuality studies major. “And we point at everyone we have at our table and we say, ‘Do any of us look the same? No, and all of us play rugby.’”
Simons, vice president of TUWRC, came to Temple interested in rugby but had never played before. She danced growing up, but wanted to look for a sport that would help her make friends at Temple while building her self-confidence and strength.
During TempleFest in 2021, Simons was approached by the then-president to attend the first practice; looking back, Simons said it was the best decision she made in college. Putkowski was also scouted that same year in the TempleFest crowd by a team member.
TUWRC utilizes the phrase, “Rugby is for everyBODY” in their recruitment and motivation efforts to show that anyone can be a part of the team, regardless of size and athleticism.
Most players on the team came into the sport not knowing the rules because rugby is more prominent in other countries. Forty new players showed up during the team’s first practice, demonstrating that there are more eager, new players this season wanting to start on the field than in previous seasons.
Many players returned because of the close-knit nature of the team and have taken newer players under their wing to help them learn drills and the rules of the game.
“We’ve kind of drawn in a really great group of recruits last year, and we’ve had so many amazingly powerful and wonderful returners come back this season and together it’s made a really great environment for the team,” Putkowski said.
A LEARNING CURVE
McHugh has spent two years with TUWRC after playing in high school. Due to her familiarity with the sport and role as captain, McHugh helps new players with learning and adjusting to the nuances of the game.
“I feel like it’s important to really help everyone learn how to play and I’ve been playing for a while so it’s a little bit easier for me to do since I kind of know the game,” McHugh said. “When I’m at practice, I kind of reach out to the people who are doing the drills, but maybe need some pointers.”
The sport differs from others in terms of rules due to its continuous play. Unlike football or soccer, rugby has no forward passing, only lateral or backward.
Rugby’s unique combination of tackling, scrums — a method of restarting play after a minor infringement — and lineouts, which is used to restart play when the ball goes out of bounds, adds complexity to its rules and makes it a distinctive and physically demanding sport.
The game’s rules emphasize teamwork, strategy and sportsmanship, contributing to its unique character among international sports.
Women’s rugby in the U.S. stands out from other women’s sports as it’s a full-contact sport where tackling and scrums are integral components. There are no rules that actively limit contact, and play style is the same as men’s rugby.
The sport’s culture encourages inclusivity and support, and women of all ages and skill levels can participate. This inclusiveness results in a unique environment where women can connect, grow and thrive through rugby.
“The program itself is so successful based on the people who continue to come back and the environment that we facilitate that year after year, after year,” Putkowski said. “We can continue to put our name on these charts and we continue to get our name out there in the community, like the Women’s Rugby Community of Philadelphia, and just all across the nation”
THE ROAD TO NATIONALS
After coming in second to Vassar in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, TUWRC had two goals in mind this season: lifting the trophy at nationals and putting three digits on a game scoreboard.
On Sept. 23, they won their season opener against Bloomberg 69-5. Later that month, they played a total shutout against Delaware, 79-0, a major sign of what’s to come for the team this season.
They crossed off a major team milestone and goal, on Oct. 7 after winning 101-5 against Rowan.
“That was a goal for this season, so it was amazing to hit that so early, it was just an amazing experience and Rowan is a lovely team as well,” Simons said.
Despite success in previous seasons, coaches can be difficult to retain for even one season as the position is completely voluntary due to minimal funding. TUWRC’s E-Board reached out to various rugby organizations, like USA Rugby, to find a coach for this season.
Luckily, the team was successful and found their new coach who has 20 years of playing and 10 years of coaching experience. TUWRC excitedly welcomed Golden this Fall semester.
“He cares so much about our physical and mental health, he’s the perfect combination of someone who isn’t going to take any BS from anyone but is also so caring and understanding of any struggles players are going through, so he’s been a real game changer for the team, just his commitment and his drive,” Simons said.
Since TUWRC is considered a club sport, they receive a set amount of funding each year based on Temple’s compliance checklist, which is a list of events that must be held during the year to upkeep available funding.
The team conducts fundraisers almost every week to cover travel, fees and equipment among other expenses. They must raise about $10,000 extra each year as the team typically exhausts their university funding before even reaching nationals, which comes with hefty travel expenses.
“It can be really disheartening to see our success in the rugby world, to the point that we’re ending up in articles by USA Rugby, we’re on TV, and we’re doing all of this yet we’re struggling so hard financially against all these other schools,” Simons said.
Despite financial insecurities, TUWRC is determined to get to nationals in Houston and win a title.
This year, TUWRC has promoted their bake sales and fundraisers through campus favorites, like Maxis, and also gathered funding through merchandise sales. Although the team is sometimes frustrated when competing against funded top-level teams, they take pride in succeeding without all of the flashy benefits other teams receive.
“I feel that the entire team has a really broad sense of pride of knowing that not only did we win ourselves to where we are, but we deserve to be playing with these other teams because we raised all this money on our own, we control and manage the entirety of our team,” Putkowski said.
This Saturday, TUWRC will once again play Delaware in Wilmington, Delaware, with the game being a part of the conference league finals.
“Our team has had this certain energy but I just feel like this year, it’s like extra charge like I can see us making our way all the way to one,” Simons said. “I think that if that’s not a goal we can achieve this season, then it’s a goal that I see so close on the horizon.”