What comes to mind when you think of rugby? Huge Aussies, with cauliflower ears and thighs the size of steel drums? Powerful Kiwis, as big as cars and as fast as a runaway train? Scrums of Pacific Islanders, with 1,900 pounds of men on either side, locked together fighting for control of the ball?
Written by Elaine Stachera Simon
Photography courtesy Lady Chile Rugby
Picture instead dedicated New Mexico State University women undergraduates who bake cookies and sell t-shirts to cover travel expenses for the Lady Chile Rugby Club. Women’s rugby has been on campus since the 1990s (men’s since the 1980s), and these close-knit athletes are always looking to bring converts into the rugby fold.
Lady Chile team captain and senior kinesiology major Madeline “Maddie” Gallo was introduced to rugby her senior year in high school in Albuquerque, and says the “intensity” of it made her fall in love with the game the second she started playing. Teammate and Los Angeles native Katie Denman, a sophomore communications major, however, took a bit more convincing. She would watch a good friend play on the NMSU men’s team, and they kept asking her to join. Katie finally gave in, gave it a go, and never looked back.
Maddie says the key to recruiting for the Lady Chiles is often education, and fears of being hit and having to hit someone make rugby initially challenging. Both Maddie and Katie admit to having to get over the hurdle of that first tackle (whether giving or getting). Maddie worked through it with the help of a coach who taught her how to land—keep your legs together so your ankles go down first, then your knees, then your hips, and land on the back of your shoulder to protect your joints.
Katie had a trial-by-fire first tackle, and says that learning not to extend your arms to brace a fall takes practice—she imagines she is holding a cup of water in her hands to stop that from happening. Now she looks forward to it, saying that if you have a bad day, you can go tackle someone and “suddenly your day is not so bad after all!”
Some potential recruits worry that they are too big or too small to play, but Katie stresses that body size (or lack of it) is no reason not to enjoy the game—everyone has a place. “You learn to play to your strengths, and there’s a lot of stuff you didn’t think you’d be able to do, but you can!” she says. “That’s really good, and everyone needs that. People underestimate themselves, especially women. But then you do it and feel great.”
Size may not matter at the recreational level, but fitness is fundamental. Lady Chiles is a club team (not a university team), and most team members do fitness training on their own. When they do get together, Maddie leads drills on the pitch including sprints, defensive drills, and ball-handling drills.
Katie stays in shape through classes at the NMSU Activity Center, runs the stadium steps, and swims. For Maddie, weightlifting is the largest part of her fitness regimen. On a legs day, she’ll incorporate squats, lunges, straight-leg deadlifts, extensions, and calf raises. An upper body workout might include lat pull downs, standing or seated rows, bench presses, dumbbell presses and flyes, and triceps extensions. As one of the experienced members of the team, she often participates in the scrums. During a scrum, keeping a straight back and neck is important, and having a strong back and legs is essential to good form.
In addition to the physical nature of rugby, the rules are complicated. Maddie notes that often you can’t really explain a rule until it comes up in play, and during scrimmages she will stop to answer questions about rules and strategy. When she started, Katie says she only knew that you throw the ball backwards and you have to touch the ball to the ground to score, but that everyone wants you to learn and get better, and even the referees will gladly explain their calls if you ask.
Maddie generally plays forward positions prop or lock, but players change positions depending on who is available. Even in tournaments, teams are sometimes short players, and players will get loaned out so the games can go on. During last fall’s High Desert Rugby Classic (the oldest women’s rugby tournament in the United States, dating from 1972), the Lady Chiles paired up with Adams State to have enough players to compete.
The culture of camaraderie is clear, and perhaps not surprising given that rugby—especially women’s rugby—is not as visible in the United States as elsewhere in the world. Indeed, part of rugby’s attraction for Maddie was that it “wasn’t something that normal girls do.”
For the upcoming year, the Lady Chiles will focus on recruitment, as three team members will be studying abroad in rugby powerhouses England and Ireland. Maddie hopes that the success of the Lady Chiles at the Las Vegas Invitational, the premier amateur rugby event in the nation and in which the Lady Chiles made it to the semi-finals in college sevens, will be a great talking point with new recruits.
Want to help the Lady Chiles take next year’s team on the road? T-shirts will be on sale next semester, or drop a donation off at Pioneer Bank, where they have an account under NMSU Lady Chile Women’s Football Club.
The culture of camaraderie is clear–especially in women’s rugby…
See more of the team in action on Instagram @nmsuladychile.