This past Friday morning, World Rugby, the governing body of a sport known for no pads and heavy tackles, made a big announcement: The United States are hosting the 2031 Men’s and 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cups.
For the rugby uninitiated, it’s a big deal. The World Rugby World Cup began in 1987 and features the best players in the world. In the global sphere of rugby, the United States isn’t a top international team, but the USA is home of large growth in the sport.
According to a 2016 report, the United States featured the second-highest number of rugby players with 1.5 million. That’s more than the entire Oceania region of the globe that features Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, where the sport thrives. Only England features more rugby players than the USA.
In April, one month before the World Rugby announcement, a group that perfectly represents that stateside growth held an event of their own. It wasn’t a major tournament announcement; it was a cultural potluck in a corner classroom in the Fontana Lab on Ohio State’s campus. The event was an exclamation point on the end of the Ohio Buckeyes Women’s Rugby season.
No Requirements Needed
The Buckeyes compete against the likes of the University of Michigan, Iowa and Indiana in the B1G conference, but are officially a club team. Ohio State competes in two of the more traditional forms of the sport: 15s and sevens. Each type is designated by the number of players for each team on the field.
While sevens is comprised of two seven-minute halves that feel more like watching sprints, 15s is the version of the game that most think of when they think rugby. It’s a field full of players attempting to find any gaps to move the ball down the field, most often met with groups of players using all their might to force their will against their opponents.
Before the start of the season, many people attending the potluck didn’t know rugby at all. There are no full ride scholarships or televised matches on network television. They also don’t have brand new Nike uniforms and equipment awaiting them when they move to campus.
“We used to not even have bags,” said Kim Nimoh, a third-year Neuroscience major and member of the Buckeyes rugby team.
Nimoh was recruited, but not in the sense that most people reading an article on this site would imagine. Some players are connected through high school competition, but most rugby players are recruited through the time-honored tradition known as the activity fair.
“I was kind of always been interested in football, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can compete in that’, and then I saw what rugby was doing and maybe I can be a part of that,” said second-year Madison Meixner, recalling her stroll through the tables of groups all hoping to add to their numbers. Even with the interest, Meixner was still apprehensive. “Could someone who’s only done running, and looks small like me, do it? They’re like ‘All body types can join.’”
Meixner and Nimoh each brought their own athletic history. In high school, Nimoh dabbled in basketball and Meixner ran in track, a cardiovascular activity in which Nimoh is glad to not have an affection. Knowledge of the sport isn’t the only thing that isn’t needed to play. There’s also no prerequisites as far as athletic experience.
“I was in marching band, theatre, and choir. I had not an athletic bone in my body,” said freshman Megan Garens. “Every time one of my family members comes and watches me play, they’re like, ‘This is terrifying, and I feel like you could get hurt any time somebody touches you. I’m like, ‘I do, but I don’t feel until afterwards.’”
Garens is one of the few members of the Ohio State women’s rugby side with high school experience. A friend asked a group of friends to try rugby and it stuck for Garens, who played her senior year for Highland High School, the 2021 state club-level champion. While Garens didn’t play many minutes for the championship-winning team, the love of rugby did to Garens what it does to most people it meets: it stuck.
When you meet someone who likes rugby, there’s a passion for it that’s unmatched to many other sports. That’s not to say there aren’t fervent soccer, football or basketball fans. Look at Ohio State football as an example of fervency at its highest degree. The thing about rugby is that there aren’t too many casual rugby fans.
The reasons above are a start to why the game is so loved. A former track athlete, and one of the shorter players on the team in Meixner, competes on the same team as a self-labeled non-athlete who’s one of the tallest on the roster. Rugby stretches beyond personal characteristics, and forms community that’s unmatched anywhere in sport.
Head coach Megan Znidarsic knows all about that community. The former OSU rugby player, university alum and current OSU College of Education and Human Ecology finance officer celebrated the end of her fourth season coaching the Ohio State Women’s Rugby Club. Coach Znidarsic played from 2003 to 2008 at Ohio State, and she now coaches rugby at the youth level and her daughter plays U14 rugby.
When Znidarsic wore the scarlet and gray, the rugby team’s importance stretched further than practices and competitions. Rugby gave students from all walks of life the opportunity to adjust to the college life, make new friends and let people be comfortable in their own skins.
“It was really a spot where a lot of LGBTQ students could find a space and a home that felt really safe and a place for them to express themselves,” said Znidarsic who walked out of the potluck midstory, leaving her team with a cliffhanger ending. “And so for me as a student here, I felt like that was one of the best parts about being on campus as a rugby team, was being able to be a home for people.”
Now, 14 years after playing her final year at Ohio State, Znidarsic carries that community spirit into the 2022 edition. When players go from unknowing future rugby player strolling through an activity fair to a member of the Buckeyes, that community surrounds them immediately.
Rachel Huffman is one of many examples. Huffman joined the OSU rugby team her freshman year, four years ago. Formerly a high school rugby player, Huffman wasn’t sure about the increase in level of competition, and saw college as a means to continue her education more than continue her rugby career. After visiting the Buckeyes rugby team table at the involvement fair, that changed.
“I was worried about the commitment. It was super chill,” said Huffman. “I was told ‘Oh, you don’t have to come to the first practice or be there for every single one,’ so that made me feel more comfortable and then coming into practices, coaches right away are super nice and very welcoming.”
The stereotype of student athletes foregoing difficult degrees and skipping class doesn’t fit in the rugby squad. It’s a team with degree focuses as diverse as the team itself. What appears to be a lax training schedule of “come whenever you can” is one piece of that community element.
Pressure to show up three days a week, study and even work isn’t realistic, and the unnecessary stress leads to burnout. When players attend practice, it has a way of wanting students to come back for more because it’s not the sports environment many are used to.
Those with athletic experience in high school and college see the difference immediately. For many sports, while there are team elements there’s still a heavy focus on the individual. Kamorah Ryhlick knows this well. Ryhlick is a sophomore studying pre-med who came to OSU partly for a spot on the rowing team. This after years of competing in soccer, basketball and track.
“I’ve noticed that the coaches more prioritize that individual work within a player,” said Ryhlick. “They really focus on you showing up to every practice, giving it your best, every practice, and focusing more on yourself than all the team, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it so that the girls within the team are more competitive, they are less likely to have that strong teamwork or that bonding.”
A combination of not knowing the sport and a welcoming environment latches players to the game quickly. Rugby is as collective as you can get. One outstanding athlete doesn’t make a team if they don’t have passes thrown in stride, players miss a tackle or teammates don’t set up quickly.
Also, competitors are part of the community too, because the love of rugby, and friendships built from its game isn’t exclusive to Ohio State. After good tackles, opponents often times congratulate the other player, a different interaction altogether to what most athletes experience before hitting the rugby field.
At this point, the story of rugby is all positive, but results-wise the Ohio State rugby team had a difficult fall 15s season. In their first year back since COVID-19 halted their club on the field, the Buckeyes didn’t win a game during their B1G schedule. Bringing together a team of people with no experience in the sport can do that, but things changed in March.
Ohio State traveled to Tennessee to compete at Nashbash, a tournament including 16 women’s rugby clubs competing match-after-match over two days. The Buckeyes packed up their new kit bags and made the trip south. On their first day, they won both of their matches, and they won them big. The Buckeyes beat Michigan Tech 36-7 and the Lakers Rugby Club 24-7.
Then, on the second day, the Buckeyes woke up sore and tired, at an hour that some of its players usually don’t see of 6:00 a.m. They won again. Although they lost their final match against the Michigan Wolverines, their three victories put the Scarlet & Gray in second place to end their 15s season.
Individually, Ohio State featured seven athletes who made the All-Ohio Team for their season accomplishments. The tournament and individual accolades are a huge accomplishment and a sign of things to come.
Znidarsic is leading that growth. Since joining four years ago, Znidarsic’s brought on another coach to give more individualized attention, used fundraising for not only equipment but to also work towards a $5,000 renewable scholarship and helping the B1G grow. Currently, schools like Purdue, Wisconsin and the University of Cincinnati are on the shortlist to join.
As more teams enter and the attention grows, so will the competitiveness. Coach Znidarsic has a five-year goal of the Buckeyes making the NCAA National Championship.
Beyond the University
While winning is a goal the team is already reaching towards, two areas not needing improvement are the relationships and energy surrounding the team. Even so, Znidarsic has ways to make it stronger.
“We’re getting really back into reestablishing some of the historic aspects of the team,” said Znidarsic. “We’re starting an alumni society, getting that off the ground by the end of this year, beginning of next year, and really pulling that alumni group back together because the women’s team has been on campus since the late 70s.”
There’s merit in bringing those that started the club back into the fold. Because of the time spent, and the high level of teamwork needed in rugby, the post-rugby relationships are often stronger. While most college graduates have a few friends that they keep in touch with post-graduation, Znidarsic is part of a group of 10 former Buckeye players that still keep in touch. Some even travel around the world together.
That’s not hard to imagine seeing teammates from all walks of life spending time together, eating cultural food that’s as close as a dorm cooking setup will allow. It’s also the emotions in the stories and words of the current roster of athletes.
“I really love my team,” said Rhylick, the former rowing team member as she fought back tears. “Seeing that on the field, as somebody who starts to be bad, the other ladies will stop and help you. That’s something that has been in previous sports hasn’t happened.”
In 11 years, when the United States hosts the Women’s Rugby World Cup, don’t be surprised if there are Ohio State names in the fold. If not, that’s ok too, because the trophies will rust before the relationships end.