American football is generally seen as a rough sport, but rugby makes it look like ballet. Whereas American football requires its players to wear a helmet, a chest pad, gloves, kneepads and more, rugby players only wear a mouth guard to prevent concussions.
In addition, while football players stop for every tackle and downed ball, rugby players go right through the tackle and continue possession, stopping only for penalties or balls rolling out of bounds. With all the ferocity of American football, half the rules and almost none of the protective equipment, rugby is a sport for only the roughest and toughest of athletes — and Emma Gilroy is one such athlete.
Gilroy, a sophomore at York College in Pennsylvania, has played on the Women’s Rugby Team for two years. As a mathematics major with a minor in finance, she balances the grueling physical practices of the sport with the intense workload of her major.
After graduation, she plans to have an actuarial track or a career in the finance field. However, when speaking about her future, she says “Everything is subject to change. To be honest, I have so many options that I have yet to explore, so who knows!”
Despite being one of the younger players on the roster, Gilroy has become a crucial member of the York College Women’s Rugby Team. As the outside center, she sports the number 13 on her jersey; in the world of rugby, this marks her as a member of the starting team, which consists of numbers one through 15.
It also marks her as a member of the backline, which contains players nine through 15 in the starting team. In the position of outside center, Gilroy breaks through the opposing team’s backline on offense, while also making key tackles to prevent her opponents from moving forward in the game.
In addition, Gilroy doubles as the team’s fullback. Fullbacks provide the last line of defense for their team; since they have to catch breakaways, they’re generally some of the fastest players on the pitch.
Throughout the beginning of the fall semester, Gilroy and her teammates trained relentlessly for the competitive season. “During our regular season in the fall and spring,” Gilroy says, “we practice Tuesday through Friday from 4 – 6 p.m., along with gym sessions that we must log into a sheet to be checked by our captains.”
Even after the competitive season in the spring, the team still practices offensive and defensive drills to keep their skills sharp. Gilroy doesn’t stop there: during the summer off-season, she plays sevens rugby for the Long Island Women’s Rugby Team.
On the road to playoffs this past year, York College played six different teams after the regular season victories. Throughout the playoffs, the York Women’s Rugby Team “remained undefeated, and every game was a shutout except for our last game during Regionals against Lee.”
On Dec. 2 of last year, the York team travelled to Georgia to play at Nationals for the National Small College Rugby Organization. The final round took place at Life University in Marietta, Georgia. As champions of the Mid Atlantic Rugby Conference division, they were guaranteed a spot as one of the top four teams in the nation, no matter the results of the game. According to Gilroy, the entire team was elated to be one of the Final Four.
“After the sir blew the whistle at the end of our championship game on Day 2 of Regionals, I think it all just kind of hit us like a train that we were going to be in the top 4 of our league,” she says. “For our graduating seniors, including Ashley Arena, Maria Moran, Amanda Tondin, Lashawn Scott, Lauren Lafko, Madison Beisswanger, Sarah Hurley and Mary Kate Creel, this is something they have worked towards their entire college rugby career and they put everything on that pitch. I don’t think I slept much Sunday night because I was incredibly excited that we would be playing for number one and had to sort of calm myself down knowing I had to wait a few weeks.”
Unfortunately, the York College team lost to Bentley 39 – 19, missing their shot for the number one slot in the Championship. While the team was devastated, Gilroy says that they “all came together in the second half, with some adjustments to play to the best of our ability with the current situation to put up a tough match.”
Gilroy herself was a key player in the adjustments. Despite being only a sophomore, she was able to help the team stand up against a difficult opponent. By the end of the game, she seemed optimistic about the team’s loss, saying, “Although we came short, I think everyone had felt they played their hearts out and I still cannot say how proud I was to be playing with those girls.”
Later in the Nationals, York College came out to play against Gustavus Adolphus for third place. After a grueling 80-minute game, the teams found themselves tied 36 – 36, taking the game into overtime. However, the York team’s backline managed to break through the Gustavus Adolphus defensive line to score a try, taking the lead at 43 – 36.
In the end, York College Women’s Rugby was third in the nation. As a member of a nationally ranked team, Gilroy reflected on the experience as a whole.
“I feel that this experience really opened my eyes to the skill level that is located all over the U.S. and makes me incredibly proud to be a part of this organization and movement for women in rugby,” she says. “It is so crazy to see how talented some girls are! Although during the games you are striving to win and moments can get quite heated on the field, at the end of the day you just have to acknowledge how tough some of these girls are and give them props.”
Rugby is notorious for being rough, but it’s not just the roughness of the sport that makes it unique. It’s one of the only sports where opponents will fight tooth and nail for over an hour, and then clap each other on the back and congratulate them on a nice tackle. There’s something about the sport that makes people form instant connections.
“The people I have met through this sport has to be my favorite part,” Gilroy says. “I can truly say I have met some of my closest friends through this sport and you never know what connections you have once you commit to the sport!” The team becomes a family, each year growing in size as seniors graduate and incoming students enter the sport.