With summer's heat finally beginning â€¨to abate, fall sports are on everyone's mind.â€¨In Northeast Florida, pro and college football take pride of place. But as Jacksonville becomes more cosmopolitan, we're seeing other sports emerge — one of them being women's rugby, courtesy of the Jacksonville Women's Rugby Club.
Practices began Aug. 20 for the JWRC — whose team nickname is the Sinners — and this should be an exciting campaign for these lady ruggers. This season, they have coaches from South Africa who have 40 years of combined experience.
Team President Melissa Newkirk, who played college rugby at University of Central Florida, talked about the challenges of playing rugby on the club level in an email interview. She said the squad has 20 players but would like to have 30 to 45.
"We do not have tryouts and take anyone who wants to play, so we will take on all that are willing!"
Players come from all backgrounds — some with intense rugby backgrounds, â€¨others without.
"About half of our players did play in college, but we get lots who have never played before, and we teach them the game," Newkirk said. New players can learn the basics in about a month, but it takes three to six months to really feel confident, she said.
Newkirk played three years as an undergraduate — an experience that led directly to starting up this team.
"I started playing rugby in college. When I moved back home, there was not a team," she said. "I loved playing and wanted to share my passion for the sport with others. We also have an amazing local men's team that was and still is very supportive of our team; without their help, the women's team would not have been possible."
Many in our area might notice similarities with other more familiar sports; indeed, there are analogues to football and especially soccer.
"Rugby is a constantly moving game, like soccer; there are no downs or stoppage as in football," Newkirk said. "The main similarity to football is that the field is the same size and we both tackle; after that, not much. The biggest rule in rugby that confuses most people is you can only pass the ball backwards. In rugby, you must pass backwards because blocking is not allowed, and you can only tackle the player with the ball. The ball must be passed backwards and run forward to gain ground."
Another feature of rugby: the scrum. I've known male players who spoke quite graphically and frankly about the shortcuts people take in the formation. The Sinners likewise regard scrums with appropriate reverence.
"We take scrums very seriously," Newkirk said. "They are an integral part of the game but can also cause injury if not done correctly. Our referees also take them very seriously; that is why we have laws in rugby, not rules! We make sure to [teach] all of our players the proper technique before they're allowed to participate in a scrum. To be in a scrum is tiring and rewarding; the feeling of eight girls bound together and moving as one unit is very exhilarating."
That exhilaration has already begun for the Sinners, with practice underway even as they seek to recruit new talent. The fall season runs until Nov. 23, then starts again after the New Year for the spring season. Newkirk said the team has five games this season and wants to add one more.
One piece of advice: When you go to one â€¨of these games, get there early, as parking is at a premium.
"The Sept. 7 home game versus FSU is against the college team. Currently in Florida, there are only two solid women's teams — Jacksonville and Fort Miami — with four new teams forming: Daytona, Orlando, Tampa and Miami. Due to the lack of women's teams in the state, we do play college teams."