Temperatures were in the low 30s on a Wednesday evening in mid-January, but the frigid air didn’t seem to bother a local women’s rugby team.
While most of City Park was dark and deserted, six members of the New Orleans Halfmoons worked up a sweat on a frosty track field alongside Roosevelt Mall. The hardy athletes zigzagged around orange plastic cones, ran sprints and tossed an ivory, oval-shaped ball back and forth while shouting commands, their steamy breath swirling in the air.
They were preparing for the “Throw Me Something Rugger” Mardi Gras Tournament on Feb. 3 in La Salle Park in Metairie. The women will play a minimum of three matches, consisting of 25-minute halves, on the same day. Rugby teams will arrive from all over the country — one from as far away as Minnesota.
“Sometimes you'll see people that you only see a couple of times a year, because they live in other states, but you see them every year at this tournament,” said Nicole Brown, the team captain. “It's nice to rekindle those old friendships.”
Toiling in the wintry weather and playing back-to-back games requires physical strength, stamina and mental discipline — qualities these women possess in spades. But the team members’ passion for the sport, their dedication to the rugby community and the feeling of empowerment keep them going.
“Rugby translates to all aspects of life. I think every job interview I've gone into, when I don't know the answer to the question, I just answer with a rugby answer,” said Brittany Vegso, the tournament director.
“I work in a super male-dominated industry, and I don't think that has an effect on me, possibly from knowing that in rugby, men and women are totally equal,” she said. “Rules are the same for both men's and women's sides.”
The New Orleans Halfmoons Women’s Rugby Club was formed 40 years ago, but many locals are unfamiliar not only with the team, but with the contact sport. It started in England at the beginning of the 19th century. Games require two teams of 15 players, competing on a rectangular field bordered by two H-shaped goal posts.
Rugby is the granddaddy of today's football, with no forward passing and no pads.
Brown and Vegso say they're often greeted with questions when they reveal that they are rugby players.
“They ask if it's the sport with the stick,” said Vegso, referring to lacrosse.
“Sometimes they back off, like: ‘Oh wow, you're scary. You tackle people? I don't want to mess with you,’ ” Brown added.
For the most part, people seem interested in the league and want to watch games, said Brown, noting that they’ve recruited new team members by handing out business cards and approaching “people who look like they'd make good rugby players.”
Erin Anderson, the team’s match secretary, was one of those people.
“Four of our teammates surrounded me in an Indian restaurant and handed me a slip of paper with practice information on it, and they informed me that I was now a rugby player,” a straight-faced Anderson recalled. “I must have looked angry.”
Confidence and community
A typical hourlong practice for the Halfmoons involves sprints, strength training, scrimmages and drills that require tackling pads, activities that a rookie may find intimidating or perhaps inspiring.
“I think new people come in and see their teammates getting fit, and they want to be a part of that,” and they work until they are, Brown said.
Over the course of a season, first-time players experience a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie.
“Rugby is a family, and the players are there to support you on and off the field,” said Vegso, describing how one team member had helped her thaw the pipes beneath her house, that very day.
The women share rides to the airport, roll up their sleeves for one another on moving day and offer support during bad breakups.
“As one of our teammates put it: ‘Hell hath no fury like a women's rugby team,' ” Vegso half-joked about the “bad breakups” bit.
Rugby encourages connections, she said,
as players are together twice a week, every week, throughout most of the year.
“Rugby, even more so than other sports, creates a stronger bond, because when you're physically putting your body on the line for someone, you have to trust them,” Vegso said.