Rugby isn’t just for the English

by Sydney Castillo, staff writer

Intensity builds as players fight for the ball, packed in a scrum scrambling for possession. Bound together players fight to inch up the field.

Bodies crash together as the fight for the ball continues. Organized chaos ensues as the game goes on.

It is easy to see that rugby is a brutal sport. But what’s surprising to see is how many Cal High girls are beginning to play the sport, which is a style of football popular in New Zealand, England, and Australia. Girls are proving that they can handle the brutal game.

Junior Daniela Hernandez plays rugby for the Pleasanton Cavaliers, a new team in its first year that competes against other local teams and travels as far as Sacramento for matches.

The team’s season began in November and wraps up this month. The Cavaliers feature 18 girls from Cal, Foothill, Amador Valley , Granada, and Livermore high schools.

Hernandez has been playing for three months and thinks rugby is very intense.

“I do the shot put and discus (for Cal’s track and field team),” said Hernandez. “I wanted a contact sport so I started playing rugby.”

Junior Melissa Mosier also plays rugby for the Cavaliers.

“I like rugby because when you want to pummel someone you can,” said Mosier. “It’s a great way to take out aggression.”

Freshman Leti Hingano first became interested in playing rugby when she watched her siblings play the tough sport.

“Watching the intensity of the game looked pretty fun,” said Hingano. “I’ve grown to love playing rugby.”

Women’s rugby caught her attention because she liked how tough of a sport it was. Both men and women play by the same rules. To score, players must reach their opponents end zone and touch the ball to the ground, earning them five points. Two additional points can be added to the score if the team can kick the ball through the crossbar.

All of this is done wearing minimal protective gear.

“There is no padding, it’s really aggressive, fast paced and there is no crying,” said Mosier.

At practice the girls run and condition a lot to stay in shape for games, but nothing can prepare them for the physical nature of the sport.

“I’ve had my wrist bent back really far and cracked a rib,” said Hernandez.

The intensity doesn’t scare the girls and they push through their injuries.

Hernandez admits she was nervous at her first game months ago but shook off her fears as the game went on.

Ken Burnhorn coaches the girls and is amazed by how far they have come this season.

“They’re fantastic,” Burnhorn said. “They have come from not knowing anything and have stepped up to play great rugby.”

The team is 7-2 in league and are now into the playoff season. Their most memorable game so far was their most recent one on March 31.

“It was our first game in the rain and it was probably the most fun because everyone was slipping and falling all over the place,” said Hernandez “We ended up winning 50-0.”

The Cavaliers are improving from each game and proving that they are tough.

“Rugby allows all the players, whether they are on the same team or not, to bond with each other as if they are family members,” said Hignano.

Many Cal High boys are also playing the sport. Most of them also played football but find it hard to compare it to rugby.

“It’s really fun, there’s no pads, more brutal conditions and more injuries,” said junior Mike Arata, who plays for the Danville Oaks.

Junior Oscar Robertson, who is the Oaks captain, thinks of himself as a trendsetter because he influenced many of his friends to play rugby.

“It looked like a fun sport,” said junior Imran Niazi. “I like hitting hard and running over people.”

This season is their first time the team has been undefeated in league play. The Oaks are seeded first in the playoffs with their record of 9-0. They recently blew out De La Salle’s team. The team came together and everyone played very well. It was a key turning point in their teamwork.

“Against undefeated Oakland we were outsized and they even performed a haka to intimidate us,” said junior Kareem Khattab. “But we played our game and stuck to the plan, even when they were playing dirty.”

That game was their most intense yet with a close final score of 24-17. The Oaks proved themselves against a hard opponent.

The boys love playing to stay in shape. Conditioning and tackling are the main focuses at practice.

“I play to get better at football and to stay in shape,” said junior Armon Hamzehloo.

Some players, including Robertson and junior Cameron Marek, are even looking to continue their play in college.

“Rugby’s still a relatively low key sport in college and there’s a lot of less competitive clubs within schools for people looking to play more casually,” said Robertson. “However, there are also very skilled teams that some of our players are hoping to join.”