Clark County club team is playing for an Oregon Rugby League title Saturday
Natalie Burley has been playing rugby regularly for a little more than a year now, but she didn’t talk about it too much at her school.
Well, until recently.
The game kind of talked for her, with a black eye that led to classmates wondering what happened.
“Now, a lot of people know I play rugby,” said Burley, a sophomore at Prairie who competes for the Chinook Rugby Club’s Lady Pack, a high school club squad.
Rugby players treat bumps and bruises as badges of honors.
“I think it’s kind of cool,” Burley said. “Stories to tell, I guess.”
There is another story to tell associated with the sport, as well. Burley and some of her teammates can relate. The sport is about teamwork, acceptance, and friendship.
Up until she started playing rugby, Burley said she wasn’t into sports.
It turned out, Natalie Burley just had not yet found her sport.
The lockdown, the school closure, and then hybrid schooling took a toll on Burley.
“That was really hard. I was struggling to make friends,” she said.
Two classmates from Laurin Middle School at the time asked her to give rugby a try. It changed Burley’s life.
“I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I had no clue what rugby was. I went to a couple of practices. I enjoyed it. I met a lot of new friends. I’ve been playing since.”
Rugby has become a passion.
“What motivates me is the teamwork,” Burley said. “I really look forward to that.”
The Lady Pack have been teaming up for some big moments this fall season. The team plays Saturday in Portland for an Oregon Rugby League title in 7-on-7.
Rugby, like many club sports, has a number of seasons with different variants. Boys do not play in the fall because of high school football season. The girls who compete in the fall play 7-on-7, the same system as Olympic rugby. In the spring and summer, there is the more traditional 15 players on a side.
The Chinook Club has teams for elementary school age, to middle school, and high school club ball. There is also a LaCamas Rugby Club that plays in the Oregon league as well. (Clubs in Southwest Washington prefer playing in Oregon to avoid the three-hour trip to Seattle.)
Lance Henwood, who hails from New Zealand and moved to the United States in 2008, is the coach of the high school girls club for Chinook.
“It’s a different sport. It’s got a combination of things,” Henwood said.
He noted it can be for any athlete.
“We have bigger players right down to small. There is a position for each player on a rugby team,” he said. “We have tiny, slim girls to really solid girls. All body types.”
Oh, and at Chinook Rugby Club, there is one priority: Have fun at practice and on game day.
Abby Monahan is a sophomore at La Center High School.
“I used to play football for four or five years. It started to get to the tackle stage. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you try rugby?’ I started with touch, and worked my way up to high school tackle,” Monahan said.
She loves the physical nature of the sport.
“It’s a great outlet for a lot of people, especially if they have anger issues,” she said with a smile. “It’s a little bit more on the brutal side. I want to get into it.”
Kanani La’a, a junior from Evergreen high School, said it was scary to think about the physical nature of the sport initially.
“The first time I got tackled, I kind of laughed,” La’a said. “It doesn’t really hurt until you’re off the field. ‘Oh wow, that one hurt.’”
The adrenaline carries the rugby player as much as it does for a football player or any other athlete in any contact sport.
One must love it to conquer the challenge of the game, though.
That is what the teenagers on the Lady Pack have in common, a shared passion for this sport that is growing in America — especially among girls.
This fall club Lady Pack team has athletes from high schools such as Prairie, La Center, Evergreen, Hockinson, and Columbia River. The club has athletes from several other schools in the area throughout the other seasons, too.
Then there is the mix of nationalities. The Lady Pack have athletes with Russian heritage, Jewish heritage, some from New Zealand, others from Germany, and South Korea, and Samoa.
“There is a lot of community in it. It is more than just a sport,” Monahan said. “When you’re on that field, you are a family. You have to work as a family. You have to have each other’s back or you’re not going to get anywhere.”
“Rugby means so much,” La’a added.
Rugby is taking these athletes on plenty of new journeys. Monahan played in a tournament in Canada over the summer in hopes of getting noticed by college recruiters.
Then there is Burley, the one who had no idea what rugby was until recently. She, too, is thinking about playing rugby in college.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn or anything, but I feel I’m naturally good at it,” Burley said. “This is fun, and I’m pretty good at it, so why not continue it?”
The Chinook Lady Pack are playing in the fall season finals at 10 a.m. Saturday at Glenhaven Park, 7900 NE Siskiyou Street in Portland.
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My daughter, 9, showed no interest in sports until this year. It started in spring with co-ed rugby and now girls rugby this autumn. She’s all ready for co-ed to start again with the final autumn season game coming up.
I wish this was around when I was a kid.