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updated: 10/6/2013 6:24 PM

Girls giving rugby a chance, helping sport's growth in U.S.

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  • Maeve Gilbert, 14 of Chicago, left and Nicole Southerland, 15, of Palatine, run a drill Sunday during the Girls Day of Rugby hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg.

       Maeve Gilbert, 14 of Chicago, left and Nicole Southerland, 15, of Palatine, run a drill Sunday during the Girls Day of Rugby hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Players run a drill Sunday during the Girls Day of Rugby hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg. The sport's supporters are trying to drum up more interest in rugby, especially ahead of its inclusion in the 2016 Olympics.

       Players run a drill Sunday during the Girls Day of Rugby hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg. The sport's supporters are trying to drum up more interest in rugby, especially ahead of its inclusion in the 2016 Olympics.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Anaise Fitzpatrick, 10, of Lake Villa practices catching a ball Sunday during the Girls Day of Rugby hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg.

       Anaise Fitzpatrick, 10, of Lake Villa practices catching a ball Sunday during the Girls Day of Rugby hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 

In his native South Africa, rugby is more than a sport for Palatine resident Warren Taylor.

"For us it's a religion," he said.

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That level of devotion seems to have been passed down to his 15-year-old daughter, Rachael Taylor, who plays on the Palatine Juggernauts girls rugby team run by her father, a retired semipro player, and coach Alan Burton.

"My dad's been doing it since he was, like, born. So it kind of got passed on to me," said Rachael, a student at Palatine High School.

The sport may not be a religion in the suburbs yet, but events like Sunday's Girls Day of Rugby, hosted by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association at Olympic Park in Schaumburg, are spreading the faith. And rugby stands to receive a huge boost by its inclusion in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Rachael is among the players with hopes to compete in that Olympics. She said she is drawn by the physical contact, "the rucking and mauling and tackling."

For three hours, girls received instruction in several aspects of the game, including passing, catching and running with the ball. They also played touch rugby and watched an exhibition of high-level rugby from some of the area's powerhouse teams.

They also benefited from the presence of national team players like 2014 World Cup hopeful Jenny Lui of Chicago, as well as that of Erin Kennedy, youth development director for USA Rugby.

"(Rugby provides) a unique opportunity for women, because it's the only contact sport that has the exact same rules or laws as the men," Lui said.

Kennedy said she is working with the IYRA to get more girls playing the sport. There are more than 100,000 players registered with USA Rugby, about 20,000 of them women, she said.

Kennedy wouldn't say the sport is violent.

"I would say it is rough and it's very aggressive, but there are a lot of laws around the game that keep players safe," she said. "Our coaches are certified in health and safety, and our referees are certified in it as well. It's not football without pads. It's a lot more controlled."

Anne Schwaab of Hoffman Estates, girls coordinator for IYRA, said there are rugby supporters dedicated to the game and trying to share it with others. Schwaab, who brought her 8-year-old daughter Lexie to the clinic, provided a list of local teams in such suburbs as Naperville, Plainfield and St. Charles.

Despite its growth in the suburbs, it's not always easy for girls to find a place to play it. One of the girls at the clinic, Lillian Bramlet, 17, of Lockport, has been forced to travel to play.

"I drive out to Aurora to play," Lillian said. "It's hard because in Illinois, high school rugby isn't that developed. We're just trying to put one team together so we can have a good time, and sometimes it's a struggle."

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