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Rugby – More than just a sport

    By Torstein Lund Eik. May 8, 2014 - 2:32 pm

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As the sun roasted the many sunbathers on Queen’s Beach just across the road, Diamond Head crater created a dramatic backdrop for a sunny Saturday in Kapi’olani Park.

Under the shades of an Ironwood tree, a crowd of women and men gathered. Strong winds ruffled their hair. Bikes and mopeds were parked by the trees’ massive roots.

For 12 women and their coach, it was not just another Saturday. It was rugby day.

“If they’re not feeling their legs, they can’t run. And if it’s shoulder-to-shoulder, then that’s legal,” said Co-Coach Jonathan Di Mauro, 39, from Ewa Beach, standing in the middle of the group.

The ladies, wearing bright neon green jerseys, stood in a wide circle on the soft grass at Kapi’olani Park, with shirts asking «Wanna ruck?».? It was game day, and preparations were under way.

“What is the most important thing in the first two minutes?” asked Di Mauro.

“Big hits!” responded the ladies, some with more muffled responses then others. Clear pronunciation with a mouth guard can be challenging.

“If you don’t want to get hit, you’re in the wrong sport!” said Di Mauro. “When in doubt, get hit!”

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“If you don’t want to get hit, you’re in the wrong sport!” said Di Mauro. “When in doubt, get hit!”

The ladies standing around their coach are all players on the Hawai’i Harlequins Rugby Football Club women’s team, aptly named the Lady Quins. Di Mauro is one of two coaches, Mass Patelesio the other. The two of them share the title as coach, as they decided they did not want to have the responsibility of head coach and not being able to be there for every game.

Di Mauro had been coaching the team for a grand total of two weeks, and for him it was almost like faith led him into taking over the role of coach after their former coach had to move back to Canada.

“It just happened to coincide with the fact that I was hoping to get back into and involved with rugby,” said Di Mauro. “The exact same day as I walked in to talk to the Harlequins, Mass Patelesio was there to talk to them as well. Then the Harlequins said ‘Well, you two are the new coaches!’”

Di Mauro was no stranger to the sport – or the Harlequins. He had played rugby before, and while he worked for the military in Hawai’i he wanted to play more, but he simply did not have the time.

Now, being back in Hawai’i, he has the time to not only play, but also coach.

The job as a coach comes with responsibilities and challenges. Many coaches might be greeted with attitude from players not interested in listening to a new coach, but the Lady Quins proved to be very different.

“From the get-go I did not get that vibe,” said Di Mauro. “From the day we showed up, literally two weeks ago, we haven’t seen any of it. It’s been open arms. I wouldn’t be sitting here on my free time if I wasn’t enjoying it!”

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Having years of experience with rugby is far from a requirement to play with the Lady Quins. HPU graduate student Anne-Marte Jansberg, 26, from Norway, joined the team in November last year. She had played team sports back in Norway, and floorball for 13 years, but had never experienced team spirit like this before.

“A major difference compared to other team sports is that there are no groups within the team, it’s all for one and one for all,” said Jansberg. “If you don’t show up for practices or barbecues they’ll send you a text wondering where you are. It makes you feel very appreciated.”

Jansberg had been on the lookout for a team sport for quite some time, and a classmate, now also her teammate, suggested she should try out rugby.

“I was a little nervous before the first practices, because it is a team where a lot of people come and go,” she said. “But after maybe two practices, everybody remembers your name and you’re part of the team. It’s fantastic!”

Whether you are a seasoned player, or brand new to the game, you are more than welcome to show up and play.

“All the girls are very understanding, and want to teach you,” said Jansberg. “Every time I get frustrated, which happens a bit, they’re there to reassure me that it takes some time, but then I’ll get the hang of it. I got to play in the very first match we had last year, so you’re part of the team no matter what.”

The game the Lady Quins played on this particular Rugby-Saturday was a special game for Jansberg. She had been through a rough tackle courtesy of the Titans from Palolo Valley a few weeks earlier. It ended in a concussion.

“It was a practice-game where one of the Titan’s players hit me from behind, at a time when I didn’t have the ball,” said Jansberg. “It really hurt. But I’ve been taught that you can’t quit just because you’re afraid.”

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A concussion didn’t scare Jansberg away from the sport, nor did it scare away Anna Orlowski, 24, from Ewa Beach. At one of her first games against a New Zealand team at a Harlequin tournament, she was pushed into the ground in the first play of the game, and was escorted of the field and into an ambulance. Orlowski recovered, and made her way back to the rugby-field. She did not hesitate in naming one personality trait that come in handy when you’re playing rugby.

“Tough,” Orlowski said. “You have to be tough. You have to know that you can take on that girl without any doubt in your head. That’s what gets you hurt. And you can’t get hung up on mistakes.”

Speed is of the essence, and if you make a mistake on the field it can be a very unforgiving sport. But that doesn’t mean you have any time to rest or contemplate on what happened.

“Rugby is a fast-paced sport, and mistakes happened. The game is still going, and there is no stopping, so you just have to be ready to go again,” she said.

An attitude like that might benefit anyone considering an entry into the sport of rugby, as it is a rough sport. But there are all kinds of personalities on the team.

“We have a hyper girl who’s crazy, and we have to make sure she’s paying attention on the field and not picking flowers or something like that,” said Orlowski. “But when she is on the field and during play, she is a speed demon.”

As unified as the team seemed on the field, they are still widely different people with different personalities. All of which seemed to strengthen the team.

“We’ve got the quiet shy ones and the more outgoing people, but it’s just a very broad range. I think it helps us mesh better as a team, “ said Orlowski.

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Any rugby day game is likely to send many players flying to the ground, and to the untrained eye, it can seem more like a battlefield then an organized sport. Watching players tackle each other can make it look like an injury-inducing melting pot. And unless you know what you’re doing, it can be.

“When you’re being tackled, you need to keep your feet moving,” said Lauren Van Woudenberg, 24, from Honolulu. “If you plant your feet and you get tackled, you can twist or even break an ankle. Second most important thing is to tighten your body when going down and protect your head.”

With no padded armor or helmets to protect them, rugby players suffer more concussions from the head hitting the ground, then the head hitting any other body part.

There are many skills you need to master in order to be a good rugby player. With the way the game is played, one would assume that the most important abilities are strength or speed, but according to the team it’s not. As stated by Van Woudenberg, the number one rule for being on a rugby team is just being accepting.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much experience you have, everyone who plays rugby is excited to teach other people to play rugby,” she said. “It’s such a global community. It makes everybody excited about coming to practice, and it creates the strongest sports bond I’ve ever encountered.”

The bond between the Lady Quins is strong, but not just between their own team. At games you will see the fiercest tackles between competing teams, and they will pummel each other into the ground with all their might. Only to reach out a helping hand to help each other get up again seconds later.

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A strong on-field bond is evident, but the Lady Quins has a strong bond off field too. Many Saturday night escapades and social events have been held, and when the Harlequin’s men’s team went to Kona, the ladies saw their opportunity for a weekend sleep-over.

“One of our girls has a big house in Kaneohe with lots of bedrooms, and her fiancé and roommates were out of the house at that time,” said Vam Woudenberg. “So we went to Costco, bought a bunch of food and headed out to Kaneohe for the entire weekend.”

“We just hung out for an entire weekend, watched movies and went to the beach, and it was a rugby weekend just for the girls. It was so much fun!”

It might seem like rugby is a mix of high speed, adrenaline and an occasional party, but playing rugby can be a life-changing experience.

“Starting rugby is the most empowering thing I have ever done in my life,” said Van Woudenberg. “I think part of it is the self-confidence in being able to take down some girls that are twice your size, and learning a skill that a lot of people don’t have.”

Van Woudenberg tore a ligament in her left ankle and spent five months in a boot, after her very first rugby game several years ago. She has broken her right big toe so many times it doesn’t bend anymore, is sporting a brace on her knee to recover from a current injury, and sprained a tendon during a lift at one of their practices. One should think she would have retired a long time ago.

“People keep asking me why I continue to play since I was hurt, but if you haven’t played you don’t understand the pull,” she said. “It’s like a magnet sucking you back whenever you try to get out.”

And the force of the rugby magnet is strong. The Harlequins have an extended network of former players, and even an old boys team. They all keep coming back.

“It’s why you have a lot of older people on the team. You might wonder why they put their bodies through this, but they just can’t stop,“ said Van Woudenberg. ”It’s like a way of life. It’s a rugby way of life.“

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The game against the Titans ended with a loss, but with no concussions or further injuries. As the Lady Quins made their way back to the shade of the Ironwood tree, the Harlequins men’s team greeted them with applause, and praising them for their efforts on the field.

They may not have won the game, but it wouldn’t break their spirits or ruin their day.

It was still rugby day.

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