Coach Nancy Kechner gives us a closer look at Women's Rugby
You described rugby as, “everything their [the players] mom said don’t do – don’t play in the mud, don’t hit other girls, don’t be too aggressive…” Can you comment further on this?
Rugby is a very different sport than most women have played before. Most women’s sports don’t involve physical contact with other people. (Basketball may be an exception here) Rugby involves physically binding with your team mates and physically contacting opponents either through a tackle, or driving into a ruck or lineout. During early practices we have beginning players hit and drive through a tackle pad. Most of the new players just sort of lean into it at first, and we have to explain that the job is to translate your forward force into moving the pad and player forward to make some space for your team to work in. We usually repeat this several times to each player, because it's foreign to them to use their body to move someone else around.
I’d say we spend a good chunk of training time on disinhibiting beginners from their discomfort with physically contacting other players. This is usually where we lose rookies - they either love the concept of contact and using your body forcefully or they want no part of it. This is why we don’t have cuts. Rookies either embrace contact, or they hate it.
What is one misconception people have about rugby?
I think the major misconception is that rugby is a violent sport. Even though rugby involves contact, it doesn’t really involve collisions. Tackling in rugby is a very complex skill that is carefully taught and reinforced in every training session. In rugby you must be “in the grasp” in a tackle - you can’t just body check someone or slam an elbow into them. You must get your shoulder into the middle area of the opponent’s body and then use leg drive to move them backwards and towards the ground. Rugby style tackling is very technical and borrows from concepts of Aikido and other martial arts to use the opponent’s momentum to your advantage.
So no, Rugby isn’t violent. It’s a contact sport and the concept of “managing contact” is one of the cornerstones of rugby. The first cornerstone of rugby, however, is “go forward”, so you can understand where contact would happen as 15 other people are trying to stop you from going forward. But you may ONLY tackle the ball carrier in rugby and there is no blocking. So when you have the ball you may be tackled, and when you don’t have the ball you are not likely to get tackled.
Oh and on NFL broadcasts they liken any physical mess of players as “resembling a rugby scrum." A scrum is a highly technical event where players are bound with each other in an organized pattern to move the other scrum over the ball on the ground. Announcers should get educated on that.
What is your history with rugby?
I arrived as a transfer student here at UVA in 1980. I met the team at the activities fair after going through registration at U-Hall. I played here from 1980-1988.
- UVA: Played 1980-1988
- Philadelphia Women: 1988-1990
- Monmouth NJ Women: 1990-1997
- Coaching Princeton: 1989-1991
- Went to first College Nationals
- UVA: 1997-present
- 4 Final Fours
- 1 National Final
- 15 of 16 Sweet 16s
- 13 of 16 Elite 8s
- Mid-Atlantic Under-23 All-Stars: 2000-2004
- Virginia Rugby Union Under-23 All-Stars: 2000-2009
- USA Rugby Coach Accreditation Instructor: 2004-2008
What do you find most rewarding about coaching?
Interacting with the players, getting to know them, and watching them grow into awesome young women. I get the opportunity to mentor them in many aspects of their lives, and provide support, friendship, a hot meal, and good advice to the players in my care.
How many of your players come to the UVA Women’s team with experience playing rugby? What do you think is the most difficult thing for a new player to learn about rugby?
In fact, very FEW come here with rugby experience. We’ve had fewer than 10 players over 19 years who played rugby prior to UVA. We generally teach rugby from the ground up. We name rookie classes to create a group for beginners, which are independent of your year in school. So a 1st year and a 4th year can be in the same rookie class if they come out the same season. Rugby involves making a whole lot of mistakes while you learn the game, so we encourage new players to be bold in their choices, and learn from the outcomes. Being part of a rookie class allows players to learn with their beginner peers and creates a safe group in which to experiment with their rugby.
That being said, learning rugby is like learning a foreign language. Learning to play rugby involves understanding wholly new sport concepts, a new vocabulary, a new way to use your body in contact. It involves grueling physical stamina and it can be uncomfortable when you’re tired, and still have to get to the ball to help your team. It’s not easy, but UVA students aren’t usually looking for easy things. They want rewarding things and rugby provides not only a great physical outlet and release, but an accepting and diverse group who will welcome you into its folds if you merely apply yourself at practice.
How would you describe the dynamic of the Women’s team?
We are simultaneously a high-performance group of competitive young women and a warm, family-like support system. We practice hard, work out together, have difficult conversations, and then have team dinner at my house on Fridays where the food is warm and wonderful, and you get to play with my 145 pound Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, George. The team is very close since rugby requires time and physical bonds. Only another rugby player can truly understand how sore you are after your first game, when every muscle fiber in your body is screaming. Remember: while not violent, a tackle not only stops you from moving forward; it also throws you to the ground and the ground can be a little hard. There are lots of hits in a game and you remember all of them the next day…
What has impressed you the most about your players?
I’m impressed by so many of what makes them who they are. I admire their intelligence, their warmth, their courage, their wit, their ambitions, their fearlessness, and their drive. I also treasure their support and unconditional respect for each other. Like any group of women, not all the women on the team would be friends with others on the team if not for love of the sport. In fact, many of them might not even come into contact with other people on the team if not for rugby. Rugby crosses lines of race, ethnicity, religion, economic background, country of origin, and even political belief.
Can you tell me a little bit about the gift from the Sevens? How did you find out? How did you and the team react to receiving that gift?
Wow! It was a shocker. I was walking back to my front door last Monday morning, I looked down, and there was an envelope with my name on it. I knew it was something good, but thought it was a note to wish us luck or something from the Zs or 7s. I opened it carefully with a knife so I didn’t wreck the envelope, and there it was! I yelled, spun around, kissed the dog, and then called our treasurer, Kaleigh Brown. I apparently yelled into the phone something like: “KALES I FOUND AN ENVELOPE IT’S FROM THE 7S AND THEY SENT US A BIG CHUNK OF MONEY. HOW COOL IS THAT? THE 7S? OH MY GOD! I’D HAVE BEEN HAPPY WITH $7.77, BUT EVEN THE 7S KNOW ABOUT US NOW”. I had to repeat it as I was incomprehensible, but I was happy to say it all over again. I mean—no one knows about Women’s Rugby here at UVA. Yet we’ve been one of the most successful teams here over the years, and we’re a club team with volunteer coaches. But bubbling up onto the 7 Society radar was incredible. I’m a Double ‘Hoo, and most of my kids are really Wahoos, so having the 7 Society notice us was out of this world. I only told the officers at first, but when we told the team, they were overwhelmed! I mean---it was THE SEVENS, and they were proud of us.
What’s up next for the UVA Women’s team?
Well, as good as we are, we’d be better with more recruits. When you have 30 solid players (15 play on the field at once) you can’t have really intense scrimmage situations. We have 22 active players right now, so we don’t get the chance to play players of similar abilities. With our Division 1 National Runners-Up status AND the presence of Rugby 7s in the 2016 Rio Olympics, we hope we get really athletic recruits. Our rugby team is a great group of UVA student-athletes who are welcoming, accomplished, and who will challenge you to find out about yourself. If I were coming to UVA, wanted a new activity, and wanted to have instant interesting friends, I’d come out to rugby. I did when I got to UVA, and 36 years later I’m still never tired of rugby.