The Gentlewomen of SCU Rugby

Santa Clara’s women’s rugby team has a reputation for bringing brutal competition and being a safe haven.

The Gentlewomen of SCU Rugby
SCU women’s rugby (in red) at a match at the University of Nevada, Reno during the 2023 season. Photos provided by Paula Back.

Some call rugby the game they play in heaven.

Imagine: The full-tackle sport typically described as a cross between American football and soccer wherein players don’t wear protective pads or armor—that’s what the angels and saints are playing on the hallowed field of clouds above us.

Winston Churchill allegedly once called rugby “a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” Since 1997, Santa Clara has included gentlewomen on the pitch.

Ask any rugby player or fan, and they’ll say respect is rule No. 1 of the game. World Rugby—the governing body that organizes the Rugby World Cup—identifies respect, along with integrity, passion, solidarity, and discipline as the defining values of their charter. And it’s not just respect for your team; it’s for the referee, coaches, fans, and, yes, your opponent. Because without respect, all that scrumming and tackles is just violence.

A line-out in rugby refers to the restart of play when the ball goes out of the field of play. Teams can lift up a player in an attempt to catch high balls thrown back into play, as seen here in SCU’s match against Sacramento State.

“Rugby culture, in general, is very respectful, and it’s very welcoming,” says Paula Back ’17, who played on the women’s rugby team at Santa Clara and now serves as the head coach. “Because it’s such an intense and aggressive game, it bonds people. It feels like you’re going into battle together,” says Back. It’s probably why SCU’s women’s rugby team has such loyal players and alumni, who dedicate so much of their free time to training.

And it’s likely why the club has earned a reputation for being a haven for its players. “For the LGBTQ community, women of color, it’s so open,” Back says of her time as a student athlete. “In my experience, it was the safest space to be at Santa Clara… we’d joke that we were the misfits—we didn’t fit in anywhere else but there.”

Team captain Therese Maligranda ’23 says that from the moment she tried out a practice her sophomore year, everyone on the team was extremely inviting and supportive. “Not everyone on the team has played team sports like this, and the fact that actually anyone can learn and translate that to wins is so encouraging,” she says.

Beyond the friendships, competition is a huge stress reliever, akin to meditation, Maligranda says.  “I don’t think my heart has ever raced that much before or my adrenaline run that high. There’s not a lot of thinking; it’s instinctual,” she says. And thanks to that respect rule, players of either team come together after every game to eat, drink, and be merry, she says. “Even though we’re feral on the field, we’re friends off of it.”

Womens Rugby
The Santa Clara women’s rugby team was established in 1997 as part of Campus Recreation. They compete in the Division 2 West Coast Rugby Conference against UC Santa Cruz, University of San Francisco, Cal State Monterey Bay, University of Nevada Reno, Sacramento State, San Jose State, Fresno State, Cal Poly and St. Mary’s.
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