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The women of the Tucson Lightning Rugby Club play for the love of the game

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Major league sports have taken a beating recently. Dozens of professional baseball players, including stars like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Manny Ramirez, have used performance-enhancing drugs. This summer, NBA player LeBron James and Dunkgate hit the headlines. And there's talk of a possible NFL strike in 2011.

As the song asks, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Thanks to drug use, excessive salaries and poor player behavior, many major-league sports have suffered a black eye. We can, however, turn our eyes to other games and local teams.

At the UA's Bear Down Field on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Tucson Lightning Women's Rugby Club practices with intensity and camaraderie. Women's rugby has been flying under the radar in Tucson for 20 years.

"The objective of rugby is to advance the ball down the field by running forward or passing backward to cross over the try line to score," explains Mya Hoeflinger, president of Tucson Lightning. "Fifteen play at one time. ... Players play offense and defense. There are two 40-minute halves.

"When someone asks, 'What is rugby?' we describe it as a combination of football and soccer. In football, you tackle and run with the ball. With soccer, it's continuous (like rugby), so it's kind of a combination of the two sports."

Similarities to football end with gear and tackling comparisons. Rugby players are required to wear a mouthguard but no other protective gear. To tackle a player, you must make contact and wrap your arms around them to bring them down.

Finding women to do that was a challenge for Nancy Purdin when she established Tucson Women's Rugby in 1989. "Twenty years ago, most people had never even heard of rugby. If they had, they thought it was rough and tumble. It was hard to get past that perception," says Purdin.

Purdin's team continued and became affiliated with the UA in 1999, becoming UA Women's Rugby. In 2000, the team joined the Southern California Rugby Football Union, and only UA students were eligible to play. It continues today.

In 2005, Tucson Lightning formed, and is open to all players. They joined the football union in 2006. Many players Purdin has coached will gather for a 20-year reunion on Sept. 26. A game will be played at Estevan Park, 1000 N. Main Ave., starting at 11 a.m.

Tournaments are played in the fall; the official season starts in January and runs to April or May. "In an ideal season, we will have five home and five away games," says team manager Rebecca Cline. Hoeflinger and Cline say they are gratified that theirs is the only team in the division that has never forfeited a game.

Team players conduct fundraisers and volunteer to raise awareness of the sport. Another little-known fact is that women play with the same equipment and rules as men.

"People don't associate women with a contact sport. People ask, 'Oh wow, you play rugby? You tackle?' Every rugby player is very proud of it," says Cline.

You also might expect young, athletic, large women playing, but that's not the case.

"You can get as young as 18, and we have women who are in their mid-40s. ... One of our best tacklers is under 100 pounds," says Cline. "Anybody can play no matter your physical state. If you believe it, you can do it," adds Hoeflinger.

Both say another rugby misconception is that players get excessive injuries. "People think rugby players get hurt more than others. There are injuries, but it's not more than the average sport," says Hoeflinger.

New players are always welcome and can expect not only a good workout, but also a new social arena. "Rugby in general has a really strong social aspect. You play against a team; you don't like each other on the field. Afterward, you socialize with the team. It's tradition that you host the team that comes to play you," says Hoeflinger. Gatherings are either at the field, at a restaurant or in someone's home.

New alliances are also forged across team lines. "It's a sport that fosters deep ... friendships. You may tackle the hell out of them, but they are your friends afterward," says Purdin.

Even though rugby isn't well-known in the United States, all three women I talked with spoke fondly about the sport. For them, it's about the love of the game. I'd like to think Joe DiMaggio would approve.

For more information about Tucson Lightning Women's Rugby Club, visit lightningrugby.com.

To see video footage of Tucson Lightning Women’s Rugby Club practicing, visit Tucson Weekly TV’s YouTube page.

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