By Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer
For most Thunderbirds, this past Fall Break was just a long weekend and a brief escape from the stresses of class. But for Thunderbird’s own Rugby Club, the break was far more than that. Thunderbird’s Men’s and Women’s teams made the drive up to Flagstaff in anticipation of the first tournament of the season, Flagstaff Tens. Only the Men’s team competed in this tournament, due to a shortage of players on the women’s team. However, the women’s team—this reporter included—went along to show their support and get a chance to see the game in action. This reporter had the opportunity to speak with two major figures within Thunderbird Rugby—Men’s player Nick Penna (MGM ’17), and Women’s coach Chelsea Piper.
In the tournament, Thunderbird played three rounds. The first round went exceptionally well, with Thunderbird winning against NAU’s Tuba City with a final score of 21 to 0. The second round proved somewhat more difficult, but Thunderbird still took the win against Chinle with 21 to 5. The third round, against New Mexico Tech’s Pygmies, was hard fought and the Pygmies defeated Thunderbird by a narrow 10 points. (Piper’s other team, Tempe’s Women’s Rugby, also competed and won all three of their rounds.)
All in all, even without a clean sweep for Thunderbird, the Flagstaff Tens tournament was a fantastic starting point for the year for Thunderbird Rugby club. Despite the added challenge of Flagstaff’s higher altitude, the new and returning players alike showed tremendous promise and growth. In regards to the team’s performance, Penna said, “The highlight was the tournament and how the first-year players really stepped up and played well […] especially at altitude, which is tough for anybody. And to see the senior players, the second-year guys, and the guys from outside the school who have played first-year and second-years. [They] have stepped up into key positions and leadership positions—both on and off the field.”
The men’s and women’s teams are both a part of the same Thunderbird Rugby Club, and the women’s team’s presence supporting the men in the tournament contributed to that strong sense of team unity and Thunderbird spirit throughout the event. Penna, who plays #8 or the “hooker” position and has played rugby for 13 years, also added that another highlights was “the forming of the team and having the support of the ladies’ rugby team up there with us. That was really cool because it just showed that the 35-40 of us that were there came up as one rugby team and the synergy and the formation of it was really good.”
Rugby is an enormous part of Thunderbird’s culture. Founded in 1976, Thunderbird Rugby Club is the oldest student-run organization next to Das Tor itself. With such a long history, the sport has become a unique and unmistakable part of the Thunderbird mystique, bolstering the bond between Thunderbird alumni across the globe.
Penna spoke of his experience meeting Thunderbird rugby alumni on company visits during his Summerim in South Africa last May and the unique experience and bonds formed through rugby: “If you can grasp and fathom that kind of tradition and history, you’ll understand it’s really deep rooted within Thunderbird.”
Despite the brutal nature of the sport during a match, rugby teams place a great deal of importance upon amity and good sportsmanship, and the Thunderbird Rugby Club is no exception. Piper, Thunderbird women’s coach and “flanker” for Tempe Women’s Rugby, Piper, said there are a few aspects of the game that makes it different from most sports found at colleges in the United States: “Rugby in general has the biggest sense of family and connection. Your teammates on the field—you have to know them, you have to trust them, and you have to know they have your back. You always have socials with the other team. You don’t see that in other sports. In rugby, no matter what, you go out after and you have a good time…You hug the person who just tackled you.”
This honored tradition of good cheer was in full swing at the Flagstaff Tens, as players who had fought ferociously as rivals on the pitch celebrated together afterwards in the heart of Flagstaff with nothing but the best of congeniality and not a grudge to be found.
Even with 41 years of established traditions, Thunderbird Rugby continues to grow and move forward. For the first time in years, women’s rugby has returned to Thunderbird. Co-founded and coached by Piper, Penna, and Nuno Muandumba (MAGAM ’18), the women’s team has seen steady improvement which has been aided by the team’s palpably strong desire to learn and to take part in this time-honored tradition.
Regarding the development of the new team, Piper said, “I’m really impressed with the turnout. It’s all people who have never played rugby…all women who were totally intrigued by it but have now committed to it. They keep showing up and that shows a lot. I think this team has the potential to be really good. No matter how the season goes, I am excited to make this tradition for the school. I’m very interested in getting more tournaments for the women so this legacy can continue and go on. I’m excited about bringing this to life and then keeping it going.”
The growth of the women’s team spells great things for the future of the club as a whole. On a similar note, Penna stated, “[…]to have the numbers and enthusiasm and the notoriety that we have around campus, it’s absolutely phenomenal. Especially with the girl’s team now, the club as a whole is growing. I want to stay and help out as much as possible. To be a part of something in an exciting growth stage is amazing.”
With the Flagstaff Tens tournament over, the Thunderbird Rugby Club has more events to look forward to in the coming year. Piper and Muandumba are currently working to establish more tournaments in the area in order to increase the opportunities for Thunderbird to play on home turf with the support of the student body. The next established major tournament for both Men’s and Women’s will be the Duke tournament in the Spring semester (further details to follow later in the year). More forthcoming events include a game between Thunderbird Men’s and ASU B on the night of Oct. 27 at 8:30pm. Additionally, Thunderbird Men’s may be joining Camelback at a tournament in Las Vegas on Nov. 11. Finally, on Nov. 18—sharing a day with Campus Preview Day and November’s Regional Night—there will be a rugby cup held in honor of a late founding member of Thunderbird Rugby.
Thunderbird Rugby practice for both teams takes place on the ASU West field at 6:30pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. If you are interested in rugby but uncertain, you are encouraged to come to practice and give it a try. As Piper states, all body types are welcome, and there is a position for anyone. The women’s team in particular is eager to take on new players, so this reporter hopes to see some fresh faces out on the pitch very soon!