Organized mayhem

girls running in a field playing rugby, girls chasing them trying to tackle them
The team plays seven-on-seven rugby. Other versions of the game can feature as many as 15 players on a side.

, yes. It looks like they are using a fat football. And rugby also features scrums and weird throws and kicks. And a score is a try, not a touchdown. And they tackle each other despite wearing no padding.

So what are a group of Mt. Lebanon girls doing playing such a sport? With contact? With the same rules as the boys’ version?

A girl sitting on a field wearing a shirt that says "deal with the devil, Mt Lebanon blue devil rugby" on the back of it
Claire Bovino took some time to get used to the sport, but is glad she made the investment.

Loving it. That’s what.

“I had a friend who had played rugby for a while, and I always thought it was the coolest thing because she would have bruises on her knees and would say, ‘This [is from] such a good tackle,’” said Lily Meara, who lives in the Foster Elementary School area. “I think once I saw that I could do that, I was like, oh yeah, I’d sign up.”

And she is: one of 17 girls who signed up for the newest club sport at Mt. Lebanon High School, girls’ rugby. The spring sport went operational this year, with players ranging from eighth grade to juniors–there were no seniors on the inaugural team–under the guidance of coach Bri Allen.

Most of the girls had not played before, but all were welcome.

“It took me a sec to get into it because it wasn’t a sport I was used to, but I’m really glad I stuck with it,” said Claire Bovino, who lives in the Washington Elementary School area.

Some Lebo parents were interested in starting a girls’ rugby club program, even though there is not a boys’ team. At the same time, Moon Area High School coach Rocky Nurss had a couple of  Mt. Lebanon girls on his club team and understood the appeal of playing on a more local team. Nurss reached out to Allen, who was brought in as the club team was being organized.

Allen, who lives in Bethel Park, a rugby ball toss away from the Mt. Lebanon border, is just 22, but she’s a go-getter who was more than ready for the challenge of overseeing the program.

She works as a behavior specialist at Foster Elementary School, is working on a master’s degree and now has taken on the role of coach and—given the inexperience of most of the girls–teacher for the new rugby team. She has an impressive rugby resume.

Born in New York City and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she played several sports, she arrived at Robert Morris University as a freshman on an academic scholarship but also excited to be part of the women’s soccer team.

“I absolutely hated it–the Division I team felt like a job,” she said. “I attended a club fair and saw rugby and was like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is the best thing ever.’ I’d never heard of it. I just see a ball and they were telling me they tackle people, like football but better.”

So she joined the Robert Morris women’s rugby club team before her first college semester was over and quickly was hooked, thanks in part to coach Angela Smarto.

“When I attended the first practice, I remember–and this is going to stick with me forever–my coach telling me, ‘Hey, I want you to stick with this because you’re going to be a beast at this,’” Allen said.

a portrait of a woman wearing a girls ruby shirt and a whistle
Coach Bri Allen, a high school soccer player, discovered rugby as a freshman at Robert Morris.

Allen, who has a rugby ball tattoo on her arm, became a regular at the collegiate All-Star Women’s Championship every summer, and as a senior was chosen to be part of the Under-23 select sides team. From there, she got into assistant coaching, including at a national team event in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. She also coached youth rugby last summer.

Allen still plays pickup rugby in the summer but seems devoted to coaching for now.

Moon and West Allegheny have high school club teams, and there are a couple of club teams in western Pennsylvania not affiliated with a school. They all play each other in what are called games but actually are more like mini-tournaments, with teams playing each other round-robin style in 14-minute games.

Afterward–and this is something found throughout the sport–there is some sort of social gathering, usually with snacks and cracks about tackles they just made on each other. “After the Moon game somebody came up to me and was like, ‘Oh, that tackle you did on me was so crazy,’” Meara said.

It always seems to come back to the tackles, the contact, when word gets around about rugby, especially girls’ rugby.

“The response I always get is, isn’t that dangerous? Don’t you guys wear padding?” said Eli Page, who lives in the Howe Elementary School area and is one of the few Lebo players with experience in rugby, having spent a year playing for two non-school club teams.

“Honestly, we play it really safely. The first thing we learn before tackling is how to fall. In football, they use a lot of brute strength. In rugby, it’s more controlled. You’re not all tackling each other at once. You’re tackling one person.”

Page has really taken to rugby, to say the least. “It’s my whole personality now. I can’t leave,” she said.

A girl doing drills, training at rugby practice.
Maja Williams at rugby practice. Mt. Lebanon is one of just a handful of girls rugby clubs in the area.

The Lebo team plays rugby sevens, or seven per side. Other levels of the game play with 10 or 15 a side.

It’s a fast-paced sport, especially the sevens version. To score a five-point try, a team has to touch the ball to the ground in the opposing team’s scoring area of the field, or pitch. They can then attempt to kick the ball through the posts for a two-point conversion.

Scrums are a way to start or restart play and gain possession of the ball. Players can kick the ball forward, or pass it laterally or backward. With the size and shape of the ball, passes are sent underhand, often with some added spin that produces a nice rising spiral. “It’s actually really easy to hold,” Bovino said of the ball. “But it is like a fat football.”

Allen is familiar with girls’ or women’s rugby being a conversation starter.

“People are just so shocked by that,” she said. “Now that I’ve started up this team, eyebrows were raised, but there was also a lot of support because this shows that girls can do exactly what boys can do. We were not focused on winning games but instead on spreading the love for the game to ensure longevity that luckily still led to several victories.”

With every try and tackle, the girls on the team are part of what could become a legacy at the school.

Caroline Moses wishes she could have been part of that legacy. Moses, of Pueblo Drive, is a 2020 Lebo grad who played lacrosse there but always wished she would have had an option that included contact–particularly rugby, which she discovered watching it in the Olympics.

“I think it’s awesome,” Moses said of the new Lebo team. “I was super excited to hear that that was happening. Had I had a team in high school, I definitely would have played, or at least tried it out. I think it’s a really unique way to get young women interested in some of the contact sports that they are going to be able to play for the rest of their lives.”

a portrait of the mt lebanon girls rugby team and coaches
The team and coaches Dan Rugh, far left, and Bri Allen, far right.

Moses is getting her wish, if a little later in her journey. While doing an internship in North Carolina last summer, she played for the Carolina Villains rugby team. When she returned to Elon University for her junior year, she helped resurrect the women’s rugby team there after it was halted by the pandemic.

“It kind of is the best of every sport that I’ve played,” Moses said. “There were a lot of transferable skills. But obviously, there’s the contact.”

Yes, the contact.

The girls under Allen’s charge are getting the opportunity Moses did not get. Allen–Coach Bri, the players call her—also appreciates the chance to be part of the start of this.

“This is amazing,” Allen said. “I think it’s truly an awesome seed that has been planted. It’s just going to prosper and grow in so many ways. I’m just here for the ride. It’s a real learning experience for them and for me. We’re literally starting this from the ground up. I just want them to have a great time in–in my opinion–the best sport ever.”