Updated: Apr 6
In 1977, Alissa Augello became the first women’s rugby administrator. ‘Jello’, a college student with access to a mimeograph machine, became the first director of the Women’s Committee, the first organizing body of women’s rugby. Jello was the first in a long line of women who took on the thankless job of pushing and pulling women’s rugby forward. We are forever indebted to them for their competent leadership.
When building the panel for the 2021 Conference Players Gotta Play, Leaders Gotta Lead we had our choice of a number of talented, deserving individuals. We did our best to choose individuals we felt represented the complexity of the current women’s rugby scene. Today, there are multiple organizations representing a broad range of constituencies, an NGB struggling to keep its head above water and, oh yea, a global pandemic. The individuals who have taken on the job of organizing, educating, advocating, and leading deserve our thanks and the occasional offer of, “what can I do to help?”
We asked our panelists to weigh in on 2 questions specific to their organizing area (club, referee, college, high school, youth):
What do you believe is the most important ‘new’ addition to the women’s rugby organizing scene? Why?
What can we expect to see in the next 2-3 years as a result of this organizing or reorganizing?
Here are their answers, which are just a preview to what you can learn from their session at the 2021 WRCRA Conference on April 9 and 11.
I first met Kat Aversano at the 2019 WRCRA conference. She approached me with an offer to lead the USWRF women’s rugby history project. Kat is an archivist, historian, lawyer, coach and administrator so it's an understatement to say that the History Project is flourishing. We chose Kat for this panel based on her work on the Board of Directors for USA Youth and High School Rugby. Kat is the Southeast Regional Director, which means she is responsible for the general communication, troubleshooting, and coordination of the south east states. She is part of USAY and HSR and USAR efforts with the SYROs of the SE. She’s the Youth and High School representative to the USAR Nominations Committee and the DEI Committee. She’s the Chair, USAY and HSR Nominations Committee, the EIA Committee and the Girls Growth Working Group. In addition to holding grassroots administrative roles in Maryland and Virginia rugby, she coaches the Fort Hunt High School and Middle School Girls and NOVA Women’s senior Club.
For Youth and High School that’s hard to say. Girls’ participation in rugby has taken a big hit due to COVID. The lack of in-person school has had a big effect on the ability of current players to recruit friends to come play rugby. What is really needed is for more women especially ex- or current Sr. club women’s players to serve as coaches and administrators for local girls teams and to seek out decision-making positions at the SYRO (State Youth Rugby Organization) level. Out of 46 SYROs only 9-10 have women in top leadership positions (President/Executive Director) and some of these are merely ‘figure-head’ positions.
In the next 2-3 years we need to get High School players focused on pursuing rugby as a legitimate college sport. We need them to have the same enthusiasm for collegiate rugby as they do for softball or soccer. We also need to recruit younger girls for tag and flag rugby. I hope for the following:
Continued expansion of NIRA/NCAA Women’s rugby initiative. It is impacting the interest of High School girls and I believe encouraging them to focus on rugby.
But also I hope that we are able to grow interest in the game through touch and flag rugby programs (like Girls Rugby Inc). Not all girls are ready for full contact, and we have to find a way to keep them engaged until they are ready.
By focusing on these two areas we are creating a kind of sandwich approach to youth and high school rugby.
One of the hardest working women in rugby, Lauren Barber is the Head Coach of the Washington Loggers High School Girls Select-Side, Recruitment Director for the Seattle Rugby Club, working group member for the USA Youth and High School organization, and Vice Chair of the Rugby Washington Board. Prior to that she was the Youth Program Manager and a Coach for Atavus Rugby and Youth Coordinator for the Seattle Seawolves. Lauren has been part of five, D1 National Championship teams (four with Pennsylvania State University; one with Seattle Saracens) and one-time Club 7s National Champion with Atavus Academy. She is currently an active player for the Seattle Rugby Club (formerly Saracens) and the Washington Athletic Club.
We are seeing more younger women take on leadership roles. This has a ‘double impact’. Young women see women in positions of power, which in turn, gives them the motivation to step in leadership roles. These leaders have a unique ability to relate to and represent the needs of players as they are still ‘close to their own playing years.’
In the next 2-3 years I believe we will see an increase in the numbers of women coaches, referees and administrators, not only representing the women's game but involved in men's rugby as well. Rugby is unique in that men and women play the same game and develop the same skills. As such women can more seamlessly step into roles in the men's game. Women’s rugby is in a unique position to empower the next generation to break down walls for all women in sport.
Olivia Benson Daniels
OBD has a fan club. It’s not surprising given that OBD is a WPL All-Star player, college and high school coach and runs the east coast rugby universe. Olivia is the President of the College Rugby Association of America (Women’s Division), Secretary, American College Rugby Association (ACRA), the Commissioner of Northeast D1, Vice Commissioner, Rugby Northeast, President, 7s Program Director, for Beantown and USAR Club Council Training and Development Committee Member. She is a coach educator with the USWRF Horizons Project Certification Program and a level 100 referee. She is the Head Coach of the Brandeis University Women’s Rugby and the St. Mary’s High School Girls team. She is an assistant coach with the Free Jacks Academy and plays for Beantown RFC (WPL Team) she was a WPL All-Star, selected for Fall 2019 Premiership Scholarship Trip (Coach). I’m a fan.
I think the most important new additions are the reconstitution of ACRA and Women's College D1 and D2 coming together to create a collective with CRAA. I think women's teams connecting and reconnecting in this way is important for the growth of the game because we're stronger together. We are able to build a network of strong women who can support one other and bring the next generation along.
In the next 2-3 years I think we can expect to see even more visibility and access to the women's college game, and more women continuing their rugby career after college as players, coaches, referees, and administrators.
Katie is a clinical exercise physiologist and a third year PhD student at the University of Delaware where she is studying the chronic effects of rugby participation in the Concussion Research Laboratory. She is currently a World Rugby Educator (Strength & Conditioning and Referee), referee with East Pennsylvania Rugby Referees Society, Sports Performance representative on the USAR Training and Development committee, a crossfit coach, and instructor at Holy Family University. Katie played for Northern Illinois University and was an assistant coach with the Wake Forest University men's rugby team and referee for Southeast Rugby Referees Society. She also played 7s with the Chicago Lions 7s.
Accessibility to training and development. In the past, all too often, many individuals could not attend USAR courses, conferences, lectures, due to a lack of resources (e.g., transportation, time, money). COVID-19 related shutdowns have forced USAR and many individual unions into online training and development. This "small" change will lead to more women being certified, trained, mentored, and increase the growth of our networks. So many opportunities are made during a simple conversation at a conference (which many could not attend previously). Now, we are able to virtually connect with fewer resources required, allowing these conversations to occur.
In the next 2-3 years I foresee controlled chaos, but what's rugby but controlled chaos? My hope is restructuring that allows a more diverse and representative group into leadership roles and removal of the "old guard". While the rugby community can be very inclusive, the administrative side can be very exclusive. My hope is that we see more diversity in representation, which will improve conditions for everyone.
Mary Swanstrom and Katie Wurst, have redefined accessible coaching education. Mary is a Level 300 certified educator for World Rugby and USAR, Coach educator. She serves as the USA Rugby Training and Education Southern Region Administrator, and as a member of both the USA Rugby Senior Club Council Training and Education Committee and USA Youth and High School Training and Education committees. She is currently working with the WRCRA on the Horizons Project, a coaching and referee certification initiative. While she works on behalf of women’s rugby, much of Mary’s coaching career has focused on men’s rugby. She coached the San Diego Armada RFC and the Chicago Dragons, both mens rugby clubs focused on inclusivity, particularly for gay men. Mary was also the forwards coach for the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s rugby team, Mary is a professional athletic trainer. Currently working for the MLR House SaberCats.
I would say one of the important newer additions to the women's game is the increasing numbers of women coaching men's and boy's rugby. Until women can be seen as legitimate equals with men as coaches, referees, managers and organizers, there won't be equity. I feel one of the best places to build this legitimacy and necessary respect is having women coaching boys and men day-to-day. When men get used to hearing women's voices as authority figures, it will pave the way for other areas of the game.
In the next 2-3 years the increased visibility of women in leadership, especially those women who are coaching and managing men's teams will lead to an increased growth of the women’s game. When the media shows women leading programs, young girls and women will see rugby as a realistic option for themselves. This is also true of commentating. When we hear women doing play by play or color commentary for televised or streaming games, we learn to listen to women's voices.
A steadfast champion for the women’s game, Katie is Director of Rugby at Queens University, in Charlotte, NC. She is a coaching course leader and Level 300 World Rugby coach educator, a role she has held since 2008. She was one of the authors of the USWRF Horizons Project. Katie has held an array of positions with USA Rugby including game development officer (2005-2007), youth development manager (2007-2009). Locally, she serves on the Training and Development committee for Carolinas Rugby Union. Katie has held Head Coaching positions at the University of Colorado, the University of Minnesota, Elon University, and the University of South Carolina. She served as the national team coach for Lao Rugby Federation, and was the youth coach and program manager for Shannon Rugby Football Club in Limerick Ireland.
The development of grant opportunities, and specific programs aimed at removing financial barriers for young women to participate in training and education. Also, virtual learning opportunities make various programs increasingly accessible. A number of women educators are extremely talented and have stepped up a great deal to expand learning opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the next 2-3 years more young women will actively pursue coaching, refereeing, administration, broadcasting, as careers. At the very least, more women are becoming visible and ‘leading’ throughout the rugby landscape, from coaching men's teams, refereeing at the highest levels, serving on local, state and national NGB’s, to assuming the roles of educators and administrators in coaching and referee associations.