UAA student’s passion pioneers women’s rugby club

Stereotypes are commonplace in the world of organized athletics, and rugby is no exception. While many see rugby as a social gathering of beer-fueled barbaric Neanderthals spitting on each other while scrumming for the ball, to the rugby players themselves, the truth is far from that.

UAA student Rachael Popp sees the sport in an entirely different light. The 23-year-old Kenai native fell in love with the game while attending Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Looking for social opportunities, she saw a flier that sparked her interest. The flier was looking for women interested in playing rugby, a sport Popp had never played before.

“I saw a flier in the student section one day and thought it would be something fun to do,” said Popp.

Popp quickly earned herself a starting spot on the Rutgers University club team and assumed duties as the match director and president of the club.

As match secretary, Popp had to set up games and tournaments and schedule buses and hotels. Her club duties quickly changed her career-driven mindset. A genetic ethics science major, Popp transferred back home to attend UAA, where she changed her major to business administration with an emphasis in sports management.

“I changed my major because of rugby,” Popp said.

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Popp’s passion for rugby did not end when she left Rutgers University. But, unlike New Jersey, Alaska did not have a women’s rugby league. Popp spent a season playing for the Spenard Green Dragons, one of the local Anchorage area men’s rugby clubs. Through the Green Dragons, Popp found many contacts that have helped her establish a women’s team.

But for Popp, the process has been anything but easy.

The women’s club will have no affiliation with the UAA, so finding funding, sponsorship and field locations are just some of the heavy burdens Popp faces. Another obstacle has been obtaining a license from the USA Rugby Association in order to legitimize the team.

Compiling a roster large enough to field two teams is proving to be a difficult task as well. So far she has 52 people on the roster but admits that with a short summer season, some people don’t stick with the sport.

“We have a lot of dedicated people, but a lot of stuff like work, school and family issues come up,” said Popp.

Popp’s goal is to have at least 30 girls willing to show up to make a traditional 15-on-15 matchup. If not, Popp is willing to play a different version of the game known as sevens, where seven players make up one team rather than the original 15. It is a faster game with higher scoring.

Before the games begin, getting the players acquainted with the sport and in shape for a rigorous season is the main priority.

“We are practicing every Tuesday and Thursday night. We’ll be conditioning and teaching the general rules, but real practices will hopefully start in May when the snow clears,” said Popp.

The team is also receiving help from Jennifer Ellesson, a former high school rugby coach in Oregon and a coach of the Northwest U-19 rugby squad.

“She is up here for the summer and is helping us out a lot. She is an amazing coach,” said Popp.

Ellesson, who is familiar with the USA Rugby Association, will prove to be a big help in the issue of legitimizing the Alaska Women’s Rugby Club.

“We’ll take anyone over the age of eighteen who is willing to run out there and take a tackle and get hit,” Popp said.

The club has drawn interest from women of all sorts.

“We’re getting a fairly big mix of girls. It’s tough to get UAA students because night classes make it tough to get them now, but eight or 10 have said that they want to play this summer. Hopefully they’ll come out. We also have military women, local women and city league hockey girls who want to stay in shape during their offseason,” Popp said.

In order to ease the cost burden, Popp is trying to make this league as financially friendly as possible. Popp only charges $50 plus a $35 USA Rugby Association fee. The fee provides the players will a team kit, which includes a jersey, shorts, socks and a rugby ball.

For at least the first season, the club will not have to pay for a field rental. All games will be played at Davis Park in the Mountain View area. The field is run and maintained by the Alaskan Rugby Union, who is placing the women’s club on a one-year probationary period. The probation will allow them to schedule games and practices on the field for this season without paying the traditional union dues, helping along the process of cementing the club into the Anchorage sports and recreation scene.

Popp said the club is meeting soon to discuss ways to find sponsorship and build a relationship with the community.

“I like being in the background and helping out. I want to stick with the business side to make sure this club grows and that we gain some community acceptance,” said Popp.

No matter how much of a business stance Popp takes on with the club, nothing is more meaningful to her than her love of the game. But, as with all sports, false impressions create a block toward generating interest.

“I think that one of the misconceptions about rugby is that all rugby girls are big bruiting beasts, but that is not true. I have seen girls weigh 100 pounds, barely 5 foot tall, who go out and tackle girls twice their size,” Popp said.

“It takes a little tenacity to really go out there, and any girl can play. I’ve played with girly girls, timid girls who barely talked-but we all pretty much become a different person when we step onto the field. Like the motto goes, ‘Alaska Girls Kick Ass,’ and that is what we’re out to prove to ourselves.”

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