Girls rugby seeking sanctioned status from CHSAA

Girls rugby

Summit's Angie Ramos passes the ball out in second half during the 2013 girls rugby state club championships. (Tawnya B Photography)

AURORA – Girls rugby is in search of varsity sanctioning at the high school level. And it is focusing much of its effort on Colorado.

No state nationally currently sanctions high school rugby -- either girls or boys -- meaning Colorado could become the first to do so. However, the sanctioning effort is still in the preliminary stages.

CHSAA hasn't added a sport to its sanctioned list since the 1998-99 school year, when boys lacrosse joined. That was the third of three additions around that time: field hockey joined in the fall of 1997, girls lacrosse in the spring of 1998 and boys lacrosse in the spring of 1999.

So could girls rugby be the newest sport in Colorado? It's possible, but there are a number of hurdles left to clear.

Already, the effort -- spearheaded by varsityrugby.org, which is based in Colorado -- has sent out a survey to member schools at the request of the CHSAA's equity committee. They also presented at Thursday's Legislative Council meeting.

A total of 134 schools responded to that survey, with five indicating they would be interested in adding a girls rugby program. Nine said they would be interested in adding both boys and girls rugby, and 31 said they would be interested "if supplied more information."

Currently, rugby in this state is played at the club level. Rugby Colorado fields a league of 12 girls teams -- a 13th is being added in 2014 -- made up of players from 44 high schools. (There's a boys league, as well, with 24 teams playing.) Rosters are made up of 25-30 kids per team, with 15 on the field at a time.

Girls rugby

Lily Weldon (8) winning line out ball with senior Taylor Bohlender lifting during the 2013 state club championship. (Tawnya B Photography)

The rugby movement has figured out some of the details of sanctioning. Games would be played on existing fields already used for football, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse.

"There's just a few requirements for marking and barriers and that sort of thing that are very easily accommodated on existing fields," said Kristin Richeimer, who is part of the varsityrugby.org team. "Rugby is able to be played on both turf and natural grass fields, as long as the turf meets some general specification. At this point, most of them do, because they are being used for multi-sport purposes."

Fall and spring are both possibilities as far as the season goes. Girls' club rugby plays in the fall; boys are in the spring.

"It really is flexible as far as what CHSAA and the member schools might decide," Richeimer said.

"We have no idea at this point," said CHSAA assistant commissioner Bethany Brookens, who oversees the equity committee.

The sport's next step would be a league sending a bylaw to the Legislative Council to request the addition of girls rugby. The equity committee would then make a recommendation along with that bylaw.

All this could happen as soon as the next Legislative Council meeting in April, but isn't likely. A bylaw probably won't come until girls rugby will be able to field more than 10 teams from member schools. That could mean individual schools fielding programs, or co-ops between schools.

And while boys rugby is another possibility -- in fact, varsityrugby.org isn't pushing girls over boys -- girls has become the focus for now.

"I think the interest is there on the girls side," Richeimer said. "The thing to remember is that girls rugby, because it is a relatively high-roster sport, and a low-cost sport, it can be a fantastic solution -- a fantastic add -- for a state association in terms of meeting equity requirements."

Because of the need to maintain equity due to Title IX, it is far more likely that a girls sport would be added by CHSAA rather than a boys sport. (But, according to Brookens, "By adding another girls sport, it would open us up to the possibility of adding a boys sport.")

"We are fairly compliant" in terms of Title IX, Brookens said, "but the bigger issue comes from schools. I get calls all the time, 'We're looking to add baseball. Can we add it?' At that point, it's, 'Let's look at your proportionality numbers. Let's look at how many sport opportunities you're offering.' So, if we were to offer another boys sport, really the issue is that many of the schools wouldn't be able to offer it unless they look to offer another girls opportunity."

Rugby is gaining momentum elsewhere. Men's and women's rugby is slated for inclusion at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics. Women's has been classified by the NCAA as an "emerging sport," meaning it is on a list of sports that are working toward becoming fully sanctioned.

Girls rugby

Nicole Wagner (2) making the hard yards against a Fort Collins double tackle in the 2013 club championship game. (Tawnya B Photography)

However, this is the second go-round for girls rugby. The sport tried for sanctioning in Colorado in 2008, "and we were able to make some progress," Richeimer said. "But I just think all of the other momentum wasn't there. In addition, that was when the economy really took a bit of a turn for the worse. Some districts put freezes on expansion, things like that, so it just made the environment a little bit tougher.

"Now that we have the Olympic inclusion for 2016 and 2020, and some other really exciting developments," Richeimer said, "it definitely makes a difference."

The momentum will need to continue to gather to ultimately lead to sanctioning in Colorado. But the effort has made its greatest inroads here.

"(Colorado) would absolutely be the first in the nation (with girls rugby) without question," Richeimer said. "That's something that, obviously, never goes away."