The US women’s rugby team were invited to Belfast City Hall this week, where TESS DAVIDSON caught up with them to ask about their involvement in America’s fastest growing amateur sport:
Earlier this week Kingspan Stadium in Belfast played host to some of the best talent in female rugby for the Eighth Women’s Rugby World Cup.
New Zealand beat the United States in that gripping semi-final, which – one of the American players later revealed – was the largest crowd in front of which the US national team had yet played.
The next day we spoke with some of the US team as they were hosted at Belfast City Hall by its Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister.
Speaking to the News Letter in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, the team manager, Roshna Wunderlich, reflected on the team’s experience so far (their last game is this weekend).
“We’ve had an excellent welcome from everybody, from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “We had a good turnout [on Tuesday] and I hear that the turnout is going to be excellent for the final and 3rd-4th place matches.”
Roshna said that the US team was still gaining international experience, but that even so their training had still “gone on for many years”, starting after the last World Cup.
In the lead-up to the tournament, the women had attended a four-week ‘Long Camp’, where they lived and trained together; something that was all too apparent from their clear sense of solidarity in Belfast.
Rugby is the fastest growing sport in America, so what did the women have to say about their rugby tournament experience so far on this side of the Atlantic?
Cheta Emba said it has been an “incredible” opportunity to tour at such a high level.
For the talented 24-year-old player from Richmond, Virginia, the World Cup has been far removed from her earlier days in the sport.
“I got into rugby during college, I went to Harvard and played on the women’s soccer team” she explained, “and my roommates were on the rugby team and convinced me to pick up rugby in the off season as some cross-training.”
The result was the opportunity to play rugby across both her junior and senior years.
Kristine Sommer, 26, from Seattle, admitted that her first World Cup had been “quite intimidating but exciting”.
Starting her rugby journey while studying at the University of California, the back has already established quite a sporting portfolio for herself, having been on the US national team for three years and securing five caps.
Naima Reddick, aged 33 and originally from northern California, started playing rugby when she was 14 which “at the time was pretty unique but is now way more commonplace in the United States”.
And one of the players took up the sport even earlier than that. Tess Feury from New Jersey, who plays in centre position: “I started playing rugby when I was four years old.”
That, she said, was very unusual in America.
She continued: “I started playing because my dad had played in college so he just wanted to expose me and my brothers to the game when we were little.”
Why is rugby doing so well in America?
Naima paused before replying. “For me I think rugby is growing so quickly because it’s ultimately a team sport,” she said. “It’s somewhere where you can have fun, make friends but also be very competitive and very athletic and it doesn’t take the same amount of financial commitment at the early stages that say, youth soccer does.”
Asked why the women’s branch of the sport in particular was reaching new heights, Naima was firm in her response: “The reason why I think we are being successful? I’m really biased but I think the US has the best athletes in the world and we encourage our women to play sports from an early age as well so that effective coordination and athleticism is readily encouraged in women, more so than in any other parts of the world.”
By participating in what was once seen as such a male sport, do the players feel it is pushing the boundaries of gender equality?
“Rugby was a great team in that a lot of the women were forward thinkers, were pioneers and really trying to increase awareness,” Cheta Emba enthused. “We across the board are working to get some more gender equity and support for women’s sports and women’s activities.”
Tess Feury and Naima also sang the praises of a more balanced playing field. “Female sports in general for young girls is a huge movement in the US”, Tess said.
Nodding, Naima added how being a women in sport “gives you that confidence to know that you can make a decision and go forward with that”.
Jamila Reinhardt, 26, is even more positive about the gender question. “It’s never really felt like we are outcasts,” she said.
The women had clearly cherished the opportunity to visit Belfast, with Naima excitedly revealing that she had wanted to visit since she was 15, when it was the “first city on my bucket list!”
High praise indeed for Northern Ireland from the voices of women’s rugby’s finest.