Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

My love affair with GRASS BURNS

Rugby's great -- and so was my coach's advice

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TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 
Rugby enthusiast Jessica Botelho-Urbanski at Maple Grove Rugby Park. She can�t wait for the season to start.

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TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rugby enthusiast Jessica Botelho-Urbanski at Maple Grove Rugby Park. She can�t wait for the season to start.

One of the first things I remember my high school rugby coach telling us was: "Never date a rugby boy. You will wake up with either piss or puke in your bed."

Our rag-tag team of teenage girls laughed at the thought of one day disobeying her sage advice. But surprisingly, six years later, I don't think any of us girls have ever seriously dated a rugby boy. Our coach's scare tactics must have worked.

Instead I fell for rugby and I fell hard -- like multiple concussions, with severe bruising and grass burns hard. And that was only in high school.

After six years of play at the high school, provincial and senior women's levels, a brief coaching stint and a few broken bones, I'm still not sick of rugby -- which makes me think this might really be a love affair for the ages.

It took playing my first game at Maple Grove Rugby Park to realize the relationship was the real deal.

Just before the southern perimeter at 90 Frobisher Rd. sits Maple Grove -- a storied sports site that's been around since 1985. The park backs onto the Red River and its neighbours are a dog park and the St. Vital Mustangs Football Club.

You might never know Maple Grove is there unless you went looking for it. Camouflaged by trees and now at least five feet of snow, the park hibernates while its players wait restlessly for it to reawaken.

Reminiscing about sweaty summer days gone by is our only option right now.

I remember driving up to the park that first day, the drive a workout in itself. Bumping along the pothole-laden gravel road that winds towards five fields -- sprawling in all directions from the communal clubhouse -- was especially nerve-wracking.

From what I vaguely remember of my first game, I ran around the pitch with no idea what was happening. But once I got my hands on what looked like a bloated football, I knew I was hooked on the sport.

I have no idea if we won or lost my first game, but regardless, it felt like a personal victory. Finding a sport I was good at, that required unbridled intensity more than a fit physical appearance or especially good technique, was refreshing.

There was no special equipment, no pads or spandex short-shorts anywhere to be seen.

Only a mouth guard was required -- and cleats if you so desired. But only the kind of cleats you could buy at Walmart, the rubbery ones. The metal cleats are left for later on in the senior leagues, where pockmarked bruises are all the rage.

Many Winnipeggers have never been exposed to rugby and others scoff at the sport's violence and rowdy players.

While I can't deny the rowdiness, since that is one rugby stereotype that is definitely true, I can say that no one is deliberately violent.

Rugby players are an intense bunch who crave competition, but no one intentionally hurts each other. That's just not the name of our game.

Maple Grove may be the friendliest place I've been to in Winnipeg, thanks in large part to the 10 teams registered under Rugby Manitoba, including my own, the Assassins Rugby Football Club.

There are two men's leagues and two women's, hundreds of players who come and go each season. And although not everyone knows each other's names, we all understand each other because of our shared enthusiasm for the sport.

We welcome newcomers to the fields as well, especially during SNAFU-- a long-held tournament put on by the Saracens Rugby Football Club each August long weekend.

SNAFU draws teams from across the country and south of the border to play and party in the prairies. Players call it rugby Christmas and countdown to its arrival all year long.

More importantly right now, we're counting down the days until the next season begins.

We anxiously wait for the snow banks to melt and then inevitably flood Maple Grove's pristine fields. And then we wait that much longer for the flooding to dry up.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I can't think of a more apt scenario than missing Maple Grove each winter.

This longing only makes me further appreciate how Maple Grove has never and WOULD never violate my bed.

 

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski is a Creative Communications student at Red River College, a freelance writer and a proud Assassins rugby player. She also interviews strangers on the bus at winnipegtransittalks.com. You can follow her misadventures on Twitter: @_jessbu.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2014 A1

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