Picture this: A massive field flanked by crossbars on both ends, two teams battling for possession of an egg-shaped ball and tackles that take players to the ground. In the United States, people would likely associate this description with American football. To the rest of the world, though, rugby may come to mind. As someone who grew up watching the NFL — being a Bostonian during the Brady-Belichick era meant football was practically a part of my culture — I must admit, I initially struggled to grasp the rules of rugby. But now, after some game footage and help from my Tufts women’s rugby friend, sophomore right-winger MaryAnn Trudeau, I can confidently say rugby is a wildly entertaining sport to watch.
To anyone interested in seeing the sport in action, I’d recommend watching New Zealand’s women’s national rugby sevens team, the Black Ferns. It’s nearly impossible not to be dazzled by the team’s display of grit and sheer excellence. Plus, with superstar try scorer Portia Woodman, it’s no wonder the Ferns are one of the best teams in the world.
Often referred to as “New Zealand’s Phenom,” Woodman is one of the sport’s most prolific players. With 195 tries (analogous to touchdowns in football), Woodman is currently the leading all-time try-scorer on the women’s sevens world stage. Her lightning-quick reflexes and keen spatial awareness have earned her honors such as the 2015 Women’s Sevens Player of the Year award and the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Decade title.
Watching Woodman’s highlights makes you almost feel sympathy for her opponents. Woodman’s ability to identify weaknesses in the defense is superhuman. Glance away from the screen for just a moment, and you may miss her sprinting a clean break toward the try line with defenders falling to her feet. It’s as if time slows down for her.
One might feel tempted to attribute Woodman’s rugby skills to her family’s history with the sport. After all, her father Kawhena and her uncle Fred both competed on New Zealand’s national rugby team in the 1980s. However, I’d suspect that her agility comes from her multi-sport background: she triumphed as a sprinter, practiced ballet and even had a brief career as a netballer before transitioning to rugby in 2012. She very well could have continued a successful netball career, but luckily for us, we’ll never have to imagine women’s rugby absent of her legacy.
At age 29, Woodman is still building her rugby legacy. In fact, her eyes are currently set on winning gold in the Tokyo Olympics. Yet she’s already starting to consider her role in supporting the next generation of athletes. Not only is she committed to advancing the sport for young girls, but she also hopes to advocate for indigenous youth. Her Māori identity has greatly shaped her upbringing and her relationship with her whānau (family). I’m hopeful that we’ll see more indigenous athletes share the world stage in the near future.