Notes from the Field: A study of the athletic competition commonly known as rugby, or rugby football, as practiced by a population of women at Brown University

  by C.E. Kiely, C.S. Young, M. E. Parker-Johnson, and C. E. McKenna

Honorable Mention, Casey Shearer Awards for Excellence in Creative Nonfiction, 2004

I want to write about science


  1. While some English majors know a lot about science, I don't.
  2. I like to write about sports.
  3. You can write a whole book about the physics of baseball.
  4. I could probably write at least a paragraph about the physics of rugby.
  5. Everything can be described in terms of its chemical composition.
  6. I saw a kid at Harvard wearing a t-shirt that said "DNA is Life, The rest is just details."
  7. I once saw a competition on PBS where teams designed robots to play soccer against each other.
  8. They wore matching t-shirts and cheered as they stood around and watched their captain operate the controls.


  1. Am I really going to write a paper about rugby that attempts to incorporate scientific concepts into what will inevitably turn into a personal narrative about playing sports?
  2. Since the answer is yes, the real question is: Will I be successful in my attempt to write paper about science that is really about rugby, but in the end actually about science?

Google search for random facts

When chemistry is mentioned in relation to athletics, it is usually not the chemistry one would find in one's orgo class (if one was not a slacker English major and was actually taking orgo), but rather the chemistry one might find on the pages of Cosmo or Seventeen ("I was totally crushing on this hottie in my orgo class, but then we went out on a date and we just didn't have any chemistry"). A team's chemistry is the way players work together on the field. But the most important chemistry in rugby is not the kind of chemistry that allows the fly-half to always be aware of where the other players on the line are so she can pass them the ball. The most important chemistry on a rugby team is this:


Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the active ingredient in beer. Fermentation of complex carbohydrates (CO2 + CH3CH2OH) by yeast enzymes creates ethanol and carbonation. Beer is such a part of rugby that Guinness is synonymous with rugby in Ireland, bumper stickers proclaim "Our drinking team has a rugby problem," and Megan Parker-Johnson's mother has to be constantly reassured that we only drink after (not before or during) the actual rugby game.

Another popular bumper sticker reads: "Give blood. Play rugby."

"About 8 percent of a person's weight is blood. The amount of blood varies according to height and weight, but an average man has about 12 pints of blood, and the average woman has about 9 pints." 1

I thought that there was a lot of blood lost when Rebecca Vitale and I smashed heads as we tackled the same opponent from different angles, but it definitely wouldn't have even come close to filling up even one Ben & Jerry's container. And to think I have about nine flowing through my body.

One reason that you want to tackle low is that high tackles are illegal--you get a penalty for grabbing your opponent around the neck. But that is only if the referee sees the infraction. The real reason you tackle low is that it is easier to take an opponent down when you hit her below her center of gravity (CG). "Body build, age and gender affects the location of the center of gravity of a human being. Hellebrandt (1942) found the CG in women to be 55% of their standing height in a normal standing position. Croskey et al. (1922) found the CG in men to be 56.18 percent of their height in a normal standing position. A women's CG tends to be lower because more weight is concentrated in the pelvis area and thighs compared to a man." 2 Basically this means that you should aim for the shorts--shoulder lined up with outside hip for a front tackle. A side tackle position should be, as Kerri Heffernan, head coach of Brown University Women's Rugby Football Club team, likes to say, "cheek to cheek." And no, she is not describing a high tackle.

Basic physics concepts can help explain many aspects of the sport of rugby.

f =ma

Force: an increase in acceleration can counteract an increase in mass--a wing can tackle a prop (translation: even a very large Irish woman can be leveled by a much smaller girl running fast)

a = Δd/t

Acceleration is very important when the aforementioned little girl now has the ball and has to run away from a whole team of very large Irish women.

v = d/t

Velocity is different than speed because it is a vector quantity. It has direction. So if you run very fast to the left and then very fast to the right, ending up where you started, your velocity is still 0, regardless of your speed. Run straight up the field. Your velocity might be negated anyway when your opponents lift you on your toes and drive you back where you came from, but at least you are not wasting your own energy.

Science is not an area of study as much as it is a way of looking at the world.

Collect data

While I think it is fascinating to think about the mechanics of an athlete's body functioning optimally, the average person seems most concerned with what happens when those processes are interrupted by injury. No one ever says to me, "Oh that's wonderful that you play rugby. Sprinting up and down the field must do wonders to improve your cardiovascular capacity." No, it's always, "Aren't you afraid you'll get hurt?" My roommates (as non-rugby playing friends) especially express concern when I return from weekend tournaments slightly bruised with stories of how our team's concussions to games played ratio was 3:2. But then again one of my roommates, who will remain nameless because she sustained this injury after flopping onto her bed and smashing her head on the ledge of the wall while she was not under the influence of CH3CH2OH or any other mind-altering substances, also got a concussion and she does not play rugby.

But the aforementioned unnamed roommate was able to save herself from future encounters with the ledge by using cinderblocks to raise her bed out of the danger zone. Protective measures are virtually outlawed in the game of rugby. Some players attempt to ward off a fifth or sixth concussion by wearing what is essentially a centimeter of padding with a chin strap. These "scrum caps," as they are called, are manufactured intentionally as sad excuses for helmets since actual protective headgear is illegal.

If you think that "black-and-blue" is an adequate description of a bruise, you have obviously never seen a rugby player on Sunday.

Bruises (muscle contusions): "A bruise forms when a blow breaks small blood vessels near the skin's surface, allowing a small amount of blood to leak out under the skin. The trapped blood appears as a black-and-blue mark -- a bruise. Sometimes, there are also tiny red dots or red splotches. The body reabsorbs the blood, which causes the bruise to change color with time." 3

Tuesday practices usually begin with somewhat of an informal show-and-tell while we boot up on the sidelines. Our first practice after a Saturday game, by Tuesday everyone's bruises have really peaked-- black and purple cleat imprints on thighs (sometimes an entire shoe print), yellow and black finger-sized marks on upper arms, red bumps on shins. Usually it is the forwards who have the most impressive exhibits. They take most of the repetitive beatings and consequently receive more colorful contusions. It's the nature of the game.

The fifteen players on the field (which is called a pitch and is basically a football field, with uprights at either end and two "try-zones") are divided into two main groups--the scrum (forwards) and the line (backs). The scrum is what most people think of when they think of rugby--the big pack of players that engage in something of a sixteen-person face-off. On offense, the line stands in a steep diagonal line. The scrumhalf must get the ball from the scrum and pass it to the fly-half, who passes it down the line. The object is to score a "try" by placing the ball (which resembles a rounded football) in your try-zone (think end zone only wider).

As a rugby player it is important to have a strong background in the earth sciences in order to identify the organic and inorganic matter that you find embedded in your knees, and occasionally between your teeth after a particularly unfortunate tackle. Generally this matter can easily be categorized as grass, dirt, or rock. However, depending on the surface that you find yourself playing on, your may have to expand these options with an "other" category that may or may not include horse manure.

Analyze data

My cousin's wife is my only relative who played rugby in college. And since we are not from Michigan 4, my cousin's wife is not a blood relative. So I don't have any genetic predisposition to playing rugby. There is no "rugby" gene (Kiely, 20035).

But maybe there is a rugby gene that is just obscured by environmental factors. The trend may not be apparent because rugby is not like soccer or baseball--no one goes home to watch their little brother play in the Little League rugby championship or cheer their sister on in her high school rugby game (unless one lives in Canada where they do such things). Maybe if rugby were more popular we would see the trend. Or maybe the rugby gene is recessive and therefore only shows up in certain generations, making it difficult to track. Or maybe environmental factors play a large role and so the gene is expressed only in a few individuals. Or maybe everyone has the rugby gene, but most people don't identify as rugby players because they encounter too much societal resistance.

There is mounting evidence supporting this idea that a rugby gene might exist by suggesting that some rugby players are related to other rugby players. Julie Wolfson's sister Amy also plays rugby. Kelly Ennis' dad, who brought a cooler of beer to Cornell (it served as a consolation prize but could have also served as a celebratory drink had we not lost by a score of 15-14) 6, was himself a former rugby player. Kelly Ennis was a rower, but then she quit and joined the rugby team. This evidence supports the idea that rugby is better than crew (Kiely, 2001) and that playing rugby runs in families (Kiely, 2003 7). Perhaps one day researchers will locate the exact location of this "rugby gene."

In conclusion, we find that rugby may or may not be genetic. Additionally, eating eggs with or without bacon may or may not be bad for you.

Conclusion 8
In conclusion I would like to point out that you have read through this scientific document and may not have any better idea of what the point of rugby is, or why someone would want to play rugby. From my research I have concluded that I don't really know anything about science and what I did once know can be recalled from a quick internet search. Therefore, this paper has no point. This paper is about science, but it is really about rugby. Thus, science has no point, rugby has no point, and rugby is a scientific game.

4. I know Michigan is not a state that is usually a target of incest jokes, but my friend Caroline associates Michigan with inbreeding, a fact that came up in a conversation we had with Jordan, who had recently moved to Massachusetts from Michigan, during our freshman year of high school when we were sharing our first impressions of her.
5. (March 31, 2003 9:53 p.m.)
6. Moral of the story: Unlike flowers, which are awkward to receive after a failure, beer is always appropriate.
7. (March 31, 2003 9:57 p.m.)
8. These insightful conclusions were drawn by et al #1