802 Rugby Sits Down with Ilona Maher of the USA Women to Discuss Safety & Culture

Author: Joshua Cameron, Champlain College Men’s Rugby

In order to grow youth rugby in Vermont, it is 802 Rugby’s obligation to educate interested students and parents alike. Rugby often gets a bad rap, but why? The short answer is that the game is misunderstood. We recently sat down with Ilona Maher of the US Women’s Sevens Residency Program to learn how rugby has positively impacted her life and got some of her thoughts on safety & culture. Ilona is originally from Burlington, Vermont and graduated from Quinnipiac University prior to her time with USA.

You can watch the full interview below:

Rugby is a collision sport and players don’t wear pads, so it is perceived as being more dangerous than other sports. Yet, according to a study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2008, US collegiate rugby was found to have a similar game injury rate in comparison to US collegiate soccer and a lower game injury rate than collegiate American football.

“To our knowledge, this study provides the largest prospective cohort of collegiate rugby union in the USA to date. Our data indicate that US collegiate rugby union has a similar incidence and severity of injury to published rates for US collegiate soccer and a much lower game injury rate than collegiate American football…”

Kerr HA, Curtis C, Micheli LJ, et al. Collegiate rugby union injury patterns in New England: a prospective cohort study. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2008; 42:595-603.

Safety is a top priority for all coaches working to grow the game of youth rugby in Vermont, but it doesn’t stop there. Even at the USA Rugby level, safety is a top priority. All coaches, from the elementary to the professional level, must be at least USA Rugby Level 200 Certified to coach contact. You are also required to have your SafeSport & Concussion Awareness certificates.

Beyond safety, rugby provides students with a community. Unfortunately, rugby culture is something that is also misunderstood. The beauty of rugby culture isn’t about drinking or partying, but having an open and accepting community supporting you. Rugby supports all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, etc. and there is a place for everyone on the pitch. Another fun fact? The rules in men’s and women’s rugby are exactly the same. No restrictions are added to the women’s game to inhibit the speed or physicality of play.

Support is a theme on and off the pitch. Running through a defense line solo is usually difficult, so it’s important to have another player behind you supporting. This concept taught on the pitch translates into the real world. You’ll find that no matter how difficult things become in life, your teammates will always be there to support you just like they were on the pitch.

Rugby is more than just collisions. It’s about working as a unit to avoid contact. It’s a game of decisions based on situational awareness and it requires continuous communication. It teaches respect, self-awareness and promotes a community of acceptance.

Interested in learning more about the sport? Are you searching Google for “youth rugby near me”? If so, 802 Rugby has you covered. We’re here to help you answer any questions or concerns you may have about the game, or help you/your child find opportunities to give rugby a try! If you need to get in touch, just click the button below, fill out and submit the form.


Kerr HA, Curtis C, Micheli LJ, et al. Collegiate rugby union injury patterns in New England: a prospective cohort study. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2008; 42:595-603.

Hiro’s Rugby Story – Player


Hiro Soga dives in for a try. 2011

I started playing rugby nearly 8 years ago, as a freshman at South Burlington high school. I was forced into signing up by some friends who were trying to breathe life back into a club that had been dead for a while. I wasn’t super excited when I first started. I had never really excelled at sports and I didn’t know any of the rules. All of that changed after only a few practices. By my junior year I was a captain on the team and I was totally in love with rugby. I loved rugby so much that I would end a practice at high school and drive over to the Burlington men’s club and go for a second round of practice. I was incredibly lucky to be able to experience rugby at a higher level even in high school through the men’s club. Although we rarely (maybe never?) won a game in my 4 years on the high school rugby team,I came away from that program feeling like I had gained something much more important than a winning record.

Since graduating high school in 2011, rugby continues to be a big part of my life. I continued to play at college in a D1 program at Temple University in Philadelphia. When it came time to choose a college having a good rugby program had become my #1 deciding factor on whether or not I would be applying to that college. When I studied abroad in Japan, I was even lucky enough to play internationally where rugby was much more popular than in the US, I got to play for a D1 club in the Tokyo area and even had the honor of getting run over and bloodied by a player chosen for the Japanese National Rugby 7’s squad that year. I had taken a year off from school in Philadelphia but I continued to keep rugby in my life by training and playing with the Burlington men’s club again as a full member rather than a high schooler.

One of the most memorable moments as a rugby player was being able to come back and watch my high school team win the state championship for the first time ever. After playing four years and not winning I had never felt more joy, jealousy, or pride in one moment. I was so envious to watch them celebrate after the game. I had wanted to be in that position for four long years, but it was almost as good being able to cheer them on from the sidelines. I think it was a championship won on the backs of our coaches putting in years and years of hard work bringing the program up from when I started where we weren’t even allowed to practice on the school fields.

My favorite aspect of rugby is the sense of camaraderie everyone has for each other. After every game, everyone forgets about the big fight in the game, the back breaking tackles, the yelling and smack talking on the field. When you leave the field everyone is friends, laughing and talking about the events of the day as if they were reminiscing about a game they played together years ago. Because of this I’ve made countless friends with teammates and rivals alike, friends that I’ll hopefully keep forever. And hopefully I’ll be able to continue making friends through rugby wherever I go. Next fall I’ll be returning to Philadelphia for one final year of rugby at Temple University. If everything goes right, hopefully you’ll be seeing me on your TV’s a little less than a year from now playing in the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7’s tournament aired on NBC every year.

Sophia’s Rugby Story – Player

A friend asked me if I would be willing to write about rugby. I agreed.

Rugby…one of the numerous sports I participated in. Believe it or not, I, a person who is 4 ft. 10 inches played rugby. One of the questions my friend asked me to write about was why I played rugby. My explanation is this:

I have six siblings and four of them are older than me, who also played rugby. I was interested because they played rugby and said it was fun, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m so glad I tried because I absolutely LOVE rugby! I don’t know if I would have tried it if it weren’t for my family’s support! (All my six siblings and myself played rugby!) I can clearly remember playing in the first match (game) and frightened on that pitch (field.) I had NO idea what I was doing and didn’t know what to do! As the game progressed, I started to learn the basics–tackle (hit) people and get that ball in my possession. I felt more comfortable as I learned the basics and just grew in my love for the sport.

Would I recommend rugby to other people? Yes, yes and yes! Rugby is SO much fun and everyone should play if they’re looking for something new to try! It’s a fun sport. At every match, my parents were there for each and every child that played. They were our biggest fans.


Select side in 2012–these girls were fierce!


Our select side group from 2012–we won!


Our group who went to select side from my high school. My sister is on the right, at the end!




Some people were hard tackle…sometimes I just wrap my leg around them and trip them by mistake!


One of my favorite rugby pictures!


My freshman year at my college…fall semester, before I was concussed. Five years of playing rugby with one concussion…rugby is unfortunately over for me, but I’m so grateful for the years I did play. God gave me the God-given talent of playing sports. So grateful.  


This is what a scrum looks like in rugby! It’s hard work!


Rugby is great and is worth a shot!🙂

Aki’s Rugby Story – Parent


                                           Yuki and Hiro Soga.  May 20, 2012. 

Like many parents, one my first thoughts on learning my son Hiro had signed up to play rugby at South Burlington High School was safety. After all, these guys made bone crushing hits in what looked like a free-for-all on the field without the protection of pads or helmets. And I was no novice when it came to being a rugby spectator, having watched my older brother play at Dartmouth.

What I learned in that first season, and in the years that followed, was that safety comes first. When I came to know the South Burlington coaching staff – Tiff Renaud, Tree Bertram and Kevin O’Brien – and watched the quality of officiating at youth rugby matches, it was clear that this was something that was built into the game – both in the rules and in the culture. Also built into the game was respect, sportsmanship and camaraderie.
And about playing with no pads – you tend to be less reckless hitting your opponent when you’ve got no protection yourself.
The youth rugby program is focused on teaching novice player the game – there’s little opportunity to play rugby in Vermont before high school. I also love many students – especially young women – came to the program having had little or no experience in other sports. Imagine choosing a game as physical as rugby as your initiation into organized sports. That such students felt safe and welcomed says much about the game and the coaches.
That’s why I had no qualms when Hiro talked his younger brother Yuki – much smaller – to join him on the team three years later.
The captains on the field are held responsible for the conduct of their teammates. They are the only ones allowed to approach the officials. The the ref will brook no bad behavior from the sideline, either. I’ve seen play stopped at VYRA matches, while the official told parents on the field to behave.
Then there’s the social at the end of the game, when the home team sets out food and drink for players of both sides, giving players who had been fierce opponents on the field just minutes before to end the day as a group of young people united by a love for the game.
Hiro and Yuki played together for only one year, Yuki as scrumhalf and Hiro as flyhalf – the two positions that restart the play from a scrum, sort of like the center and quarterback. On the field, they each developed a level of focus, intensity and leadership that I’d not seen before.
The team, too, developed over the years. During Hiro’s four years at SBHS, I’m not sure they ever scored an outright win. In Yuki’s senior year, the team won the state championship, a game Hiro was on hand to see and celebrated as much as any of the active players.
As a parent, I can’t thank rugby enough for what my sons learned from the game and how they grew on the field. But seeing my two boys play even for one season as teammates was the greatest gift.
Aki Soga

Nora’s Rugby Story – Player


                        Nora Rogers playing for SCRFU Griffins 2016

I was a never a team sport kind of girl. I passed through ballet, tap and gymnastics for a time, but my real passion was horse back riding. I guess you could have called me “the horse girl,” well at least all the way up until my junior year of high school. That’s when I found rugby. I knew nothing about it, I had never seen it, and my only connection was a couple of friends who wanted me to play. They tried to recruit me in my sophomore year, but I was convinced that I would die because in my eyes playing rugby was nothing short of crazy. Boy was I right, but not in the way you may think. It was crazy…crazy fun. I was dragged to a practice by friends, and after that one day, you couldn’t have stopped me from playing if you tried(no pun intended).

I fell in love with rugby that year and it has become a mainstay in my life ever since. My coaches, Tiffany Renaud, Tree Bertram, and Kevin O’Brian taught me so much more than rugby, they taught me trust, teamwork, passion, determination, courage, compassion, respect, and confidence. I not only grew as a player, but also as a person. I became a leader, both on the team and in other aspects of my life, I pushed myself to become better, and to work harder, to embody all that rugby is in my everyday life. I only have one regret from my high school rugby days, and it is that I didn’t start playing earlier.

When I first started college at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2011,  rugby was a bit of a lost cause. The men’s team was struggling to stay a recognized club sport and the women’s team…well they just didn’t exist. I didn’t go to college to play rugby, but I wasn’t about to give it up because there wasn’t a team for me to join, so I played with the boys. My goal became to build a team for that next girl who came in looking for a rugby team to call family and I knew I wasn’t alone. There were about five of us girls who practiced with the men that year, all the while making plans for what we really wanted, our own team. It took us the better part of two years but we finally did it. In the fall of 2013 we played our first official game as RIT Women’s Rugby in six years, and we won, shutting out the other team 39-0. I’ve been out of college now for two years but the team I helped build is still rucking. It’s still a small team, they struggle to get the numbers and funding they need each season but they don’t give up, they have worked too hard and come too far to just let it go. I am so proud to have been a founding member of the RIT Women’s Rugby club and so thankful that in the years to come there will be a place for that next high school rugby girl to find a family.

Today I live in California, just about as far away from the great 802 as you can get without leaving the country. I thought maybe I would retire my rugby boots at the age of 23 but after 6 months of not playing I couldn’t sit around any longer. I joined the San Fernando Women’s Rugby Club right before their first game of the 2016 season and it’s the best decision I’ve made since moving across country. I have only known these women for a year but it feels like I’ve known them my whole life, and I am so thankful for the family rugby has granted me.

Trying new things can be scary, especially when they involve tackling, but if we never tried new things then we would never move forward. I would not be where I am today in all aspects of life without this amazing sport and it’s incredible community. Yes, rugby is a sport with a ball and running, but it is really so much more than that. It is a life style, one shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and those people are some of the best you will ever meet.

I know this is getting long, but I want to leave this note for parents, especially those of young girls. If your daughter comes home and says, “I want to try rugby,” don’t tell her she can’t just because you are scared. She is tougher than she looks, and rugby will not only keep her healthy and strong, it will provide her with the building blocks she needs to become a strong, confident, and independent woman. I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of mine: “I play rugby…what’s your superpower?”


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802 Rugby Crew