Dragging myself out of bed at 7am on a biting January morning, the promise of a Keble hall hash brown (however anticlimactic) is the only thing keeping me going. It’s the first Keble Women’s Rugby training session of the term; I wasn’t peer pressured per se to attend by captain Isabella Zani, but it’s fair to say I wouldn’t want to be against her in a scrum.
As soon as I stepped foot into Keble’s red-bricked walls (insert lasagne/ zebra/ generic description of how rancid you think the architecture is – come on give us a break), I was made aware that rugby was somewhat of a ‘big deal’ here. With both blues-littered men’s and women’s sides frequently cuppers finalists, it’s fair to say KCRFC is a club that’s revered; look no further than Freshers’ week signup sheet (they didn’t even bat an eyelid at my crappy bowl of Haribos).
With Hilary term comes Zani’s first year anniversary with Keble rugby; the only fresher in last season’s team, Zani took over from OURFC player Shekinah Opara to captain the cuppers entry for this year. Within weeks of the role, Zani caused an institutional shakeup; starting the season with a £300 budget as opposed to the £900 set aside for the equivalent men’s side, JCR women’s rep, Zani, and rugby co-captain Hunter Heenan-Jalil managed to untangle the knots of bursars’ emails and JCR motions to get their finances to merge: “I saw no need for it to be separate […] we’re playing the same sport”.
Despite the demands of a Chemistry degree (I must admit, I felt a bit cheeky trying to pie off training for the ‘unmanageable stress’ of second year English) captaining a cuppers team is not something Zani takes lightly; the community of girls she fosters is on par with their competitive progress through cuppers. Despite starting with a team of 4 players, with 11 more needed for a full team (Zani admits that “there were points in the year when I thought, ‘we’re going to have to pull out’”), the commitment to her team on and off the pitch is extremely admirable: “if you’ve come to training and you want to play, you’ll play. I’ll get them on at some point because they’ll enjoy it […] You don’t want people feeling insecure at the sideline, it’s the last thing you want”.
Somewhat of a virgin to the world of rugby, let alone women’s rugby, I’m struck by the fierce sense of solidarity that the sport promotes, far from anything I’m used to (year 11 saw my retirement from wing attack on the netball court). “It’s auto-pilot […] you just go in […] you know to help your teammates without saying anything […] it’s like a sisterhood”. Interestingly, it wasn’t the sport itself which attracted Zani to rugby, but ‘the rugby girls’: “I was looking for a fun, community sport”. There’s a range of different roles to be played, a variety that other sports don’t seem to accommodate at once. On the pitch, bodies are just that, bodies, not political statements or sexually-charged symbols; there’s a judgement and precision to decide “whether or not you can take her […] conventional body image goes out the window”. For fresher and teammate Amber Kirwan, the sport “has helped to see my body in a new light […] I could appreciate it more in a different way by giving it a purpose with rugby”. There’s something to be said for the fight-or-flight mindset that the game promotes: “it helps me get out of my head […] when I’m running away from girls three times my size I don’t have time to think about the problems in the rest of my life […] it’s very much a space where I can just be, be in by body without worrying or thinking about anything else”.
Hackney-born and daughter to a half Barbadian, half Gianese mum, I ask if Kirwan’s ever felt a sense of prejudice in her chosen sport: “I think a girl playing rugby in general is a rogue thing […] my parents would tease me, ‘Amber, you play rugby, you’re going to Oxford, you’re the most upper-class white boy possible. What you want from life is so British'”. Kirwan’s disinclined for me to mention her debut playing with Saracens, and Zani’s similarly humble about her impressively speedy progression up through the sport at Oxford. I could attribute this to their individual modesty, but there seems to be a refreshing physical immediacy to the sport which makes it so attractive; Kirwan says “it started to show me why I really liked sport […] I just like catching the ball in space […] you have to be careful not to put too much onus on it. We play because it’s fun and we enjoy it”.
As my friend and I walk (some have said strut) into the masterpiece of Keble dining hall, we joke that we’re now ‘rugby girls’, girls to be revered, part of a sisterhood. An impressive 19-0 victory against Worcester already under her belt, Zani is “excited to see what they (her combined Keble and Magdalen squad) have got to bring […] there’s only up”. The women’s tournament has recently introduced a 2 blues maximum on the pitch, showing OURFC’s commitment to growing this woman’s sport: Zani says “the whole point of cuppers is to bring girls up into the development team, recruit new people, get women’s rugby as massive as the mens”. An amateur sport until very recently, I too am excited to see the changes that women’s rugby will bring to both the sporting world and a society of young girls as a whole.