Although often described as a “brotherhood,” rugby also benefits from female influence and women are drawn in by its rich tradition and camaraderie. Last month, one such woman was Battle Ground’s own Lisa May as she traveled to the United Kingdom on a Premiership Rugby Scholarship.
For its second year, Premiership Rugby partnered with AEG Rugby, USA Rugby, Friends of the British Council and NBC Sports to bring 50 American coaches and players to England. There, they were hosted by three top-tier teams: the Saracens, Harlequins and London Irish.
May coaches the Battle Ground Rebels, made up of 7th- and 8th-grade boys. She is also assistant coach to the high school boys team, the Battle Ground Bulls. May recounted that the opportunity to join the delegation came up last December. She had to submit a 90-second video explaining points like her involvement in rugby, why she should be chosen and what she hoped to take away from the experience.
Just before the Christmas break, in the middle of running errands, she stopped to check her email, saw one from Premiership Rugby that said “Congratulations. You’ve been chosen…” and she “just lost it.” She was thrilled, but the infrequent correspondence leading up to her departure date kept the experience a surreal one until she stepped off the plane in London.
March 16 to 24 was a whirlwind of travel and on-the-ground encounters. Immediately upon arrival, the group was whisked to their hotel to unload luggage and then it was straight to their first international rugby game. Inside Franklin’s Gardens, the over 15,000-seat stadium was at capacity as fans awaited their respective teams — the Saracens, established in 1876 and the Saints, formed in 1880.
From the second row, May and her group witnessed the vastly different culture of sports abroad. Contrary to American sports, where onlookers sit on respective sides according to team loyalty, the Franklin’s Gardens crowd consisted of fans from each team sitting side by side throughout the arena.
“Some were singing the Saints song and some were singing the Saracens song. Everyone’s getting along. No one’s cussing each other out. There were three little kids sitting below us (in the front row) cheering on and they were just adorable. It was just so cool,” May said.
With participants representing 22 different states, the Premiership Rugby Scholarship winners spent the rest of the week attending more rugby games, studying Saracen training sessions at Allianz Park in the London Borough of Barnet, running drills, honing their coaching skills with a tailored training course and, yes, even playing on the historic fields.
For May, this was new territory. With years of coaching experience in basketball, volleyball, and softball, “rugby coach” is a title she’s worn since 2013 but, of all the scholarship winners, she was the only non-player to secure a spot in this 2nd annual program.
At 54 years of age, May found herself on the field, giving it everything she had to bring back value and practical tools to the youth that have been entrusted to her. As a former basketball player, she is no stranger to the commitment of a sport but to be going full throttle with a man who played rugby for the 2016 Rio Olympics, a couple of former Eagles players (aka the United States national rugby union team) and several college level players, one has to possess a high level of tenacity and focus.
May said, “They made me play and it gave me better perspective. The things I observe when watching and teaching are much different than playing. You develop instincts.”
On her highlight reel was a visit to the World Rugby Museum that made May “feel the gravity for what the sport has given me.”
About eight years ago, when her now 20-year old son, Brendan, was playing youth rugby, May noticed the coach was having challenges with the nuances of corralling a group of young boys with a lot of energy. The more she leaned into the sport, the more it drew her in and the community took notice.
Coach John Fletcher, of the Prairie Wolf Pack, and Pat Jenkins (his memory now honored with the annual Pat Jenkins Memorial Trophy) encouraged May to become the 7th and 8th-grade boys rugby coach. In time, the thread that weaves rugby into the “union” it is, won out.
The week May spent abroad confirmed her belief that rugby is a unique sport. She said that coaches are eager to share information, strategies, and techniques in an effort to grow the overall program. Her approach to the game was stretched and improved upon to the extent that she incorporated fresh concepts into her team’s first warm-up session after returning from London.
“It was a trip of a lifetime and I’m still glowing from it,” May said.