Rugby and romance
Coaches’ love blossoms while unlikely women’s rugby team becomes best in the nation
When Mary Riess and Alex Triantafyllou started a women’s rugby team at Chico State University, they couldn’t possibly have imagined that it would soon become the No. 1 team in the nation and win a national championship.
Nor did they know that, in the same short period of time, their own relationship would go from friendship to love and that they would be preparing to walk down the aisle together and say, “I do.”
Their marriage, which will take place later this summer, will be the culmination of their romance, but the culmination of their shared coaching experience occurred on May 6, when their unlikely group of players—none of whom had played rugby before joining the team—defeated Penn State in the national championship, becoming the top-ranked collegiate women’s rugby team in the nation.
It’s the kind of story movies are made from, and if Riess and Triantafyllou seem a little giddy about all that’s happened, who can blame them?
It all began four years ago, when Riess decided she wanted to start a women’s rugby team at Chico State. Triantafyllou was a friend of hers and also played rugby, so she asked him for help.
At first Riess played on the newly formed team while Triantafyllou coached it. Neither had any experience running a team. “We kind of played it all by ear,” Triantafyllou says.
No kidding. Not only hadn’t the coaches coached, the players hadn’t played. They had to learn the game from scratch, and it’s a tough game. Physically, it’s one of the most punishing games around, which is why it’s usually associated with men. “Playing rugby takes leather balls,” as the saying goes.
So much for stereotypes. To hear third-year player and graduating senior Michelle Cederborg tell it, women can be every bit as rough as men on the rugby field.
Cederborg herself signed up for the rugby team to satisfy a long-held desire to play football. Rugby, she says, was as close to football as she could get.
She’d never seen a game of rugby before, but she wanted to be part of a team, and she thought rugby wouldn’t be a big commitment. She was wrong.
“It’s a huge commitment, and it takes such a strong toll on your body,” Cederborg says. “For four months you just have to get used to being sore and beat up.”
Women’s rugby is a full 80 minutes during which the players pound and run into each other—without padding. The game is “basically just people smashing against each other,” Cederborg says. It’s normal for her to go home with bruises all over her body, but she says that she and her teammates are so dedicated to the sport and to each other that they sacrifice their bodies for the game.
“We’ve had girls play with broken collar bones, broken fingers and blood gushing from them,” she says. “Our team really possesses a tough group of girls.”
Cederborg recalls an incident when a teammate broke her ankle during a game, and the only thing that the girl wanted to do was be helped off of the field so the game could go on. She didn’t cry or complain of the pain, she just wanted her team to keep playing.
As far as Cederborg is concerned, women can be every bit as rough as men on the rugby field—maybe even rougher. “Women are feisty and they just want to scratch and rip at you,” Cederborg says. “Men don’t take as many cheap shots.”
By the end of its first season the Chico State team, made up of players who’d never played rugby and a coach who’d never coached the game, had lost only one match.
Riess and Triantafyllou, meanwhile, were having their own kind of success, as their time spent together on the rugby field began to develop into a flourishing relationship off the field.
Riess was a kicker on the team, and Triantafyllou spent time working with her on her kicking. They soon found themselves interested in more than just how well practice was going and began to realize that a romance was blossoming.
Riess played on the team for one more year before she traded her playing days for a spot coaching alongside Triantafyllou. They have now been together as a couple for three years and coaching together for two. Does their love for each other affect the team? Indeed it does. “I think the team sees that we are kind of on the same page,” Triantafyllou says. “It makes for a positive attitude.”
That positive attitude may have been the secret ingredient that got the team all the way to Rockford, Ill., in May to win the national championships.
The team, which includes 24 players, a trainer and the two lovebirds Riess and Triantafyllou, never expected to go so far.
“In the beginning all we really wanted to do was compete,” Triantafyllou explains. But as the team progressed and players gained experience, Riess and Triantafyllou began to think that a championship title was within reach.
“We knew we had a championship team. We knew we had the players to do it, but it was up to them,” Riess says.
The team had enjoyed a tremendous season, going undefeated and ending up ranked No. 4 in the nation. But at the championships, Cederborg says, the players kept hearing others asking, “Chico who?” Many people couldn’t believe that a small school could come so far and compete against schools with well-established women’s rugby programs such as Princeton and Penn State.
Not only compete, but also win. Chico continued its victory streak at the championships, making the Final Four and then beating Princeton in the semifinals, 20-13, to face Penn State for the national title.
Not to worry. The Chico State team dispatched Penn State handily, 35-24. “We had more heart and desire to win than they did,” Cederborg says. “We just knew the whole time it had to be our game.”
“It’s the best feeling to hear the whistle blow and to see everyone running out on the field to hug each other,” Riess says. “We were just happy to be one of the top four teams in the nation, and then to win it—it’s still sinking in.”
“Our goal was to make it to the Final Four and win a championship,” says Tiffany Capdeville, the team’s captain. “This is a perfect way to end my college career.” Not only did Capdeville end with a national win, she also was named the tournament’s most valuable player and the National Collegiate Player of the Year.
So how does an inexperienced rugby team go from learning how to play the game to being best in the nation?
“Dedication,” Riess explains. “We put a lot of effort into making this dream come true. If you can see how much time and hard work the team puts in, it’s definitely well deserved.”
Aggressiveness is key, says Cederborg, who credits her coaches. “They taught us how to play the man’s game of rugby,” she says—particularly how not to be “girlie” on the field. And the coaches insisted on practicing five days a week, three days on the field and two on the track. Practicing so much is “absolutely necessary,” Cederborg says. “The fitter the player, the better the player.”
The team is losing seven players, including Capdeville, to graduation this spring. “We’re definitely losing a lot of key players,” Riess says. “But we’ll still be strong.”
At this point, the team has no choice but to continue being strong, if it wants the university’s support. “If the school didn’t help us, we wouldn’t make it,” Riess says.
Women’s rugby is a club sport and therefore not funded by the university. The team must find a way to pay for travel and other costs. But because the team has been doing exceptionally well, the university, particularly President Manuel Esteban, has contributed money that has helped it along the way.
The team’s record speaks for itself. Not only did the team go undefeated this season, it also gave up only 66 points to the competition while scoring an amazing 470. “We pretty much beat everyone with no problem,” Riess says.
She hopes that next season the team’s success will continue. “Winning the championship this year makes us strive for the Final Four again,” she says. If the team’s record next year is anything like it was this season, the women have a good chance to find themselves with another national victory under their belts.
Triantafyllou admits that the countless hours spent practicing and preparing for the season can occasionally put a strain on his relationship with Riess, but he quickly adds, “We don’t let anything on the field affect our relationship, and we don’t let any of our personal matters affect what we do as coaches.”
Though they try to keep their romance separate from rugby, Riess and Triantafyllou can’t keep the love between them from finding its way onto the field. “I think having a good relationship really shines though on the field,” Triantafyllou says. “It ties us all together like a big family.”
Riess and Triantafyllou will marry in September, and then the duo will be back shining their love onto the rugby field and coaching their No. 1 women’s rugby team through another season.
“We work well together,” Triantafyllou says, smiling.