Rugby tournament brings men and women together on and off the field

Audi Field is set to be taken over by both loosehead and tighthead props along with hookers and scrums.

Those are rugby terms and teams from Premier Rugby Sevens, who will play a tournament beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday at the home of D.C. United. The competition is in its first year and features some of the best male and female rugby athletes in North America, including several Olympians.

PR7s is unique with each of its four franchises known as the Headliners, Loonies, Loggerheads and Experts fielding a men’s and women’s team, with men and women earning equal play. There is an incentive for the men’s and women’s teams to support each other because their combined success counts toward the PR7s United championship.

To put it another way, it would be like if the Mystics and Wizards victories were combined in the quest for a championship.

Rugby sevens is a form of rugby union, but teams are made up of seven players playing seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. The condensed format allows for a total of 12 matches to be played on Saturday, including a men’s and women’s final.

“It is super fast-paced and there is physicality,” said Olympian Abby Gustaitis, who went to the University of Maryland and plays for the Headliners women’s team. “There are big hits. It is full contact and all we are wearing is mouth guards and cleats.”

Speed and finesse are also a big part of rugby sevens. While the field of play is smaller than traditional rugby union, there are still fewer players with more room to compete. The game also has few stoppages of play.

“It is not like football where we are stopping to huddle up and say call out a play, like ‘blue 42,'” said Gustaitis. “Rugby is an art. It is nonstop decision-making and critical thinking on the fly. Communication and trust in your teammates are essential.”

While the players literally connect through contact on the field, part of Gustaitis’ attraction to rugby is community. She has discovered the rugby world to be as much about developing friendships as it is earning victories.

“Everyone is sharing a drink after the match,” Gustaitis said. “We all socialize and hang out together off the pitch. But we try to battle it out on the pitch. It doesn’t matter if it is your best friend across from you, you hit them as hard as you can.”

Gustaitis grew up in White Hall, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore, and excelled at other sports, including basketball, but did not become active in rugby until 2010 during her time in College Park. Still, her rugby success might be traced to her childhood.

“I grew up with two older brothers so I was always getting bashed around,” Gustaitis said. “It is nice to now be able to use physical play in a legal manner on the field.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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