Vipers Enter the Scrum

By Beacon Staff

After brushing a fleck of grass off her shirt and readjusting her hair, Amber Cagle hit Cyrena Canfield in the chest with a forearm.

Canfield was pleased.

This is practice with the Vipers, Flathead Valley’s only women’s rugby team. The women – and girls – show up with all kinds of different motives. Some are curious about rugby. Some just want an activity. Others, like Cagle, want to hit somebody.

The setting sun silhouettes teammates Denise Hanson, left, and Sarah Oxford-Bowman during rugby practice at Lions Park.

“It’s an aggression reliever,” Cagle said. “I’m feisty.”

And so she is, along with the other eight Vipers who showed up at Lions Park on a frigid March day for rugby practice. They’re a diverse bunch. Mercedes Oxford, a 16-year-old at Glacier High School, is the youngest Viper. She plays with her father’s permission. Tonya Nordtome is a construction worker. Cagle works three jobs. Two others are in Nepal for a college project. Denise Hanson played college rugby at Chico State.

Canfield, the Vipers’ coach for 10 years, still plays every minute of the team’s games at 39 years old. Working with several women who have never played rugby before, Canfield is like a drill sergeant moonlighting as a comedian. During a drill at practice, she demonstrated the proper technique for gaining position on another player: “Use this!” Canfield yelled, slapping her rear end. “This is why we have this, girls!”

Members of the Vipers Women’s Rugby team scrimmage during a practice near sunset at Lions Park in Kalispell. The Vipers’ first home game is April 12, 2008 in Kalispell.

The team has struggled with low turnout numbers for several years, Canfield said. This year the Vipers finally have the minimum of 15 players, but it’s difficult to get them all together at the same time. Therefore, the Vipers haven’t played a game by themselves this season, but they’ve sent players to play with teams from Missoula to Idaho to Canada. Similarly, the men’s team, the Flathead Moose, didn’t have enough players for a full 15-man squad at the beginning of this season.

Even when turnout is solid, things happen: injuries, college, boyfriends, work, pregnancies. Canfield is always looking for new players and Cagle reminds potential players that “it’s not scary.”

“It doesn’t matter what size you are, how old you are – any girl can tackle,” Cagle said.

Rugby is a physical game, where women tackle each other but don’t wear pads. But Canfield, who used to play for the Missoula Betterside, points to herself as an example of how technique and smarts can help the body endure. She’s never been seriously injured.

On the field, the women hit, run, spin and kick their way through the strenuous games. But the fun doesn’t end when the final whistle blows. Post-game socials await the thirsty.

Sarah Oxford-Bowman, left, hands the ball off to Denise Hanson while Amber Cagle waits to run the drill with the Vipers Women’s Rugby team at Lions Park.

“It’s a friendly sport,” said Sara Russell, who has played for nine years. “You fight on the field, then you get off the field and share a beer.”

Oxford still participates in track at high school but has for the most part grown bored with traditional school-sanctioned sports. She’s in her first year of rugby and it has more than lived up to her expectations.

“You can practically do everything that’s illegal (in other sports),” Oxford said. “It’s legal here – that’s pretty sweet.”

The Vipers have their first home game planned for April 19 at Evergreen Junior High School. They will also participate in the well-known Maggotfest tournament in Missoula and a summer tourney in Calgary.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.