Women's college rugby's best use spring break to tour Europe

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Many students on college campuses take advantage of spring break to catch up on rest and relaxation. For some of the best women's college rugby programs in the country, the traditional week off between from class is used to enhance their skills overseas.

The women of Penn State Rugby recently returned from a trip to Europe where the team spent 10 days between England and Wales. International tours are nothing new to the Nittany Lions, however. The 11-time National Champions in 15s have been crossing the American border to find enhanced competition for nearly 20 years.

"It's great to play a different brand of rugby," noted Penn State Head Coach Kate Daley, who first experienced life on tour during her All-American playing career in State College, Pa. "They're much faster at the breakdown, so it really challenges us in terms of ball retention. We always end up playing a lot more defense on spring break than we do any other time of the season, which is really great leading up to the National Championship Series."

Penn State managed a perfect 3-0 record while in the United Kingdom. The clean sweep over its opposition is a far cry from Daley's collegiate playing days, when the Nittany Lions would "get our butts kicked by pretty much every team we played." Some would-be international opposition was pre-occupied with the Women's Six Nations. Still, the unblemished tour was an impressive accomplishment by this year's squad.

Penn State's first fixture was against Keele University of England at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales, but the newly-formed English club did not provide much resistance on its way to a 110-0 defeat to the American tourists. The next 160 minutes, on the other hand, saw the Nittany Lions challenged in every facet of the game.

Fixtures against Pontyclun Falcons RFC, a Welsh senior club, and Loughborough RFC, an English collegiate side, produced wins for Penn State by 10 and nine points, respectively. The two teams of different origin and age made Penn State work hard for its victories, but in different ways.

"They really challenged us around the breakdown and made us step up our intensity in order to put points up and defend them properly," All-American Gabby Cantorna said of Pontyclun.

As for Loughborough, "they were also very physical but did a better job of moving the ball. They were well-balanced between tight play and wide play, which stressed our defense and made us adjust quickly."

The result?

"I'm extremely optimistic after the tour and the results we had against those teams that we will be able to have a very competitive and fun spring season," added the senior Kinesiology major.

Lacking the history of Penn State, Lindenwood University is in the midst of the program's first-ever international tour. Thirty-one Lions threw their passports in their kit bag and are now in Ireland where the team recently earned a 65-5 win against Old Belvedere Women's RFC.

"It was an incredible cultural experience to take part in our first international 15s match, so it holds a special place for us," said Lindenwood Head Coach Billy Nicholas. "The club we had the opportunity to play against was classy and a great group of women. Each match we continue to find areas that we are strong at and areas that we want to continue to focus on and improve."

The Lions hope to get in more of a back-and-forth tussle for their next match - a March 19 date with Highfield Women's RFC of Limerick.

"That's what it is all about for is - focusing on those daily improvements and doing our best each session," Nicholas added. "We are excited for our next training session and match here."

It is not only the very best in Division I that taking their rugby to new heights in foreign lands. 2016 Division II Fall Championship Quarterfinalist Vassar College is two-thirds into its three-match slate of games while in Spain. The Brewers used a comeback performance to prevail over Unió Esportiva Santboiana. The second-half surge made it difficult for Vassar to rebound 24 hours later against the Instituto Nacional de Educacion Fisica, and the Americans fell, 42-0.

Vassar will have the opportunity to end its tour on a winning note when it takes on Manresa XV Tuesday, March 21, in Barcelona.

Of course, it would not be a rugby tour without some fun away from the pitch. The Penn State players had the privilege of taking in the Women's Six Nations fixture between England and Scotland at the famed Stoop at Twickenham, and even managed to fit in a couple of activities completely unrelated to rugby. During their day off in Cardiff, the Nittany Lions spent the afternoon walking along and enjoying lunch on the River Taff.

Lindenwood got to check out a prominent arena of its own - the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Between pit stops to local farms, the Lions also enjoyed the views of the Cliffs of Moher.

"We are very much enjoying our moments here. It is important to us we experience new cultures just as much as the rugby."