When Takunda Rusike enrolled at Howard University, rugby wasn’t a sport that was offered. So instead of finding another sport to play or continue to play club, she blazed her own trail bringing rugby to the HBCU. Herd Women’s+ Rugby at Howard University is now in its second year and has its sights set on the USA Rugby CRAA’s Division II Capital Conference championship this spring.
As a first-generation American born of Zimbabwean immigrants, Takunda’s family culture is rugby-dense. All of her extended family played the sport in Zimbabwe, and when her mother finally allowed her to play as a junior at Towson High School, she was captivated by the sport.
Before finding rugby, Takunda experimented with basketball, field hockey, swimming, and track. But, to her, rugby was a whole different animal. “I was always told I was too much, too aggressive for sports,” Takunda said. “In rugby, that’s always celebrated. I’m never too aggressive, intense, or doing too much… rugby is one of the few spaces where I feel that’s encouraged.”
Her first taste of rugby came with the Chesapeake Women’s team in Towson, Md., and Takunda played her first game with the West Carroll Marauders at Carolina Ruggerfest in Matthews, N.C. After that first match, Takunda quickly quit all her other sports and has focused on rugby ever since. Throughout high school, she developed her game with the Marauders at prop and eventually went on to join Old Glory DC’s U19 Academy in the Fall of 2020.
After high school, Takunda enrolled at Howard University to major in nursing. She could have kept playing club rugby with West Carroll, but Takunda wanted to pave a new road for her and other black athletes at the HBCU.
“I thought, ‘am I going to continue to play women’s club because there is no opportunity, or am I going to make an opportunity for myself and many other girls?’,” Takunda said. “The decision was obvious. Ultimately, playing outside the club would have been easier, but who gains from that other than me, and I want more black women in the sport.”
Beginning in January 2021, Takunda began the process of establishing a rugby club at Howard. Along with fellow student David Davillier, Takunda teamed up with the Robertson and Sullivan Rugby Foundation, Old Glory DC, and Washington DC Youth Rugby to get the ball rolling. With the assistance and support from RSRF President Carille Guthrie, a Howard alumna, and Old Glory’s Tim Brown, the club was officially approved by Howard Administration in the Fall of 2021. After a long journey, the Herd Women’s+ Rugby Club at Howard University held its first practice on August 21, 2021.
As the squad’s first captain, the team had a solid core of 15-20 girls, with about ten more rotating throughout the inaugural season. This spring, Herd Rugby is competing for the Capital Cup against the likes of American University, George Washington, University of Virginia, and the University of Maryland. The club is still looking for increased support from Howard, but using campus fields at Greene Stadium is a good first step.
One of Takunda’s proudest moments was just a few weeks ago when her team came from behind to beat UMD, 22-19. “For the first 70 minutes, it wasn’t looking that way. Our team is mostly rookies where this is only their second season of rugby ever. So to be able to pull out that level of play and grit, I was very proud.”
It has been difficult getting the program running, but Takunda knows its worth and the barriers she has had to break to accomplish her goals.
“Historically, women are molded into softer sports,” Takunda said. “There is a mental barrier a lot of women have. [They ask] ‘can I even play a full-contact sport like rugby?’ [Those thoughts] come from societal pressures. Also, many women think that you have to be a certain body type or have certain skills. I’ve always said that rugby is for everybody. There are 15 people on each team. One through 15, you’ll see every body type.”
Takunda knows there is something different about rugby, and she has fully embraced it. “There have been no sports teams where I have felt that family the way I have felt it in rugby. Rugby, especially because of the contact aspect, being in the rucks and scrum, you have to lean on your teammates, and that is something I did not get in other sports.”
Upon graduation, her ultimate goal is to have a sustainable program that fosters any girl who wants to put in work to explore a future in rugby and have Howard back that up. “When I leave, I want it, so the player contribution is zero dollars,” Takunda stated. “Anyone who wants a future in rugby can play at Howard and build that future off that program… Being in those spaces, creating this team, and pushing it out, I’m hoping that other black girls in the DMV will see that and have more black women participate in the sport.”