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The sun slowly bobbed below the emerald-green rolling hills of Gorey, Ireland, as the Los Alamos Girls Rugby team battled to a 7-5 victory over Gorey High School June 19.
Despite fighting jetlag, Los Alamos rallied from behind late in the match in the unforgettable victory.
“The first couple of minutes everybody was kind of discombobulated and all over the place but then we just worked together and it was a good game,” fly-half Liz Dinkel said. “Everyone pulled their weight.”
The Los Alamos girls rugby club worked tirelessly between January and June on fundraisers, doing everything from selling baked goods to yard work to cutting wood in order to afford the trip across the pond to train in one of the world’s premier rugby nations.
The team, coached by Lyle Shay, took 21 girls on the 10-day trip to the Emerald Isle.
While rugby is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, Los Alamos fields the only full girls team in New Mexico and as such has to travel to Colorado during the season to compete in the Eastern Rockies Rugby Football Union.
It was on one of these trips to Denver that helped Shay spawn the idea for the team to visit Ireland where they could receive world-class coaching.
The journey started in Dublin where the team landed June 18.
After eating a traditional Irish breakfast of eggs, toast, beans and sausage, the girls rushed off to a training session with Irish men’s rugby coach Tony Smeeth.
The girls attended six training sessions, one in each city they visited.
“We would do a two to 3-hour training session and then we would do some event that was local to the area,” Shay said.
In Dublin, the girls visited Trinity College as well as the Guinness brewery. They also made some new friends at the hostel where they were staying, some of those inadvertently.
“One of the girls left the window open and when I came back to the room there were five pigeons in our room,” 8-man Lauren Mendez said. “I ended up chasing them around the room with a comforter. We had to go down to the front counter and I asked, ‘do you have any ideas to get pigeons out of the rooms?’ and he looked at me like I was crazy, but he came up to our room and the pigeons were all up there. As soon as he walked through the door they all flew away, of course, after I spent a half an hour trying to get them out.”
The team arrived in Gorey, a two-hour drive from Dublin, ready to prove itself in the club’s first-ever international match.
Gorey struck first in that contest with a tri (five points) but failed to complete the two-point conversion kick.
Smeeth, who accompanied the team from Dublin, insisted that Los Alamos needed to score the next tri to stay in the game.
With just minutes remaining in the match, center Angie Hammer managed a breakaway and she sprinted to the 5-meter line where she was tackled. The move also caused Gorey to draw a penalty.
Shortly afterward, Los Alamos’ Catherin Hines caught Gorey off-guard when she just tapped the ball with her foot to put into play and than she made a break for the tri-zone.
“(Catherine) did a tap-and-go and drove right to the center of the pitch between the goal posts and posted the ball so we tied it 5-5 and she put us right in front of the posts for the two-point conversion,” Shay said.
With the game tied at 5-5, Arielle Owens successfully kicked the conversion to give Los Alamos a 7-5 edge over Gorey.
“At first I was really nervous because I thought, ‘well they are from Ireland, they are going to be super good,’” fly-half Liz Dinkel said. “But we just did all of the skills that we already know and the ones that we learned and we were just as good, if not better.”
“I learned the most from the game because we got to apply the skills we learned from Tony (Smeeth) the day before and we could tell that his techniques really worked,” scrum-half Michelle Dinkel added.
While the victory was sweet, the post-game celebrations were the best part of the experience. Los Alamos joined the girls from Gorey for a meal following the match.
“They were really excited to meet Americans,” Mendez said.
“They asked us if cheerleaders are real,” Dinkel added with laughter. “They were really excited about cheerleaders and jocks.”
Following the memorable match in Gorey, the team also travelled to Derry, Galway and Limerick. They enjoyed a visit to Bunratty castle as well as a day at Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands.
Along the way they received coaching from national coaches for the Ireland teams, the Under 20 men’s team and even a coach from the Munster professional club.
Los Alamos was scheduled to play a second match that was cancelled but instead was able to participate in a Rugby festival in Limerick.
Many of the girls and even a few of the parents were invited to play a 7s touch-rugby match that Los Alamos won thanks in no small part to the extra help it received.
“Going undefeated in one of the top rugby nations in the world was a highlight,” Michelle Dinkel said.
“It was a really good experience overall,” Liz Dinkel said. “It was great to experience another culture and rugby brought us all back together because it was something we all had in common.”