Stephanie Flores

Butch Neuenschwander, head coach of the UT men’s rugby club team said that rugby is a safe sport with a strong community.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

Fatal injuries in rugby are extremely rare, despite the sport’s limited protective gear and aggressive nature, said a men’s rugby coach.

UT women’s rugby club captain Stephanie Flores died of complications from a head injury sustained during a match in Kansas City two weeks ago. However, Butch Neuenschwander, head coach of the men’s rugby club team at UT, said her rare and tragic accident doesn’t require the sport to change its rules.

Twenty-two-year-old Flores hit her head after being tackled during a regional tournament. She was hospitalized in Kansas City on April 10 and died in the intensive care unit on April 14.

Neuenschwander said the severity of Flores’ injury was a “freak accident” and came as a shock because fatal injuries are very rare in rugby. Neuenschwander said rugby is a very safe sport, and in his 20 years of playing, coaching and refereeing rugby, he has never seen an accident like Flores’ and neither has his coaching staff.

“People who don’t understand the sport and see maybe a glimpse of it on TV think its this really rough, barbaric sport, like we’re playing tackle football without pads, but that’s not true,” he said.
Neuenschwander said rugby officials and coaches take extreme steps when training players to instill the proper ways to tackle safely, and the regulations are strictly enforced.

“We take safety very seriously, and players know that,” he said. “A guy can be thrown out of a match and suspended from playing for months at a time if he makes some kind of dangerous play.”

UT men’s rugby club’s sports medicine physician Martha Pyron said there are three categories of potentially fatal injuries in sports: head injuries that could be as minor as a concussion, cardiac injuries that could cause heart problems and lung conditions such as asthma.

Pyron said in the last 30 years, rugby has been adapted to make the sport safer, but that doesn’t mean there is no risk of serious injury.

“The risk that [is specific to] rugby is that it does not allow any rigid material on the player,” she said. “They are not allowed to wear helmets, but they can wear a skull cap with padding inside that provides a little bit of protection but not a lot.”

Pyron agrees that Flores’ fatal injury was a very uncommon incident. She’s been tending to the men’s rugby team for eight years and has only seen one neck injury on an opposing team that could have been severe.

She also said rarity does not eliminate the risk.

“This was a really rare thing that happened, but it is still possible,” she said. “Especially in a contact sport that doesn’t provide any real head protection.”

Pyron said one of the most challenging things in sports medicine is determining when to recommend changing the rules of the sport or how it is played.

“At what point do you change the rules of the game all depends on the number of injuries and how many people are really having problems,” she said. “I’m not so sure rugby is at the point that they need to make that kind of change.” 

The UT Women’s Rugby Club captain died in Kansas City from complications of a head injury last week.

Biology senior Stephanie Flores, 22, was playing with the Texas Rugby Union Under-23 team at a regional tournament on April 10 when she was tackled, hospitalized and taken to the intensive care unit, where she died on April 14.

Texas Rugby Union head coach Traci Schmidtke, who coached Flores for five years, said she selected Flores as an all-star team member because she had outstanding abilities as one of the top 28 players in the state. She said Flores was a practical player and liked to analyze the game.

“She just had a great attitude and leadership on the field,” Schmidtke said. “She made other players on the team comfortable.”

Anna Kunkle, the UT Women’s Rugby Club head coach, said Flores was a fly half, which is a crucial role on the team that makes tactical decisions for the game. Kunkel said she saw Flores’ drive and commitment when Flores took refereeing classes and dedicated herself to being captain of the team.

“She just loved the game,” Kunkel said. “She would email me about how we could improve. She went above and beyond for her teammates. She was a great captain.”

English senior Lyliana Gonzalez met Flores when she was a freshman outside of Gregory Gym. Gonzalez said Flores was recruiting for the rugby team, noticed Gonzalez hovering near the table and asked her to play for the team.

Flores was completing her third degree at UT after graduating last year with English and radio-television-film degrees, Gonzalez said. Gonzalez said Flores had many ambitions she wanted to pursue after graduation, from buying a vineyard in Italy to becoming a doctor.

“She could do anything. She was just that type of person,” Gonzalez said. “It was not if she was going to succeed, but when she was going to succeed.”

Flores was encouraging and played big sister to everyone on the team, Gonzalez said.

“I absolutely love rugby,” a testimonial from Flores said on the club’s website. “Looking back on my years on the team, I can honestly say that sucking it up and getting over the initial bashfulness of showing up to my very first practice was by far the best decision I have ever made while at UT, and I have not regretted it one second.”