The Buffalo Bills have a faithful, far-flung fan base, a community that stretches across the globe. In fact, the Bills Mafia would be heartened to know that they have an avid fan contingent in a most unlikely place — at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Catie Benson, a Buffalo native and Iroquois High grad, is the elder stateswoman for the U.S. women’s squad — the Eagles — who begin pool play in her sport’s premier event against Italy on Saturday night in Whangarei. Benson is a huge Bills fan, and she’s not the only one.

“Naturally, we made our head coach (Rob Cain) a Bills fan,” Benson said this week from New Zealand. “He’s from England. Our team manager (Annemarie Farrell) is a Bills fan. She works at Ithaca College, and she has a Josh Allen jersey.

“We got up at 5 o’clock to watch the Miami game. Five or four, I’m not sure what time we woke up. There was a lot of screaming. Everybody kind of left the room.”

New Zealand is 17 hours ahead of New York, so Benson will have plenty of time to recover from Saturday night’s opener, which will be the biggest match for the United States women’s rugby union team (which has 15 players to a side) since they finished fourth in the World Cup in 2017.

Benson, 30, played on that 2017 squad. She has the most experience on the U.S. team with 28 caps (or international games). The Americans, who won the first World Cup and haven’t win gold since, are an underdog in the 12-team, month-long event.

England, which is on a historic winning streak, is the clear favorite. Host New Zealand has won five World Cups and is also a strong contender. Canada and Italy, ranked third and fifth in the world, are in the same pool as the U.S. women, who are ranked sixth.

Japan is also in the Pool B with the Americans. The top two finishers in each of the three pools advance to the quarterfinal knockout round, along with the two best third-place teams. That’s similar to the format for Olympic sports, like ice hockey.

Catie Benson goofs off during training with Erica Jarrell, a member of the national team who plays at Harvard. (Courtesy of Benson)

Benson took a deep breath and a long pause when asked if the U.S. women were capable of pulling the upset.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Benson said. “I think we just have to get out of pool play and then we’ll see from there. You never know with rugby. It’s a lot of camaraderie and sticking together and making sure that you get the little things working.”

Benson calls herself a “silent leader” for the U.S. team. She plays the “loose head prop” position, whose main duty is providing stability during the scrums, which is where players from both teams are packed together with their heads down in an attempt to gain possession.

“It’s like an offensive/defensive lineman in football. Basically, my head is loose in the scrum,” she said with a laugh. “It’s pretty crazy. You never know what you’re going to get in that scrum.”

Still, it’s not like a fumble in American football, where unspeakable things are said to occur at the bottom of the pile.

“No,” said Benson, who is 5-8, 210 pounds. “It’s such a technical sport, you’re so focused on your technique, on the connection with your teammates and going against the opposition that nothing crazy really happens.”

Benson says she leads by example. Emily Henrich will attest to that. Henrich was a high school all-American at Orchard Park and was a candidate for the U.S. women’s Olympic rugby sevens team before the Games were postponed due to the pandemic in 2020.

Henrich played for the U.S. on its pre-World Cup tour in New Zealand last spring and likely would have made the squad if she hadn’t torn her ACL in a national event in the U.S. in late June. She remembers how she was in awe, watching Catie play in the 2017 World Cup in Belfast. Oh, she’s also a big Bills fan, and believes the Bills won over some folks when Christian Wade, a rugby union star, was with the team.

“I was so amazed by (Benson), especially with the Buffalo connection,” Henrich said from Dartmouth, where she’s a fifth-year senior. “It felt really cool that there was someone representing our region at the World Cup last time. So, it’s been fun to get to know her over the past four or five years and see her more as a friend, when initially I was like Fan Girl.”

“She’s such a smart player because she’s been around for so long. She has great vision of the game. She’s also a really positive person, definitely a quiet leader. She does her job and she expects you to do yours. That’s a big part of rugby. You have 15 people, who all have a diverse skill set, and different jobs on the field. So, you have to trust that the person next to you is going to do her best. And Bennie always puts 100 percent into anything she’s doing on the field.”

Orchard Park’s Emily Henrich was a candidate for the Olympic team prior to injury (Courtesy of Henrich)

Benson ran track and played basketball at Iroquois. But she didn’t find her true athletic calling until she went to Penn State, where she majored in biochemistry and kinesiology.

“Well, she grew up in a rugby family,” said her father, Mike Benson. Benson, an attorney in Springville, played rugby for the Old Boys club as a younger man. He remembers Catie as a little girl, watching him drag his battered body out of bed the day after a tough match.

“I started in 2010,” Catie recalled. “One of the girls I was in class with, her roommate played rugby. She told me to come to practice one day. I went to practice and fell in love with it.”

She was a natural for a sport that requires 80 minutes of non-stop running and the sort of physical contact that was formerly reserved only for males. Penn State won five national titles in her time there (she broke her leg during a game in her sophomore year).

“When she started, I said, ‘Go for it! Be a good rugby player,’” Mike said. “You ever see that picture of Tom Brady with all his Super Bowl rings? Well, if you’re NCAA champs, you get a ring. She’s got five of ‘em.

“You go down to the school, and Penn State has an area with pictures of all their all-Americans and you see your daughter there. It’s wonderful!”

But it’s not a very well-known fact that the Penn State women have 12 national rugby titles and the men’s and women’s teams have reached a combined 25 national finals. Rugby is not an official NCAA sport. It’s considered an “emerging” NCAA sport and is overseen by USA Rugby.

There are about 2,500 colleges where rugby is played, however. Rugby Sevens, which has seven players on a side instead of 15, has been in the Olympics since Rio. The United States will host the Rugby World Cup for the first time in 2031 (men’s) and 2033 (women’s).

So, rugby in on the rise. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Every match of the recent TikTok Women’s Six Nations was accessible to fans on various platforms, to 136 nations. More than 2.7 million women play at various levels of the sport. In Mongolia, they play snow rugby.

There are now professional leagues for women. Benson played last year for the Sharks, a professional team in Manchester, England. Henrich hopes to play in England after she graduates from Dartmouth this year with a degree in government.

Granted, the money isn’t great. But Benson says today’s women are standing on the shoulders of the rugby players who came before them, paving the way. There was no greater pioneer than Kathy Flores, who died last year of colon cancer.

Flores was the first captain of the U.S. women’s rugby team and was a member of the team that won the inaugural World Cup in 1991. She will be inducted into the World Cup Hall of Fame this year.

“It’s getting better,” Benson said. “Think about 50 years ago, what the great Kathy Flores and others went through to even get us to this point. It’s not lucrative, but it’s a tiny steppingstone. We try to make those women proud. They did a lot for us to be here. There’s so much in women’s rugby in the United States. We’re trying to make the sport better every time we get on that field.”

Benson played rugby for West Life college in California, where she studied to be a chiropractor. Her career is on hold for now. She says she’ll eventually get back to her career as a doctor, maybe in Boston, where her younger sister Abigail (who was a star runner at Penn State) lives.

She says it gets harder to recover from 80 minutes of running and contact in a rugby match once you hit 30. Catie can’t say how much longer she’ll go, and whether she’ll be active when the next World Cup comes around in 2025 in England.

“Wait, we’ll see,” she said. “I’m just focusing on this World Cup and that’s what we’re going to do right now. It’s hard to focus so hard ahead. It’s just one game at a time.”

Sounds like a certain NFL head coach. Whatever happens, Benson has had a wonderful rugby career. She has no regrets. Well, there was that team photo session …

“I have a camouflage bucket hat and all my Bills gear,” she said. “We had to take all our photos for World Rugby. Afterwards, I thought, ‘I should have brought the Josh Allen jersey.’ It was the biggest regret of my life, not having a photo with a Buffalo Bills jersey.”

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.