The one thing that used to be missing from women's sports was contact, but not anymore. Women's rugby, played by the same rules men use, is growing fast around Washington.

Established athletes and beginners, students, professionals and housewives -- all told, 100 to 150 women -- have formed clubs in the past eight years, drawn to the camaraderie and the rough-and-tumble of a game that's a lot like football -- without pads and helmets.

In the spring of 1975, when the wives and girlfriends of players on the Chesapeake Men's Rugby Football Club tired of decorating the sidelines, they helped form the Towson State Women's Rugby Football Club and the University of Maryland Stingers.

Then in the fall of 1978, the Washington Women's Rugby Football Club was started and a powerhouse was born.

The club's first three seasons were spent recruiting players and learning how a rugby club is (or isn't) run; how to order beer and tap a keg, and how to schedule matches, run practices and line pitches. Now it has the respect of teams along the East Coast, a new nickname (Furies), "A" and "B" teams and a 20-game schedule.

"The growth has been pretty rapid in the past three years," says Pat Brownell, 27, Furies coach and an administrative assistant for a public-interest group who has played rugby for eight years. "Before that, teams would pop up and then drop out, but now they seem to be sticking around.

"At first, most women come out to get into shape, but only one-third to one-half actually stick with it. Surprisingly, it's not the contact but the conditioning that is the biggest problem. To play rugby well, you have to be fit."

Sarah Reznek, 29, a lawyer in her second season, agrees: "Many of the girls at first decide to play rugby to get into shape but soon they discover that they have to get into shape to play rugby."

She also sees the contact in rugby as a hurdle most women have to get over. "Since most women haven't grown up with anything other than incidental contact in something like basketball, to first try a good shoulder tackle requires an enormous leap of faith," she says. "But I've found it to be a lot of fun, especially if you do it right. I took up rugby because I wanted to try something new, and tackling and being tackled is all part of that."

Kathy Long, 27, an executive assistant who serves as club president, began playing three years ago and says the best thing about rugby "is that it combines so many different skills besides hitting. You have to able to run, kick and pass, and everyone has to learn to play as a team. I think rugby is the best team sport around."

The newest group to become involved is the Northern Virginia WRFC, which is affiliated with the powerful men's rugby team known everywhere as NOVA. Team member Vey Martini, 31, a former professional jockey and now a graphic arts student, says rugby "is a very demanding sport and taxes your body so." Martini, who plays at 113 pounds -- 11 over her riding weight -- adds, "Our brand of rugby isn't any easier than men's. It's not a pansy version of the game. A 120-pound woman tackling another 120- pound woman is as rough as a couple of 190- pound men going at it."

Women's rugby has even taken a tentative step into the high schools. West Springfield, which is not directly affiliated with the high school, is one such team. Julie Hottel, 16, a high school junior from Rolling Valley, says the under-19 club got started because "we used to watch the guys play and we wanted to keep in shape and have a new experience . . . We have about 20 girls and play St. Agnes, a private school in the area, and college 'B' sides. Most of our mothers are really for it.

"The girls used to sit around and watch soaps or call each other up or just drive around, but now we've got a good way to get a little excercise," she says, adding: "Our fathers aren't very involved but we have a small group of mothers that always comes out and cheers us on." POINTS OF CONTACT -- The women's game will be on display this Saturday at noon at Gravely Point (off the George Washington Parkway just north of National Airport), as NOVA WRFC plays the University of Maryland Stingers. On May 7, NOVA will play the Virginia Tech WRFC at noon at Gravely Point, and the Furies will play Philadelphia at noon at Lincoln Memorial field next to the Reflecting Pool. Here are the clubs in the Washington area and where they can be reached: WASHINGTON WRFC -- 234-0697, 328-1426. NOVA WRFC -- 569-3442, 765-3496. CHESAPEAKE WRFC -- 301/337-8961. MARYLAND WRFC -- 927-0093. TOWSON WRFC -- 301/254-9084. FROSTBURG WRFC -- 301/689-3814. WEST SPRINGFIELD UNDER-19 WRFC -- 578-1855 or 444-0641. ST. AGNES EPISCOPAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA -- 549-3542..