In many of my posts, I have made reference to the fact that I am a rugby fan and that I believe that compared to rugby all other sports pale in comparison. I have never discussed WHY I enjoy rugby as much as I do. So... With your kind indulgence, today's post will be about "The Game They Play In Heaven".
Most Americans never have any exposure to rugby, and those that do primarily see it as some sort of weird, not-quite-normal football game. I'd like to take a moment to dissect the game and make it make more sense to you.
To begin, let's take a little trip back in time to 1823, at a place called Rugby school, in Warwickshire, England.
Legend has it the during a soccer game (the Brits call it football) at the school, a student named William Webb-Ellis, picked up the ball and started running with it. This caused the other boys to chase him down and tackle him, and rugby football was born.
Basically the story is a myth, but what is true is that the game that later evolved into rugby began there. Lets see what has happened in the years since.
Soccer is the father of rugby, and rugby begat North American football, Gaelic football and Australian rules football, but I digress.
As the British Empire grew and grew, it's games went with it, which is why soccer is so popular the world over. Rugby is less popular because for so much of it's history, it was the game of the middle and upper classes. Rugby was (and to a much smaller degree today) a "gentleman's game" while soccer was the game of the working class. Indeed rugby didn't enter the professional era until just ten years ago!
In rugby, the game has two 40 minute halves, separated by a 20 minute halftime interval, that are played without timeouts except for injuries. The two teams on the field consist of 15 players, all of whom play offense as well as defense.
There are five different ways to score in rugby, and they are:
Try: A try is scored when a player moves the ball onto or across the goal line, touches the ball to the ground and applies downward pressure, with no part of the player's body is "In-Touch" (out of bounds). The try is where American football derives the term "touch-down". A try is worth 5 points.
Conversion: A conversion kick happens after a team scores a try. The kick is made 22 meters from the goal line, in a direct line from whatever part of the goal area the try was scored. So, if a try is scored at the goal line, but right near the sideline, the conversion kick will be made from 22 meters out, but on the sideline itself. As a result the kickers must be adept at kicking with either foot, often at an extreme oblique angle. A conversion is worth 2 points. So a "converted try" is worth 7 points, sound familiar?
Penalty kick: A penalty kick can be taken after a penalty, although the team that benefits from the penalty has the option of restarting play without kicking for the goal. The penalty kick will be taken from the point of the infraction. A penalty goal is worth 3 points.
Drop Goal: A drop goal can be made from anywhere, even while the ball is in play and being contested. The drop goal takes place when a player drops the ball to the ground and after the ball touches the ground, he (she) kicks the ball over and through the goal posts. A drop goal is worth 3 points. Drop goals are exciting, albeit rare.
Penalty Try: A penalty try can be awarded by a referee if a defender gives an intentional infraction which would certainly have prevented a try from being scored. Again, fairly rare. A Penalty try is also worth 5 points.
If this sounds confusing, don't sweat it... it is easy to figure it out while watching.
Another important facet of the game is that although players are allowed to pass the ball, the ball must be passed in a backward direction. That's right, no forward passing. Oh, and no blocking for the runner either... s/he will just have to use speed, finesse or raw power to avoid being tackled to the ground.
Should a team want to move the ball forward by air, that will have to be done by a kick. You can kick the ball forward to one of your own players, but the recieving player cannot be forward of the ball when it is kicked or that player is "offside".
Players on a rugby team are divided into Forwards and Backs, all of whom play on the field at the same time.
The Backs and Wingers are much like American football backs and recievers. These are usually the more slender speedster-types that run like the wind. The object is to get the ball to these guys to do some broken field running and to score tries. Some of the most notable Wingers in the world of international rubgy today are: Doug Howlett (NZ), Joe Rockocoko (NZ), and Bryan Habana (South Africa).
The Forwards tend to be built more like me. Heavier, stonger guys that are made for physical confrontation but are much less fleet-of-foot. These are the guys that are up front, battling for the ball in the scrum, ruck, and maul. Some of the most notable forwards in international rugby today are: Andrew Sheridan (England), Rodney "Rod-zilla" Blake (Australia), and Jacobus "Os" (Ox in english) DuRandt (South Africa).
The game begins with a kick-off, much like our game, but once it starts there is no timeout after a tackle.
Once a tackle is made, the tackled player must release the ball, and may not play the ball again until he is on his feet.
After a tackle the "ruck" is formed. This happens as the players from the team in possession form a shell over the tackled player so that they may pick up the ball and continue to advance. The opposition, at the same time, try to push and pull the other players away from the ruck, so that their team can contest for possession. Players may also use their feet to dig for the ball if it is being intentionally covered by the team in possession.
If a player has the ball and is tackled, but not taken to the ground, his own teammates can bind around him (hold him up) and continue to advance while the opposition may bind around the tackler and push back. This is called the "Maul".
The last thing I want to tell you about is the "Scrum". The scrum or scrummage takes place when play needs to be restarted for some reason. The forwards (numbers one through 8), on the signal from the referee, push back and forth as the scrum-half of the team in possession puts the ball into the scrum.
I know this sounds like a lot, and there is a lot, but to tell you the truth, rugby is much less complicated that our football, and more importantly, much more exciting, as the play is almost continuous.
If you are interested in seeing some good rugby on televison, you might want to try your local sattelite provider (I have Directtv) and see if they carry Setanta sports... this is an Irish sports channel that carries rugby from the UK, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as international competitions including the upcoming 2006 Women's Rugby World Cup, and 2007 Men's Rugby World Cup.
Rugby is a fast paced, hard hitting, exciting game that is free of grandstanding and showboating. Rugby is a game where teamwork is paramount, Rugby is a game where people that fail drug tests wind up out on their backside for two entire years for their first offense. Rugby isn't for the meek. It takes courage and strngth of character to play. Rugby is a game played by men as well as women. Rugby is a game of international competition.
It is passionate, it is infectious, and I love it.
Geez, this post is longer than I wanted it to be.