I’m not a big sports fan. I enjoyed watching football when I was younger, but I stopped watching even that about 25 years ago. I like playing sports, but watching them generally leaves me cold. That said, I do enjoy watching the highlights of some matches.
I ran across rugby again few weeks ago. I’d of course seen rugby when I was younger, but at the time my impression of the game was a bunch of guys playing what we used to call smear the queer. (And please note that at the time “queer” just meant “the guy with the ball.”) In any event, I’ve become somewhat fascinated by this game that is considered the national sport in New Zealand, Lebanon (by law!), Papua New Guinea, and South Africa, and very popular in many other countries. It’s not as popular as soccer in most countries, but it has a huge following throughout most of the world.
Rugby is kind of like full contact soccer, except that you can pick up the ball and run with it. The game looks to be faster than soccer, though, with a lot more movement up and down the field. Think of American football without the huddle.
There are several things that interest me about the game. First, although players do specialize, the degree of specialization is not like football. Every player on the team must be able to run with the ball, pass the ball, kick, and tackle. There is no blocking in rugby, so there’s no need for the big offensive linemen. Speed, stamina, and agility are the keys.
As I said before, the game is action-packed. Rather than a huddle after each tackle, and then the players lining up like 16th century armies before a battle, the ball is placed into play almost immediately. There are short breaks after scoring, for penalties, and out of bounds, but for the most part the game goes on non-stop. Two 40-minute halfs with a break between them. This might be one reason the game hasn’t caught on in the U.S.: there are no convenient places to insert commercials.
Although rugby is a full contact sport, there’s little in the way of protective equipment used. Some players wear what look like padded leather helmets, but I get the idea it’s more to protect the ears. You still see hard hits, but most tackles involve arms around legs rather than shoulders or heads slammed into armored bodies. Perhaps I’m being naive, but to me the game looks much more civilized than American football.
It turns out that there are two forms of rugby widely played: rugby union, and rugby league. The games share the same origin. Rugby league was created in 1895 and the rules changed to encourage a more spectator-friendly game. Rugby league is a faster and more exciting game with fewer breaks in the action than rugby union.
I don’t know that I’ll become a fan or even sit down to watch an entire rugby match, but I’ve certainly enjoyed watching the highlights videos on YouTube. Here’s one example from the recent Four Nations Rugby tournament: