IT IS NEARLY UPON US!
The rugby world cup kicks off in about a week’s time. I’m basically jumping out of my tighty-whities at the prospect of six weeks of bone-crunching action culminating in the crowning of a new world champion. Actually, I’m hoping we’ll just be re-crowning the current world champions, but that’s neither here nor there. Point is, RUGBY.
Okay, I realize I’m not exactly dealing with a bunch of faithful mega-fans here. In fact, I’m thinking my readers will fall roughly into two groups: those who couldn’t really give a fuck about sport, and those who do give a fuck about sport but don’t quite know why they should give a fuck about rugby. (And then there are those of you who saw Invictus and actually felt inspired by the rugby action sequences. Sadly, there’s no hope for you. Those are some of the worst sport sequences ever filmed. Okay, enough about Invictus. Blech.)
Right, looks like I have my work cut out for me.
Oh boy. Ohhhhh boy.
I’m going to save this one for another time, actually. If nothing else, though, maybe you just like to party? People typically party when they watch big sporting events.
So consider this another opportunity to get sloshed, just like all those stags and stagettes you never really wanted to go to but eventually did, figuring, “Hey, you know what? At least the drinks are cheap.”
Well, I can’t guarantee that the drinks will be cheap, but I can guarantee there will be lots of other fools buying the same expensive drinks, and eventually you’ll all be partaking of the same shenanigans.
I’ve got better reasons than that, but we’ll just leave it there for now.
For shame, American readers! You don’t know? This despite the fact that the United States was the recipient of the only Olympic rugby gold medal? For shame!
To be fair, it’s not exactly a huge sport in North America. Gathering from my unofficial survey of North American sports channels, it ranks somewhere behind poker and bass fishing in terms of viewership. Not many of you will have watched an entire rugby match in your life, and even fewer would’ve had any clue about what the hell was going on while you got shitfaced indulging your foreign friend(s) down at O’Blarney the Leprechaun’s Green Shamrock Paddyshack.
Rugby’s a complex sport often played by simpletons. At its essence, it’s easy. When you get into it, though, it’s complicated.
What rugby isn’t.
So let’s start here: it’s NOT “rugby league“.
Let me explain. Rugby used to be an amateur sport. The British were a little anal1 about amateur sports remaining strictly amateur. When a group of dissidents pointed out that the lower classes loved the sport and would like to make some money putting their necks on the line (literally, sometimes), the ruling authority at the time told these dissidents exactly where they could take their notion of professionalism and insert it (in prim and proper English, of course; I would not dare accuse these fine fellows of being uncouth in their haughtiness!).
Now, normally I’d be down with the lower classes. Solidarity and all that. Problem is, turns out there wasn’t much of a market for professional rugby beyond the borders of a few cities in the UK. So a new code was born in 1895 and then, in its isolation, much like those wacky critters on the Galapagos Islands, this code became a freakish echo of the sport it was supposed to be.
Today, rugby league (or just “league” as most rugby followers know it) is still played by a very limited crowd in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. It features two lines of 13 players each running blindly at the other, the ball-carrier on the charging team writhing and doing a terrible rendition of the Worm to regain the ball after being tackled before kicking it to the opponents so the process can be repeated, only now going the other direction. I’m not sure if the winner’s decided on points or writhing style. Jury’s still out on that one.
League is not a sport.
What rugby is.
The code that most people know as proper rugby is actually called rugby union. It became a professional code in 1995 (obviously rendering league completely useless, which is why the 13-player code’s continued existence truly baffles me, but I digress…), but it’s been around in one form or another since the mid-1800s when it was first introduced at Rugby School in England, presumably as an extracurricular alternative to wild animal maulings, public stonings, and other such fine rough-and-tumble pastimes as would be the wont of strapping young boys in the violent prime of their collective pubescence.
At present it’s either the third or fourth most popular team sport in the world (depending on which figures you trust). The rugby world cup (from here on just the WC, not to be confused with the ever-popular water-closet) is the third most watched major sports event on the planet after the (summer) Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.
It’s a big deal.
Okay. Cool. We’ve established that. I’m well aware, however, that most of you still have no idea what’s really going on down on a rugby pitch. (Particularly those of you who watched Invictus.) And as I don’t believe you can properly enjoy a sport without a basic understanding of what the fuck it is you’re watching and loudly cheersing to in the pub, I’ll provide a full (but digestible) run-down.
What It Boils Down To
Rugby is a contact sport in which the aim of the game is to score more points than your opponent. A match lasts for 80 minutes, divided into two halves of 40 minutes each. The team with the most points when the referee blows the final whistle is considered the de facto winner of the match. Injuries and brain damage unfortunately do not count towards the result.
Each team has 15 players on the field. Everyone gets to run with the ball and everyone gets to tackle. Hell, everyone’s even allowed to kick (the ball, not each other).
Other than that, basically, you can’t block, you can’t throw a forward pass, you can’t do anything deliberately dangerous, you can’t smother the ball after a tackle occurs, and you have to approach from an onside position if you want to be involved in general play.
Read on to make sense of the details.
What You’re Initially Looking At
Rugby is played with a standard-sized oval ball – actually, a prolate spheroid – on a rectangular field called a pitch. This pitch is almost always 70 meters wide and 100 meters long between the two goal lines. It is divided along its length into four major sections by three solid lines: the half-way line which sits, not surprisingly, half-way between the two goal lines, and a “twenty-two” each side of the half-way line, each of which marks a distance of 22 meters from either goal line. (These “twenty-twos” are important – keep reading to find out why.)
In any given rugby match there are two teams. You’ll recognize them: two sets of burly brutes,i each set donned in distinctive tight jerseys with silly shorts and long socks.
As mentioned, each team is allowed 15 players on the field at any given time, with an additional 7 players on the bench as replacements. That makes a total of 22 players who are game-eligible for each team.
Each team on the field is split into two sub-divisions: 8 forwards and 7 backs. The starting forwards wear numbers 1-8. They are typically heavier and slower and do the grunt work. They also contest all the set-pieces. The starting backs wear numbers 9-15. They are typically lighter and faster and get all the glory (or do all the kicking, or a combination of the aforementioned). The remaining replacements on the bench wear numbers 16-22, with forward replacements typically donning the lower numbers.
You will also see 3 match officials (there are actually 4, but one is always lucky enough to hide his weasely carcass up in the video booth). You’ll recognize them: they’re typically NOT burly brutes donned in distinctive tight jerseys, although they do wear silly shorts and long socks, and they do sport their own loose-fitting uniforms. Also, they have whistles and/or flags with them.
Only one of these officials patrols the middle of the pitch. This official is called the referee and is responsible for all rule interpretations as well as the safety of all the players on the pitch. The referee is also the most vilified and detested individual in thousands of pubs across the former Commonwealth on any given Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
What’s Going On
- How does play start?
- Then what?
- When does play stop?
- So what’s the catch?
- Are there other penalties?
- So what about these scrums and line-outs I keep hearing about?
- Are there other re-starts?
- How the hell do you score points, then?
When the referee blows his whistle, one team kicks off to the other from the half-way line using a drop-kick. Drop-kicks involve dropping the ball onto the ground and timing your kick so that the ball is launched into the air a fraction of a second after touching grass. Both halves are started this way.
There are no “downs”, “strikes”, “attempts”, or anything of the sort. A team can control the ball for as long as it likes as long as it does not kick away possession, commit an error, give away a penalty, or have the ball legitimately stolen from it by the opposing team (likely accompanied by a loud “YOINK!”).
While kicking out of hand (a phrase used to distinguish from kicking off the ground – it basically just means “punting”) is common, there is no requirement for a team ever to kick out of hand.
The attacking team can’t use players to block or set picks for ball-carriers. This means the ball-carrier will likely get tackled at some point. He has to release the ball a few seconds after being tackled, so, to keep the ball, he can either go to ground and present the ball back to his team, hoping enough support arrives from his teammates before the defending team pinches the ball off him, or he can move the ball to a teammate through the air before or during the tackle. The attacking team is allowed to kick the ball forwards and field it (as long as players are doing so from an onside position – see more below). Other than that, the attacking team can only transfer the ball from one player to another by passing it laterally or backwards. If the ball is fumbled forwards (called a “knock-on”) or a pass goes forward (even slightly), play is stopped and the defending team gains possession of the ball.
For its part, the defending team stops the attacking team by tackling the player with the ball. Tackles must be made below the shoulders and the tackling player must make an attempt to wrap his arms around the ball-carrier. In other words, you can’t simply rhino-charge right through the dude like you’re some armless Terry Tate.
The defending team can steal the ball by intercepting a pass or by picking up the ball from an onside position after a tackle is made and before a ruck or a maul is formed. The referee will instruct the players when a ruck or maul has been formed. (I will instruct you on what the hell rucks and mauls are if you just keep reading.) Once a ruck has been formed, the defending team can also steal the ball by (legally) pushing the pile so far the other way that the ball ends up on their side.
Play is stopped for free kicks, penalties, non-penalized errors, out-of-bounds, when points are scored, and occasionally for injuries.
Penalties are indicated by the referee’s straight arm raised above his head in the direction of the team being awarded the penalty – just imagine the referee shouting “Heil Non-Infringers!” in your head. (More on penalties later.)
Free kicks are indicated by the referee’s arm raised and bent to 90 degrees at shoulder-level as if to indicate “stop” or “I’m not really quite sure how to do the Robot but I think this is a start”.
Non-penalized errors are indicated by a straight arm stretched at waist-level towards the team receiving the ball upon re-set, this re-set being the famous scrum that so many idiot North American sportscasters abuse as a term (it is a highly technical formation, not some free-for-all rumble fit for a Benny Hill soundtrack).
Out-of-bounds are indicated by the flag-bearing touch judges who will stretch out an arm towards the team receiving the ball upon re-set, this re-set being the line-out (another highly technical formation but one probably fit for a Benny Hill soundtrack).
It should be noted that no team is automatically gifted the ball at any re-set or kick-off. The defending team is allowed to compete for the ball at scrums and line-outs – the attacking team merely has the “put-in” – and kick-offs, once the ball has left the kicker’s feet, are free game for either side.
So what’s the catch?
- Both teams must always be mindful of staying “onside”.
Understanding how a rugby team can be “offside” is central to understanding what the fuck is happening in front of your eyes.
Along with the rule that you can’t throw a forward pass, it’s the central tenet of the sport. Without the onside rule, there would be no rhyme or reason to rugby. If you could just jump in and grab the ball from anywhere at any time in any way you like, sure, it might be fun, but it just wouldn’t make much sense. You know, kind of like Aussie rules football.
In rugby, the line of scrimmage is constantly moving and resetting. Players actively involved in play, whether on defense or on offense, may only legally do so if they’ve started their advance towards the ball – often called “joining play” – from an onside position. “Starting onside” generally means that they started from an imaginary line drawn:
- behind the heel of their hind-most teammate at the last contact point (rucks and mauls); OR
- parallel with the goal lines at specific points 5 meters or 10 meters from the outermost points of their own side of re-sets (scrums and line-outs, respectively); OR
- drawn behind the ball (parallel with the goal lines) at any kick out of hand, free kick, penalty, or kick-off.
What all that means is that rugby players are constantly retreating to get into an onside position before renewing their advances towards the opposition. It’s a non-stop to-and-fro: each time a tackle is made, new offside lines form for each team, and all players on each team fall back towards their respective “on-sides” before actively engaging in play again (which typically means trying to make a play on the ball or the ball-carrier).
Does all this sound complicated? Yes. Is it? Yes.
But in theory it’s actually quite simple. Re-sets won’t commence before players are in their proper places: if you’re not directly involved in the scrum or line-out, you have to be 5 meters (scrums) or 10 meters (line-outs) behind your teammates involved in the re-set. Kicks out of hand, free kicks, penalties, and kick-offs have a simple line drawn through the ball – you just have to make sure you start behind the player handling or kicking the ball and you’re gold to handle it or chase it yourself. So it’s really only at rucks and mauls where it gets tough.
After a tackle is made, the ball either goes to ground and the pile becomes a ruck or the ball stays up off the ground and the pile becomes a maul. (The referee will call “ruck” or “maul” to let the players know what’s what.) A player in physical contact with anyone touching the center of that pile, whether it’s a ruck or a maul, is considered part of the whole pile, like some huge organism. If you’re making contact with the pile, you’re only allowed to do so by coming from behind the hind-most heel of your hind-most teammate in that pile. If you’re not making contact with the pile, you have to remain behind an imaginary line drawn across the field through that heel until the ball is no longer in contact with that pile.
If you play from an offside position (or “are offside”, as the lingo goes), your team is penalized. If your team has a fondness for playing offside, enough penalties will lead to yellow cards and eventually red cards. Each yellow card leaves your team short one man for 10 minutes, and these babies are compound – for example, if you get 3 yellows at once, you’re down to 12 players on the field. Red cards are similarly compound, and each red card leaves your team short one man for the rest of the match. The only limit to the amount of yellow and red cards a referee can hand out in a match is safety: if he feels play is no longer safe because there are too few of your team left on the field, you will forfeit the match.
As a result, most rugby players work very hard at staying onside, and those that don’t work even harder at conceiling their cheating from the officials. These are often the most elite players in the game. You know how the saying goes: only the best cheaters prosper.
IMPORTANT NOTE: As long as you started onside, you will not be penalized for being offside when people are running with or passing the ball, doesn’t matter which team you’re on. This is what I like to call “free flight”. Much of the most dynamic action in a rugby game occurs during “free flight”.
Yes. Lots. Rugby has one of the densest rule books of any sport so let’s not even bother going through all the potential ways a team can be penalized. That said, because penalties stop play and can affect the scoreline, some penalties are important to make sense out of what’s going on.
The most common penalties, beyond those already noted (offsides, not releasing the ball after being tackled, obstruction, dangerous tackling), are for not releasing the tackled player, for not rolling away from the ruck, for dangerous play, and for improper scrumming.
“Not releasing the tackled player” is precisely what it sounds like: if you make a tackle, you have to let go of the guy you tackled as soon as possible. (You’re also not allowed to try and pick up the ball until you’ve gotten to your feet and shown the referee you’ve let go.)
“Not rolling away” is similar in that, once a ruck has formed – which essentially means a new player from each team has arrived at the tackle – the tackler has to get the fuck out of the way, and if he doesn’t, he’s going to get penalized. Even if he’s trapped he has to show the referee he’s not interfering with the attacking team’s ball, leading to the recurring image of guys with their legs buried inside a scrapheap of sweaty humans throwing their hands up all, like, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Basically, the tackle rules try to ensure that nobody smothers the ball and that the ball remains as “free” as possible.
“Dangerous play” is obvious enough: do something dangerous or malicious – real-world examples include tripping, fighting, biting, eye-gouging, and ninja-kicking – and you’re going to get penalized. You may even get an immediate yellow or red card for your transgression. Rugby’s a tough sport but the rules are all aimed at keeping it clean.
Penalties related to “improper scrumming” are the opposite of obvious: they’re so nebulous even referees don’t quite know what the hell they’re doing. Theoretically, though, if you are responsible for collapsing the scrum (“slipping the bind” or “popping up”) or causing it to be set at an angle (“scrumming in” or “scrumming down”), you’re endangering the necks of everyone in that scrum, and therefore you will be penalized. If you’re in a scrum you’re also not allowed to leave it until the ball is out – if you do let go too early, you’ll be blown up for “not binding”.
Penalties afford the awarded team all kinds of opportunities. Most notably, a team can choose to “kick for posts” (also known as a “kick for goal”), which is virtually the same as a field goal in gridiron and, if successful, also scores 3 points. This kick is placed on a tee or on the ground and must be attempted from the spot of the penalty. If a team judges that its kicker is unable to deal with the angle or distance presented, it may choose to “kick for touch” (i.e., kick the ball out-of-bounds). Normally kicking the ball out hands possession over to the receiving team, but when done on a penalty the kicking team receives the put-in at the line-out. A team may also choose to “tap” the ball and run with it or to take a scrum at the spot of the penalty for which it will receive the put-in.
A penalty is different from a free kick (which is often called a “short arm penalty” just for added confusion). Free kicks are awarded for all sorts of innocuous infringements. The team receiving the free kick can’t attempt a kick at goal for points and won’t receive the put-in at the line-out if it chooses to kick for touch.
So what about these scrums and line-outs I keep hearing about?
Most of the basics have already been covered. Scrums and line-outs are organized re-sets contested by the forwards of both teams, each re-set with its own particular set of sub-rules.
Scrums are awarded for handling errors, passing errors, and occasionally when the ball is so smothered it has no chance of emerging from a ruck. (Scrums are also awarded to attacking teams when defending teams are forced to carry the ball back over their own goal line and touch it down. That’s pretty rare.)
The scrum is formed by all the forwards from both teams interlocking in a 3-4-1 formation. To “set” the scrum, the referee shouts, “Crouch… touch… pause… engage!”: at “crouch” both sets of forward crouch down; at “touch” the front-facing forwards from each team touch the opposing players’ shoulders; at “pause” the whole heap pauses exactly where it is to prevent one team from jumping the gun; and at “engage” the teams come together, each ideally pushing straight forward with all the players’ backs level and parallel to the ground. At this point the scrumhalf (#9) can “feed” the scrum by rolling the ball straight in at the middle. Inside the scrum, the attacking team’s hooker (#2) is positioned closest to the feed and has the best chance of winning the ball back, but the opposing hooker is also competing for the ball.
*required pause for snickering at first mention of “hooker”*
Until the ball is out of the scrum all the backs have to remain 5 meters behind the hind-most heel of their own side of the scrum. Once the ball is out, however, both sets of backs are free to roam the field.
Line-outs are awarded when the ball goes “into touch” (out-of-bounds). Any part of the touchline is considered “in touch” and therefore out-of-bounds. Except for when they follow penalties, line-outs are always given against the team that put the ball into touch. Line-outs usually occur at the point where the ball crossed the touchline, even if it was in the air. The only exception is when a player is not inside his “twenty-two” (the area behind his own 22-meter line) and then proceeds to kick the ball out on the full (i.e., without having the ball bounce first). When this occurs, the line-out is awarded to the other team at a point on the touchline corresponding to the point where the ball was kicked from.
Line-outs are formed by any combination of (typically) 3-8 forwards from each team lining up in two opposing rows with a cushion of one meter, all facing the touchline. The attacking team is allowed to set the number of players in the line-out – the defending team has to match that number of players, with all the other players from both teams dropping back to fall in line with their team’s backlines. Once the line-out is properly formed the attacking team’s hooker (#2) throws the ball high down the middle of the “aisle” between the two lines, at which point players from both teams can leap to compete for possession of the ball. Attacking teams typically get the ball back because they’ll call set plays with a specific target in mind.
*required pause for snickering at further mentions of “hooker”*
Until the referee calls that the line-out is over, all the backs (and extraneous forwards) must remain 10 meters behind the spot where the line-out was formed. Once the line-out is over, however, anyone can approach the ensuing ruck or maul, with both sets of backs (and extraneous forwards) merely having to remain behind their own team’s hind-most heel as they would at any other ruck or maul.
Are there other re-starts?
We’ve covered re-sets and kick-offs. Beyond those, the only times re-starts are necessary are when points are scored or when a player has recovered a ball inside his goal area and has touched it down.
In the latter case, the ball must beat the player into his own “in-goal” – he can’t carry it in himself – and he must press the ball against the ground to force a re-start. In this situation, the re-start is called a “22 re-start”, “22 drop”, “22 drop-in”, or “22 drop-out”, and involves any player from the attacking team drop-kicking the ball into the air from within to beyond his own 22-meter line for both teams to contest. (Because the ball only needs to go a fraction beyond the 22-meter line to be considered “in play”, you’ll always see an opposing player right in front of the kicker’s face like some troll under a bridge, just making sure the kicker doesn’t try to trip-trap-trickle the ball over the line and collect it back himself.)
When points are scored, the team that has been scored against re-starts play by drop-kicking the ball from the half-way line. In other words, when you score points, you get the ball kicked back to you. The ball must travel at least 10 meters down the length of the field to be considered a valid re-start.
The onside rule for all re-starts (other than re-sets) is for the attacking/kicking team to remain behind the ball until it is launched into the air or otherwise put back into play, and for the defending/receiving team to remain at least 10 meters beyond the ball until it is launched into the air or otherwise put back into play.
How the hell do you score points, then?
This is the easiest bit.
Penalties can be converted into points by placing the ball at the spot of the penalty and kicking it over the crossbar, between the posts. This “penalty goal” or “penalty” is worth 3 points.
If a team manages to cross its opponent’s goal line and touches the ball down in this in-goal area, it has scored a “try“. However, a try can only be awarded if a player has clearly pressed the ball into the ground with control. Any part of the goal line is considered part of the in-goal area, as are the goal posts (which are placed directly on the goal line), so if a player touches the ball down against these areas it is considered a try. However, you don’t get any points for simply “crossing the plane” or whatever – if you can’t get the ball down, you don’t get jack squat. Tries are worth 5 points.
(The referee may also, on rare occasions, award a penalty try if he feels the attacking team would undoubtedly have scored a try had it not been for the penalizable infringement committed by the defending team. Typically, penalty tries are awarded after repeated cynical infringements or after someone gets tripped with an open route to the goal line. Penalty tries are also worth 5 points.)
Once a try has been scored, the scoring team has a shot at “converting” its try. A conversion is achieved by placing the ball at a spot directly in line with where the try was scored and kicking it over the crossbar, between the posts. Conversions are worth 2 points. (Unlike penalties, the defending team can attempt to charge down conversions, so the attacking team has to be careful not to place the ball too close to the goal line for the conversion kick. Having your conversion charged down is considered an epic fail.)
Finally, a team can score a “drop goal” by drop-kicking the ball over the crossbar (and between the posts) during general play. Drop goals are worth 3 points.
And that’s it, really. That’s rugby.
The key cogs
Rugby changes a lot with time. Yes, the rules change, but the value of each position also changes. Currently, the three most important positions on a rugby pitch are arguably the “fetching” flanker (typically the open-side flanker who wears the number 6) to steal or slow down opposition ball, the scrumhalf (wears the number 9 and is also known as the half back) to distribute possession to his teammates and marshall the forwards, and the flyhalf (wears the number 10 and is also known as the stand-off or the first five-eighths) to call and execute plays, make strategic decisions, and usually kick for points as well. The best gridiron analogy would be to look at the #6 as a head-hunting linebacker with a penchant for winning turnovers, and both the #9 and #10 as a split between the quarterback, the defensive coordinator, the kicker, and the punter.
WTF is with “advantage”?
If you’re watching with the sound on, you’ll likely hear the referee yell “Advantage!” quite a bit. In order to promote free flow of the game, referees are encouraged not to immediately stop play for infringements, but rather to give the team that has been infringed upon a chance to take advantage of any chinks in the armor the opposing team’s mistake may have exposed. Advantage is a combination of time and space – if the referee decides enough time has elapsed or enough ground has been won by the team receiving advantage, he will yell “Advantage over!” and play will no longer be stopped, but if the referee believes no advantage can be gained or if the now-attacking team commits an error of its own the referee will stop play and bring the ball back to the spot of the infringement. Penalties typically receive much more significant advantage (both in duration and in ground won) than non-penalized infringements.
Why are some of these guys tossing the ball back to teammates all willy-nilly from out-of-bounds? I thought line-outs were needed.
Well, sort of. With the exception of penalty kicks for touch, the kicking team needs to have an onside player chase the ball to “set” a line-out. If a chasing player does not arrive in time, the team fielding the kick can take a “quick throw-in”, which essentially means just tossing the ball back to a teammate at any point behind where the ball crossed the touchline. A quick throw-in does not need to be “straight” like a regular line-out throw-in – it’s the same as any other rugby pass and is allowed to go backwards on an angle. But if you happen to take a quick throw-in and your opponent is quick enough to get in the way and intercept it, it’s one of the most epic of all epic fails in rugby, so players need to think twice before doing so.
i Please note that rugby is played by all sexes and genders. I chose male for this write-up because it’s supposed to be a guide to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. I mean, yeah, I’m probably a sexist bastard, but don’t use *this* bit of silliness to hang me, mmkay?
Rugby is one of the most dynamic sports on the planet. It fuses supreme hand-eye coordination and remarkable body control with mind-blowing cardiovascular endurance and bone-shattering explosive power, requiring continuous, on-the-fly cerebral analysis and on-field communication, as well as the temperament to deal with the expectations of teammates, coaches, and sometimes millions of fanatical supporters.
In other words, if you know what’s going on, it’s super intense, and it’s really fucking fun to watch.
I am a truly global sports fan. I love most mainstream sports on all six sport-playing continents. Hell, I even love some of the oddball games that count as sport in certain removed corners of the world. I’ve been rabidly following any sport that catches my eye since I was 5 years old and I’ve competed in a good two dozen of them. That all taken as a given, I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a team sport that’s as exciting and as true a combined test of skill, strategy, toughness, and endurance as rugby.2
Although I think it stands just fine on its own, I always describe rugby as a combination of sports other people love. I think the most apt description is that rugby’s a combination of ice hockey, gridiron, football, and wrestling. It features the physically demanding speed and flow of hockey, requires the strength and muscle endurance of wrestling, depends on cardiovascular fitness and an eye for using open space like football, and (at international level, at least) delivers the intensity and impact of the NFL.
You should watch rugby because it is an ubersport.
And if that doesn’t sell you, then I’d just like to point out that, at some level, everyone loves to see a bunch of chiseled, muscular males pound the bejesus out of each other. I’m not guessing at your motivations or desires here. I’m just sayin’, is all.
And if THAT doesn’t sell you, you’re not drunk enough. Yet.
Every four years, the rugby world comes together to compete for the WC. Millions of people stream into the host nation’s cities and towns to watch the action. Once things kick off down in New Zealand on September 9, expect sell-out crowds, weird-looking Kiwis with ferns painted on their faces, obnoxiously loud French people in blue wigs (as opposed to the obnoxiously loud wig-less types that frequent other parts of the globe), drunken South African goons butchering Spanish bullfighting songs, and your fair share of English hooligans just doing what English people do, which is having their pasty asses be actively hated on by everyone in their vicinity. (Yes, with the exception of Canadians, everyone in the Commonwealth hates England. See, generally, World History.)
After a few weeks of round-robin games, single elimination playoffs start, featuring quarterfinals, semifinals, a third place playoff, and ultimately a final. The winner is crowned world champion.
The first WC was held in 1987 in New Zealand – the hosts took that title (although their main traditional rival, South Africa, was still in sporting isolation due to Apartheid sanctions and did not compete in the tournament). The All Blacks failed to make it to the final in England in 1991, where the co-hosts were defeated by Australia. The Wallabies then similarly failed to make it to the final of the next WC in South Africa in 1995, where the host Springboks (playing in their first WC) beat the All Blacks in overtime to take the title. In 1999 the competition was held in Wales where the Wallabies won their second WC (and France lost its second WC, having lost the inaugural final to the All Blacks). In 2003 Australia hosted the WC where the Wallabies, in front of massive sheep-loving crowds, were the first team to make it back to the final as defending champions, only to be pipped to the title in OT by England. England then managed to grind their way into the 2007 final in France where they were beaten by the Springboks.
Which brings us to 2011. South Africa has two titles, Australia has two titles, and New Zealand and England have one each. Other than France, no other team has ever made it to the final – hell, other than Wales, Scotland, and Argentina (once each), no other team has even made it to the semi-finals.
This is just one demonstration of the fact that rugby’s dominated by the Big 10. Matches between these 10 teams are typically characterized by supreme skill and teeth-gnashing intensity. The most powerful collective sits in the southern hemisphere, where Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa contest the Tri-Nations tournament each year. The counterbalance sits in Europe, where England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy contest the Six Nations annually. The last member of this Big 10 is somewhat isolated in South America, but Argentina has always punched above its weight despite limited opportunities.
Not surprisingly, the big rivalries all exist within this core. As mentioned before, everyone hates England and really loves to put one over on the old Poms. That said, matches between France and England are particularly laden with historical bitterness. Even so, these matches only come in third on the list.
The second-most intense rivalry is between the Antipodean cousins. This is one place where New Zealand has had it better than Australia, but this advantage hasn’t come without a price.
The most intense (and storied) rugby rivalry, however, is between the Springboks and the All Blacks, one which dates back to 1921. Both these teams have a positive win-loss ratio against all the other teams, but when they play each other, the All Blacks are more likely to win… if just barely. Few spectacles in sport can match the brutality of a Springbok/All Black clash.
So there are the big names and rivalries. But there are a few nations with enough power to upset one of these favorites. Samoa recently beat Australia and are known for giving the big boys a headache regardless of the occasion. Fiji has caused similar problems in the past. Both Canada and the United States can cause a stir if the stars align (or the beavers gnaw, or whatever). And both Uruguay and Romania have produced surprising results against more fancied opponents.
Which is to say that almost every match has meaning and is a potential boobytrap, no matter how dominant you’ve been in the four years between World Cups. (Just ask any New Zealander.)
What I really wanted to do was run through each pool with a quick write-up for every team. Fuck that noise, though. I’m too lazy.
What I will do is give you an idea of what teams to watch out for in each pool. (The top two teams in each pool go through to the quarterfinals.) And yeah, I’ll predict the winners. Why not?
In Pool A, New Zealand and France are the easy winners. New Zealand should top that pool, although they’ve traditionally had problems with France in the WC. Expect their clash (September 24) to be the most intense round-robin match of the entire tournament. Both teams are loaded with stars, but Daniel Carter (All Blacks flyhalf) is probably the most valuable player on the planet right now. Keep an eye on him throughout the tournament.
In Pool B, Argentina and England should go through, although it’s difficult to say which of the two will top the pool. I’d put my money on England. Scotland will cause trouble for both teams, particularly for Argentina, which has had a less-than-ideal warm-up for the tournament. As for players, it will be interesting to see if the injury-prone Jonny Wilkinson (England flyhalf) can last the tournament and add to his record WC points tally.
In Pool C, Australia and Ireland will easily make it to the next round. Australia is rounding into form at the perfect time, having just won the Tri-Nations (admittedly against understrength All Black and Springbok sides). Ireland may struggle a bit with Italy, but I don’t see the Azzuri beating the men in green. If you’re fond of mercurial genius, watch both Digby Ioane (typically left wing, which is number 11) and Kurtley Beale (fullback, which is number 15) of Australia closely. When they’re bad, they’re awful, but when they’re good, they’re truly spectacular.
In Pool D, South Africa should top the group with Wales coming in second. However, both Fiji and Samoa have caused trouble before, particularly for Wales. On top of that, matches in New Zealand are virtually home games for the Samoans. If you’re going to see an upset, it’ll be in this group, and the victim will likely be Wales. As for players, Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira of South Africa is always fun to watch, but Fourie du Preez, the Boks’ scrumhalf, was probably the best rugby player in the world prior to missing more than a full season due to injury, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he returned to his incisive best during this World Cup.
My calculations have Australia playing Wales in the first quarterfinal, England against France in the second (this will be EPIC), South Africa against Ireland in the third, and New Zealand versus Argentina in the fourth. The first semifinal will be contested by England and Australia, with South Africa and New Zealand meeting in the other semifinal. Expect that match to give you a heart attack and be the pinnacle of the tournament (particularly since finals are generally dreary affairs).
I hate to admit it, but I’d be a fool to bet against New Zealand at home, even against my beloved Boks. While I hope the Boks make it to the final, I’m predicting New Zealand to play Australia in Auckland on October 23 (South Africa will beat England for third place).
This will be as far as the hosts go, though. I expect the All Blacks to choke under the pressure, playing at home and not having won since 1987 despite being perennial favorites, and that coupled with the physical beating they would’ve taken from the match against the Springboks will give Australia the upper hand. The Wallabies will win their third WC by the narrowest of margins and I’ll be annoyed for four years until someone can shut them up.
So there you have it. Despite the fact that rugby’s a beautiful game of grace and majesty worthy of the songs of cherubim, it’ll be a bunch of piss-swilling sheep-shaggers that make off with the trophy like the bandits their ancestors were.
Life’s not fair.
1 And by “a little anal” I mean “ridiculously rigid to the point of wishing death upon others”, of course. This article isn’t the best ever, but at least it gets to the heart of the issue. Note that most sports that are today considered professional underwent similar growing pains at some point.
2 To get an idea of how I value sports, I’ll point out that my favorite sport is cricket, with rugby second, ice hockey (NHL) third, gridiron (NFL) fourth, football (soccer) fifth, track and field sixth, basketball (NBA) seventh, tennis eighth, golf ninth, and swimming tenth – as you can see, it’s generally a varied bunch.