Today is Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, which means that right now around the United States men of all ages (and many women too) are gathered around family TVs to urge on their favorite football team, while delicious smells of roast turkey and sweet potatoes are wafting in from the kitchen.
So I thought it’s time I talked about… rugby!
Before moving to South Africa, I knew almost nothing about rugby, its national sport. I knew it was similar to football. American football, that is, because football is really soccer. Much like in American football, an odd-shaped ball that does not lend itself well to kicking or throwing had to be kicked and carried and tossed and ultimately moved into the opponent’s endzone to score points. Except that with rugby the players were mostly crazed-looking Australians and preferred to ram into each other without the benefit of helmets, or really any padding for that matter.
That was the extent of my knowledge of rugby when I watched my first game in April of 2010. I didn’t actually want to watch it, but we were stuck in the Waterberg on Easter weekend, and it was raining cats and dogs for four days straight. Going out in a game drive vehicle was relegated to the sporadic bouts of sunshine far and in between, so most of the time we were cooped up indoors, with the choice of either watching the staff put buckets under the roof where it leaked (“It never usually rains here this time of year,” we were told) or watching rugby on TV, at least until the power would go off again.
The game is almost never interrupted
It didn’t take long for me to be pleasantly surprised. In just that one first game, I observed all the ways in which rugby, in my mind, is superior to football.
First, and most importantly, there are almost no interruptions to the game. A player will run with the ball, he will be tackled, he will be down, and lo and behold, that doesn’t mean that all activity stops, like in football, to reassemble the line and have another go at a second down. What rather happens is brilliant: The player who is down will shelter the ball with his body from the opponents, who are only allowed on their side of it, and he will nudge it towards his own teammates on the other side, who make sure by pushing the opponents in what is called a ruck that they remain in possession of the ball. Another player lined up behind the ruck will eventually pick it up and make another run, or the ball might be passed down the line to the outside of the field and all the way back again, until a hole is found in the defensive line through which the player might run to score, or until he is tackled again and the procedure starts anew, all without a single annoying break.
Interruptions only occur when there is a foul or the ball goes out of bounds, in which case it is put back into play by a line-out, a move that also involves a player called a hooker. Rugby isn’t short on interesting terminology. My favorites are mulligrubber, sin bin, and tighthead.
You get to watch beautiful bodies
The second reason I prefer rugby over football is the fact that it is less specialized. No separate teams for offense and defense and punt-returns, just one crew of very physically fit specimens of the human race where everyone gets to more or less do everything. Sure, there are numerous specialized positions in rugby too, like the aforementioned hooker – a term that never ceases to offend a few upright mothers on American girls’ rugby teams – or scrum-half. But more or less anyone needs to be strong and be able to run fast, which results in a lot of beautiful bodies you get to look at when watching a rugby match on TV.
If there is one complaint I have about rugby, it is the fact that the ball is only ever thrown underhand. In fact, it can only be passed laterally or backwards, meaning it usually gets passed to the side and slightly back, all the way down the line in search of an opening in the defense. Somehow, throwing a ball underhand seems girly to me. Same in softball pitching versus baseball; I hate it. But of course there is nothing else that’s girly in rugby, and as I said, those glistening muscled bodies more than make up for the unmanly underhand tosses.
A “try” means you actually succeeded
All in all, rugby is pretty straightforward. When you run the ball into the endzone, you score what’s called a try for 5 points, and subsequently kicking it between the goal posts gets you another point. Similar to football, you can also score 3 points by kicking a drop or penalty goal. There are 15 players on a team, 8 forwards and 7 backs,
Another reason I prefer rugby over football is that tackles are only allowed on the player who currently has the ball. This results in a lot less senseless ramming into each other, and it promotes agility in all players. You are not forced to compete against people the size and heft of a pickup truck with guts hanging halfway to the ground. Banging your head into someone or grabbing them by the neck is also not allowed, so that oddly the sport without helmets ends up being safer for your head. Not entirely – as a rugby mom I have had to live with the scare of concussions much more than I ever wanted to, along with the dislocated shoulders and thumbs – but in general rugby does not seem to be plagued by head injuries on the same scale as football.
Ever since the movie Invictus, of course, you might know a little bit more about rugby, even as an American who’s spent his or her life blissfully unaware of it. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s brilliant. Less about rugby and more about Nelson Mandela, but must-see in any case.
Another must-see in the world of rugby is watching the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka:
If you haven’t yet, go on, watch a rugby match and see for yourself. I can’t promise you a delicious slice of turkey breast with gravy to go with it, but who knows, you might become a convert.
More posts on South African sports in the eyes of an expat:
What the Hell is Netball? Or: You mean, you call taking away the backboard and the dribbling and the three-point-line from basketball can still be called a sport?
Must the Ball Go Over the Plate? Or: Yes the ball must go over the plate! And there is something called a strike zone! And the batter must not hit it all those other times it is way out of the strike zone! And by the way please do call it batter and not batswoman! And while we’re at it, the pitcher is not a bowler! And what’s wrong with the word steal that you’ve made it into sneak? And we call it base running for a reason, so please tell your children to hurry up and get there… And other reasons why South Africans should perhaps stick to cricket and not try themselves at softball.
What is a Ballbox? Or: The new equipment you might have to buy for your kids playing a sport in a new country, and what that says about the psyche of said country.
Cricket for Expats. Or: The game in a nutshell as explained by What is a Googly by Rob Eastaway, which is hilarious.