The Games People Play: Rugby

Monday, December 5, 2011

It's high time I went to a rugby match, especially since I've been here for about a year and a half now and rugby really is one of The Big Three spectator sports in England, the other two being football and cricket of course.  (The "Big Three" thing is not any kind of official designation or anything.  I totally just made it up.  But it's still true.)  And most especially because one of my good friends is a HUGE rugby fan (in the sense that he has a great love for the game, not in the sense that he is physically huge and also happens to like rugby).  And most most especially because that same friend promised to take me to a rugby match oh, about a year and a half ago.  High time indeed.

Luckily, the last time I pestered Paul (the huge one) (kidding!) about his promise he was ready for it and offered a real treat.  We wouldn't be going to some piddling local match between the Little Whinging No-Necks and the Snortby-on-the-Plim Hippos.  Not us.  We were going to Twickenham, the spiritual home of English rugby and the largest rugby stadium in the world, with 82,000 seats.  (Twickenham Pronunciation Guide: It's "TWICKENum".  Certainly NOT "TwickenHAM")  Even better, the game was to be a fundraiser for the Help for Heroes charity, who raise money for wounded British servicemen.  Win-win!

Quick rugby primer: Forerunner to American/Canadian style football, the point of the game is for each 15-man team to try to advance the ball, which looks like a fat North American football, down the field to the opposing goal line.  If a player touches the ball to the ground past that line he scores a "try", which is the major scoring play and is worth 5 points.  (It also leads to an odd use of the phrase "Nice try" which doesn't actually mean, "Good effort, but not quite." It literally means... nice try.)  The ball can be run or kicked down the field, but no forward passing is allowed.  Also, there are points for kicking through the goal posts.  And there are a few odd plays like the scrum, which is sometimes used to put the ball back into play after a stoppage.  Scrums are a sort of structured pushing match involving very large men and very obscure rules.  Even Paul, who actually played the game, admits he does not understand the complex rules for scrummaging. (What a great verb!)

A short but creepy CGI video about the scrum

I probably should have mentioned that Twickenham is the home of Rugby Union, as distinct from Rugby League, a different variant of the sport.  Without going into too much tedious detail, it seems the major differences between Union and League are that League uses 13 players per side, and have tweaked the rules so that there are fewer chances to contest possession of the ball after a tackle.  Where Union players continue to hammer away after a tackle, League players stop.  League uses a system of six downs before possession switches automatically, similar to North American football.  There are no downs in Union; possession only switches when it is earned.  Union is generally the game that's played internationally.

As with everything in England, rugby exhibits some pretty iron-clad class characteristics.  Culturally, it's  considered an upper class sport, as befits its birth at Rugby School, one of the oldest public (posh) primary schools in England.  The oft-quoted maxim is this:
Football is a sport for gentlemen, played by thugs.  Rugby is a sport for thugs, played by gentlemen.
Rugby Union is certainly upper-class, and most popular in the more affluent south of the country.  Rugby League is more popular in the North and with working class fans.

But enough of the rules and the cultural baggage and the schism between Union and League - what about the game?  My foray to the heart of English rugby started with a traditional pint at the Cabbage Patch Pub, so named because Twickenham stadium itself is built on a former cabbage patch, which was purchased by the Rugby Football Union in 1907 for the sum of £5,550 12 shillings and sixpence.

After a warm-up pint at the Cabbage Patch we walked to the stadium, which is really big! Along the route the streets were lined with vendors selling burgers and mini donuts and cornish pasties.  We were early, so we hung around a bit, and had another pint, and I had a quite respectable chicken pie and mash, and we chatted and commented on how cold it was, and how we were both woefully underdressed (I think that by the time I was finishing that second pint the beer was colder than when it had been poured...).  And then it was into the stadium:

I told you it was big
It wasn't until I was in that stadium that it really became clear to me how popular rugby is.  Coming from North America, where rugby is a fringe sort at best, it was a bit like walking into an 80,000 seat badminton arena.  No disrespect to the rest of the planet, much of which likes the game very much (especially Australia and New Zealand and South Africa and, oddly, France).  And no disrespect to the game either, which is fast and rough and exciting and in that respect is very much like hockey and hence is A Good Thing. (Also, no disrespect to badminton.  Well, maybe a little...)

When I say the sport is rough I'm not kidding.  The players wear almost no padding, and the tackles can be vicious.  Also there are very few substitutions - many players are on the field for the whole game, which has two running-time 40 minute halves.  (One of the ways you can be sent off is in a "blood substitution", which means you're out to receive medical attention.  So like I said... rough.)  However, it can also be quite elegant.  When the ball moves down field in a choreographed series of running backward passes it's impressive.  As is the "lineout", a means of throwing the ball back into play from the sidelines.  Some time ago a bright spark got the idea that if a player were lifted up on cue he'd be able to receive the sideline pass well over the heads of the opposing players, so now whenever there's a lineout the players on both teams do this impressive lifting move to try and gain possession.

It's practically ballet!  Sweaty, dirty ballet performed by men who weigh 250 pounds and can probably tear phonebooks in half. 
The game was billed as the "Help For Heroes Northern Hemisphere XV against a star studded Southern Hemisphere team", and featured former professionals, players from the armed forces, and selected young "academy" players. I don't know any better, but Paul said there were a few legends in the lineup.  Naturally we were cheering for the North, who ended up being soundly smacked by the South by a score of about 17 to something-more-than 17...  But the North had a few nice tries and the South had a few more, and we cheered for those too, because rugby fans are a remarkably civilised lot.  In fact, rugby fans are known for being even-tempered and appreciative and, unlike football (soccer) fans, never have to be separated from opposing fans in the stadium, or escorted to waiting buses - for their own safety - when at away games in "hostile" territory, or hauled away in police cars or ambulances (or caskets) after altercations.  There is simply no such thing as a "rugby hooligan", which is a lovely thing.

And so even though the North lost, a good time was had by all.  Paul and I left the stadium chatting happily and trying to get blood moving back into our frozen limbs.  And even though 30,000 people were headed to the train station the walk was orderly and the wait for the train was surprisingly short and the trip home was quick.  So it was a nice afternoon - I finally got to see a game live, and Paul gets to stop having me pester him about the rugby, and the Help for Heroes people made some good money.  Win-win-win!

Me and Paul at Twickenham (See?  He's not huge at all!  I, on the other hand, apparently have a touch of jaundice...)

P.S.  Paul is doing a big bike ride next summer as a fundraiser for Help for Heroes.  Send him money for it!  Even if you're not a fan of this or any war, it's still a good cause.  Also, I suggest you make your donation contingent on him wearing his famous pink lycra cycling shorts.  Win-win...


Jess said...

As an ex-rugby player, I can say that your descriptions were very accurate! I'd love to see a game in the UK someday!

Jesse (scrumhalfgirl!)

Ian Timshel said...

I thought for sure this would be about you playing your first game. ;^)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification. Watching bits of the World Cup in NZ made me wish I knew more about the rules. Thanks for keeping the blog going (and congrats on the new job - woot!)

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