Welcome to the wonderful world of rugby
Did you know at around 4am last Wednesday, Canada won their opening match of this year’s Rugby World Cup (RWC) against Tonga?
And did you know there are two Newfoundlanders in that team?
If I’m to be brutally honest, I wasn’t aware that Frank Walsh or Ciaran Hearn, both of St. John’s, were in the national team either, but I’ve been aware of this RWC since the final whistle was blown in Paris, France, in 2007.
Back then South Africa hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup with a victory over England (thank the rugby gods for that because there is nothing worse than victorious English ruby fans, except perhaps the annual bleating by Leafs fans about how they are destined to win the Stanley Cup. Give it up already).
Nevertheless, you would think local boys playing for the national team at the preeminent rugby tournament in the world would draw some attention. Unfortunately not.
Rugby isn’t big in these parts, and I accept that, but it’s a great shame, because those of us from rugby playing nations (in my case Australia) follow the sport as rabidly as Canadians follow the NHL and the Winter Olympics combined.
That’s why you will find Northern Hemisphere-based rugbyphiles perched around dodgy buffering internet connections (or, for the blessed few with TSN2, around the television) at ungodly hours, eyes hanging out of our heads, IV-drip pumping caffeine direct into our bloodstream, screaming at the television as though in a Don Cherry or Rex Murphy-esque rant.
In short, 20 nations have converged on New Zealand to decide, in brutal warrior fashion, which is the most fearless, aggressive, talented rugby playing country.
Sadly, the time difference means most of the games air between midnight and 5am, but it’s been four years since the last RWC and these are sacrifices you make.
If anybody has made it this far, and I thank you for sticking with me, most of you will be asking the same question — what in blue blazes is rugby?
Well, it’s a relatively simple game made to look overly complicated and confusing.
For the uninitiated, it may appear to be 30 assorted-shaped men aimlessly — and with malicious intent — crashing into each other, throwing an oval ball backwards in a bid to move forwards.
When they are not doing that they are piling on top of each other like 10-year-olds at a birthday party scavenging for the last Reese’s Cup that fell from a cracked piñata or, worse, a wild pack of proctologists doing unseemly things to each other — the kind which should be confined behind a white curtain and prefaced with the occasional “please cough”.
When the ball finally appears it is thrown backwards and the whole sordid mess starts again.
I’ll try my best to break it down for you.
The basics of rugby union are thus: two teams of 15 players try to get an oval ball over a line at either end of a rectangle field. Simple, right? Well, sort of.
Each team is divided into two groups: forwards (regarded as the engine room) and backs (regarded as the glamour boys).
To be fair I played as a forward so this assessment may be very slightly skewed.
The forwards are big, oafish-looking lads characterized by cauliflower ears, a lack of necks and faces not even mothers could love, but they are some of the most gentle and lovable men in sport. They prowl the field in packs, diving on the ball in a bid to secure possession for their team.
Now and again they form a peculiar looking thing >called a scrum, which is the pinnacle of physical dominance in the sport.
Simply put, a scrum is two sets of intertwined men who form the shape of a triangle and collide together in a bid for possession.
Being that most forward packs weigh, on average, about 900kg, that’s around 1800kg of raw energy forced together over a very short distance to decide who gets to run with the oval ball. I’ll admit it’s not the smartest thing, but neither is cooking bacon in the nude and people do that.
The backs — characterized by their good looks and unwillingness to do anything the forwards do — gallivant and prance around in the background and are primarily used for their speed, agility and marketing appeal (there are very few forwards you would want in an advertising campaign, trust me).
That’s pretty much it.
Oh, except for the cup itself.
The miniscule trophy may not have the physical stature of the Stanley Cup but its importance is no less great for those contesting it.
It was said that in 1823, young William Webb Ellis, who was a bit of a pratt really, picked up a soccer ball during a football match and ran with it instead of kicking it. However, there’s very little evidence to support this claim, so for all we know the game could have been started by Greek Athenian philosopher Socrates. Actually, that could explain the proliferation of wild and tangled beards adorning players this year.
Although the namesake of the trophy has been discredited as the inventor of the sport, the name William Webb Ellis Cup remains.
In short, those who play rugby consider it the game they play in heaven. For those who know nothing of the sport, it’s like Oscar Wilde said: “Rugby is a good occasion for keeping 30 bullies far from the center of the city.”
If you get the chance you should try and catch a few of the games and maybe, just maybe, you might develop a better understanding of the sport. Heaven’s forbid, you might actually enjoy it.
Head on over to northernpen.ca to check out my rugby blog throughout the Rugby World Cup where, for the next seven weeks, I’ll post links on understanding the sport, a unique Rugby-Hockey-Any-Other-Sport-I-See-fit analysis of each of the teams, and maybe a few match reports.
Lastly, remember this mantra and repeat it often: rugby is nothing like American football.