Rugby is awesome, and you should watch the Rugby World Cup
Rugby is my favorite sport, and the Rugby World Cup is underway. Just as every year I plot Santa's demise, every four years I have to instruct my American friends to get into rugby.
First of all, watch this. Just watch it.
This 1994 try by France against New Zealand — if you know one thing about rugby, it's that New Zealand's All Blacks are the world's winningest team — was called by the Sunday Times of London the "try of the century." In France, it's known as the "try from the end of the world," both because the action started at the very opposite end of the field from the try line, and because the French were playing in New Zealand, at the world's antipode.
Just watch it. If there's anything in your bones that appreciates sportsmanship, you'll realize there's something there. But if that's not enough, let me elucidate the ways in which rugby is awesome.
1. It's a team sport
What's striking about the try of the century is that pretty much every single player on the team touches the ball. In rugby, no single player has the outsize influence on the game that a top striker has in soccer or a pitcher has in baseball. (With Jonah Lomu and Jonny Wilkinson being the exceptions that confirm the rule.) Because of tackling and backward passing, the only way to advance the ball is through teamwork, one player at a time. When you throw that ball behind you, you need to know your teammate is going to be there; if he isn't and the opposite team snatches the ball, you've conceded an excellent try opportunity.
A scrum is the quintessential team effort. Like the phalanx formation of the ancient Greeks, a scrum requires a group of people to function as one organism. A scrum with more muscle mass but bad formation will get broken by a scrum with great formation and lesser muscle mass each and every time.
And the roles within a team are complementary. Contrary to popular perception, you don't need to be a hulking bear to play rugby. It helps if backs are huge, but some of the world's greatest scrum-halves and fly-halves are short and skinny, and a wing needs to be fast and nimble rather than big and strong. Obviously, at the pro level, there's a minimum of physical prowess out of reach of everyday people that's required, but in amateur rugby, smarts and nimbleness — as well as a willingness to take hits — will beat brute strength in most positions.
This team aspect cannot be overstated. Even at the highest levels — perhaps especially — teams with greater cohesion routinely beat teams whose individual players are much more proficient.
2. True grit
You know the joke: Rugby is like American football, but for real men. Rugbymen don't need padding to take hits, and would be offended if you offered it to them. In a sense, of course, the joke is unfair. The kind of hits you see in American football are different from those you see in rugby. (At least, in rugby union; in rugby league, the tackles are similar to American football, and they don't have padding either.)
I would submit that no other sport teaches, requires, or rewards that elusive quality of true grit like rugby does.
Of course, success at any sport requires serious grit, which is why we do any of them to begin with, and admire those who are so successful at it. We rightly admire great athletes because we know that what got them to where they are isn't just lucky genes, but amazing dedication.
Getting tackled to the ground, buried under a pile of huge men struggling to pry a ball loose, continuously for 80 minutes, is a trial. And what's more, you will get punched and kneed and elbowed and stomped on the face, although we don't like to talk about that, at least when the beer's not flowing. (A classic rugby joke: Coach: "We need to win psychologically." Stereotypically dumb rugby player: "What's 'psychologically?'" Coach: "It's when the ref's not looking.")
Unlike American football, rugby is not a stop-and-go game. Instead, the game goes on, and flows. Once you get tackled to the ground, you have to get right back up, because the game keeps going. For 80 minutes.
3. Classic rivalries
When I mention I'm a rugby fan and people ask me which team I support, I say, "France, and anybody who is playing England."
France has a special rivalry with England, because of the two countries' literally thousand-year-long enmity. Heck, most rugby-playing countries have a special rivalry with England, because they are former colonies.
But the rivalries also form organically from the history of the game. As I mentioned, New Zealand is the winningest team in the world, but New Zealanders will candidly say the only team they're scared of is France, because France's unpredictable style of play, known as "French flair," has a unique capacity for throwing off the well-oiled Kiwi war machine.
There's a history between us. In addition to the try of the century, France in 1999 came back from a disastrous first half to kick New Zealand out of the World Cup, in what has been called the greatest rugby game in history:
France also kicked New Zealand out of the 2007 World Cup in the quarter-finals against the bookies' expectations, and in the 2011 World Cup final, we came nail-bitingly close to winning (and many feel the game was stolen):
Speaking of that 2007 quarter-final, one of the most iconic moments in rugby history came in that game. The All-Blacks are well known for their haka, the ritual dance they perform before every game. But France — which had played awfully in the pool stage and had only qualified for the quarter-finals by the skin of their teeth — responded by literally staring them down. Watch this, and if you don't get chills down your spine, you're not human:
4. The game just flows
As I mentioned, rugby is a very fluid game. The rules are meant to encourage this. For example, if one team commits a foul, but the other team still has the advantage, the ref can and often does give that team the advantage, letting the game run on. In a game where you will get hit by the human equivalent of a Mack truck if you hold the ball for too long, the key to surviving is to keep moving the ball — and since you can only pass backward, it takes a lot of people to do so. Phases of play stretch on; after a scrum, the scrum-half will kick the ball to the other side of the field, where a player will run with it, get tackled, and pass it to another player, who will pass it to another, who will get tackled, but keep moving, so that more players from each side join the fray, until they all collapse, but soon the ball is pried loose again for someone to run with it, or pass it, or kick it down the line.
That it's so fluid makes it a very deep game both strategically and tactically. Tactically, because there are manifold ways to play each ball, the options are endless. Strategically, because the game rewards many different styles of play. New Zealand are great at everything, but their style of play is mostly based on movement, on keeping the ball going, and executing very complex plays flawlessly. England, the winningest team in the Northern Hemisphere, by contrast, favors a static game, which is more about defense and grinding the opponent down. France are predictably unpredictable. Argentina is known for its deadly counterattacks.
The game is also unpredictable. And not just because the ovoid balls bounce unpredictably, although that plays a role. The rugby world was stunned last week when Japan, the butt of many jokes in the rugby world, beat mighty South Africa. The scoring system, where goals through the uprights get you three points, but a converted try (like a run into the end zone in American football) gets you seven — and tries can happen any time — mean games can turn on a dime. Because the game is so grinding, a team will sometimes dominate for the first 60 minutes and then just break down physically and lose the game in the last 20.
5. Rugby takes in every aspect of the human spirit
In my view, rugby is the only game that does this. Because the game rewards such a variety of playing styles, it is a very strategic game. Because the game is so harrowing, psychological equanimity is of the essence. Because it is such a fluid game, tactics are paramount. Because it is a team game, all actions will require many moving parts. Because it is intensely physical, it requires grit and endurance.
There is a team aspect and an individual aspect; a psychological aspect and a physical aspect; strategy, tactics; grit and smarts. Rugby combines all of these and more. And that's why I love it.