We’re now at the pointy end of RWC2011, which means that it’s harder to fake knowledge of the game. This might help.
Rugby is something that should be passed down from generation to generation, along with family traditions, recipes and jokes. My earliest rugby memories involve me getting up in the middle of the night to watch games on my Grandfather’s TV that was more cabinet than screen. My early rugby knowledge was gleaned from his opinions and Keith Quinn’s commentary. My understanding was patchy – but I’ve heard Murray Deaker say the game is too hard to understand, so I’m in good company.
Rugby is not the simplest of games – for a start, the goal is to get the ball across a line that is in front of you, but have to throw the ball backwards. Perhaps starting at the beginning will help.
Colloquial history tells us that William Webb Ellis was the first football player who ‘picked up the ball and ran with it’ in 1823, thus inspiring the game of rugby. In honour of this small rebellion, the trophy attached to the Rugby World Cup is called the Webb Ellis Cup. I find it encouraging that even though Rugby (his school) was undoubtedly for the upper class, his double-barrelled surname wasn’t hyphenated. This reinforces that rugby isn’t just for the privileged, but for all.
New Zealand has its own rugby pioneer, Charles Munro who brought the game home from Christ’s College in England. A re-enactment took place in Nelson recently. I sincerely hope they made as much effort to dress up as the confederate soldiers do in Sweet Home Alabama.
But on to the modern game…
Teams: Each team has 15 players on the field and up to seven reserves on the bench. That’s a total of 22, which is also the name of one of the lines on the field. This seems to be a coincidence.
The point of the game: Two teams play each other – each trying to get points by getting the ball to the other team’s end of the field. It makes the game more exciting for spectators if the teams are reasonably evenly matched or if some of the players make spectacular plays or errors. It doesn’t hurt if they’re easy on the eye either.
Scoring: The best kind of scoring is the try – this is when a player touches the ball over the try-line at the far end of the field. The ultimate try is when a player from the team you support sprints down the field, mowing down the opposition and then skidding dramatically across the line. Some believe that this kind of try should get extra points, but the rules state that tries, no matter how dramatic, score five points. Following a try, the opportunity to score an additional two points is awarded, and the nominated kicker (usually, but not always the #10) attempts to get the ball over the goalposts. Penalty kicks are sometimes awarded, for three points. We don’t really like these.
Offside rule: This goes back to where we started – you have to pass the ball backwards. A player in front of the ball is not allowed to receive any advantage without being pinged. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones is surely that it looks cool when the attacking players all run forward in an attractive shape not unlike birds in formation.
Kicking: It is totally okay to kick the ball forward.
Line-out: In the round ball game we know as soccer or football they just throw the ball in when it goes out of bounds. In rugby, when Team A puts the ball into touch, someone from Team B gets to throw the ball in, but instead of chucking it straight to one of their own guys, they have to throw it in a straight line between their own team and the opposition. Rugby’s way is much more exciting, because it gives the forwards (the big guys with the small numbers on their backs) a chance to be the stars as they throw each other into the air in an attempt to get to the ball before the other team.
Scrum: Crouch, touch, pause, engage. Apparently the scrum is a safe way to restart the game. It looks a bit like a reverse tug of war, with players attempting to gain ground so that their Hooker (number 2) can get the ball to the back of the scrum so that it can be rescued by the number 8 or 9 and then be freed to be run up the field once more.
The Field: A rugby field is 100m long and 70m wide. It has been this way for ages and remains the same even though new camera angles may appear to make it square. There is a big H of a goalpost at each end. These goalposts shrink when your least successful kicker is on, and grow for the opposition.
Time: It is indeed a game of two 40 minute halves. With a break in the middle for team talks, toilet stops and the chance to get some more hot chips.