Friday, December 09, 2011

Introducing Rugby to the Congers

Time to Become Kiwis
Uploaded by Toastfloats
Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand. Sure, they play many sports here. In fact, New Zealand as a country produces world class athletes in any number of sports, not to mention the fact that if a sport is bat shit crazy, it was probably invented here (e.g. bungee jumping, zorbing, jet boating, and jogging). But if you ask the average Kiwi, “What is the national sport?” I suspect most would say rugby.

Prior to coming here, my impression of rugby was a rough and tumble sport played by strapping young men in Ivy League prep schools on green fields in the Northeast. Like polo or lacrosse, it felt distant, not a sport for real people but rather something celebrated amongst old money families in tony locations not accessible to the rest of us. Of the rules or method of play, I knew next to nothing. If I thought about it, I might have speculated that the sport was something like a cross between soccer and smear the queer – a game whose offensively politically incorrect name provides the all the insight necessary into the basic rules. I liked the shirts, though. I remember my favourite purchase from the college clothing shop at Berkeley was a blue and gold rugby shirt emblazoned with a Cal Bear. That thing wore like iron and lasted forever.

Real rugby, the rugby played by everyone outside the United States, is nothing like what I thought. It’s something like proto-football crossed with soccer and spiced with a bit of WWF. The players are HUGE, incredibly fast, strong, and indestructible. The play is rapid and exciting. The rules are utterly baffling when they are not simply amusing: “Penalty: Not removing hand during maul.” Perhaps most importantly, many of the guys are drop-dead gorgeous and without all the padding of American football, you can actually see them.

Watching rugby requires first that you learn an entirely new vocabulary. Scrum, maul, lineout, knock on, ruck, sevens, try, set piece.,, There are so many terms that English as a Second Language sites often include a separate rugby word list. For Americans, it also requires a willing suspension of disbelief. In this case, you must accept that no lawyers are ever going to have an opportunity to bring a suit in any court regarding any aspect of the game. Ever.

Because if the lawyers got involved, the game would cease to exist. Basically, you take a lot of very large, very muscular, very fast men, hand them an oblong ball, and say, “Go. Just… GO.” You can throw the ball (which is done a lot in underhanded tosses which look very odd to devotees of basketball or American football), run with the ball, or kick the ball (a risky manoeuvre due to its peculiar shape). You can jump on an opposing team member trip him, slam into him, and even grab him by the balls and twist hard (as long as no one is looking). Basically, the only thing you can’t do to the other guy is throw him in the air. The rules book is long, complicated, and even the most experienced commentators and players frequently look at the referees in blank incomprehension when a call is made.

For those just getting started, the two basic plays are “lateral the ball until you can find a break in the opposing line” followed by “slam into the other guy and then all pile on top of one another.” There is something like a drop kick which is used frequently to move the ball down to the other end of the field and something like a punt which somehow sometimes inexplicably results in a score. They also have this bizarre bit where the “don’t throw the other guy in the air” rule is suspended while players throw their own team members into the air to catch the ball coming into the field in what looks like a variation on a basketball jump ball.

Kau Laka! [Let's Parade!]
Uploaded by tokisioamerica
Never mind the rules, rugby is seriously fun to watch. We are completely hooked. DrC and I watched a few games during our first year in New Zealand, but we became real fans during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. On our arrival to Tonga, we were greeted by a sea of red and white clad cheering Tongan fans. Tonga played New Zealand for the opening game… in Auckland. With New Zealand hosting the World Cup this year, we were torn: root for our future home or for our present anchorage. This decision was made quickly when we discovered that the entire country essentially shut down for the day to decorate the streets, parade around, and hold massive, noisy parties absolutely everywhere. Prudence dictated that we wear the red and white of Tonga for the night. We watched the game with a bursting crowd of screaming Tongas, ex-pat Kiwis, and bewildered American cruisers at a bar on the water front where we drank beer and took in the Opening Ceremony. Tongans were so proud of their team yet so gracious as the All Blacks inevitably beat the crap out of the Tongan team.

After that, it was all rugby all the time. We caught the USA vs. Russia game during which we handed the Ruski’s their heads. Oh, yes… we too were surprised that the U.S. even fields a rugby team, let alone one capable of qualifying for the World Cup. We watched Tonga beat Canada and then were absolutely delighted to watch Tonga go on to beat France. Everyone should have a chance to beat the French at something. It’s good for morale. Not so good for our spirits was the depressing Australia vs. USA game during which we were reminded that all the big guys in the States gravitate to football leaving the rugby team about half the size of their Oz opponents.

We arrived in Auckland the day before the final game: New Zealand vs France. You have no idea how horrible it would have been for New Zealand to lose that game. The entire country has been in a fever of All Blacks All the Time for over a year, the tension building to an intensity that bordered on a psychosis. The game was a nail-biter, and in all honesty; The French won. They played better. The score, however, was in the All Blacks favour so the entire country stopped biting our nails, sat back, drank another Tui, and started arguing over whether or not Richie McCaw deserves a knighthood.

Now we have to pick a home team. Like everything else with rugby, we’re completely bewildered. There are rugby teams and leagues all over everywhere. Hard to know where to start, but I suspect we’ll try to find the AA version of rugby where we can afford the tickets and don’t have to go to far to watch a game. My Kiwi friends tell me it’s a better game when you can see what’s going on away from the cameras. And you can smell the blood…


Anonymous said...

Toast, I played a little rugby in college, amazingly at Alabama,(club sport not NCAA) back in '91. My advice for you is keep your daughters away from Ruggers!

Jonathan said...

Dear Toast and crew,
A belated huge Thank You! for taking us along on your journey across the puddle! Always good for a chuckle or LOL. Congratulations on a safe landing in your new home. I'll be following your new adventures. Best wishes for Christmas. Jonathan

Unknown said...

My favorite bumper sticker of all time is
"Rugby Players Eat Their Dead"

Thanks for the posts!


Brodi said...

My rugby team in undergrad (a women's team no less) were named after the all-blacks. Don't let your girls discover they too can play in this bat shit craziness! :-) Go All-Blacks!

Unknown said...

Missed you leaving Nuka'alofa. You and "Dr.C" have done a great job with your girls - thought you should know. Currently Marimba 2 is in Opua, on the hard for some upgrades - and I'm on the cold and wet west coast working again - cruising budget shot thanks to the upgrades. Hope to be back in NZ in a few months and with luck will cross paths again. Very best wishes, you and family are a treat and a high point to my cruise. David