I’m just back from Asia where the Rugby World Cup was televised live, every afternoon, via the most basic hotel cable packages, in rugby hotbeds like Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. It was as refreshing to see it routinely beamed there as it is depressing to mull my current situation: stuck in the United States where the games go on at 3:45 a.m. EST, where even the semifinals are available only via some Direct TV channel and/or PPV. Bars are not an option at that hour, of course, so I’m scrambling today in order to sort the situation on my home TV — so I can record the games and watch the next morning. I mean, tonight’s Wales-France semi should be epic, while Saturday night’s New Zealand-Australia semifinal (played at 9 p.m. Sunday night in Auckland) will be cataclysmic, the reverberations sure to be felt across the southern hemisphere. I visited NZ in May and the vibe I got there is clear: If the All Blacks don’t win this game, and the title, on home ground, the entire Kiwi nation will go into the fetal position.
I love the rugger. It took me several months to fully understand what’s really happening in the course of a game. Unlike soccer and basketball, whose rules (if not their respective nuances) are fairly self-evident, and more akin to cricket or baseball, rugby is a game that must be learned at the knee of a rugby person — not an expert necessarily but someone who can explain exactly why they’ve awarded the various penalties, why they’ve kicked it away just there, why possession seemed to have changed hands arbitrarily in that scrum situation, but not the time before. I learned at the knee of my two housemates at the University of London, both rugby guys who thought soccer to be a game for working-class oiks. They were joking, of course, but only just.
Curiously, this exceedingly fast and violent game is played by the upper classes in England. Soccer is and always has been a working class pursuit. In France, it’s the opposite — and, just as curiously, rugby is a game of the south, not the north where proximity to the English, who invented the game, would have made it more popular, one would have thought. And then there is the pure anthropological interest, for US nationals particularly, in watching a game from which American football has sprung. When we consider the football of John Heisman and Walter Camp, this is the game they were playing.
It’s these funky shadings that make me more of a sporting internationalist with each passing day. I’m not some contrarian who ONLY digs the events that take place outside the insular American sporting scene. That would be extra-nationalist. I love all sport (my Red Sox are out, but I’ve not missed a single game in either League Championship series), but I do increasingly appreciate anything that pits nation against nation. It’s of particularly interest to me when the US is involved, but only a corpse could watch France win its RWC quarterfinal v. England and not be moved.
Though this Rugby World Cup tournament is seriously top heavy — strong rugby nations are so much better than mid-level sides that the entire group stage is even more useless than, say, the group stage at the FIFA or FIBA world championships — the gap is closing, but not fast enough to make anything pre-quarterfinal of much interest. That said, I did take in the one truly meaningful group-stage game, Scotland-Argentina in late September, in a Saigon sports bar called Phatty’s, alongside myriad Scottish and Irish expats (the Green had dispatched some guppy 70-6 an hour before). The experience was such a strong argument for the sport and the internationalist outlook: Both teams needed a victory in order to make the quarters and both played with desperate vigor; a late-try (the only one of the match) secured a 13-12 win for the Pumas, who are one of those mid-level teams poised to join the big boys; and the largely UK crowd was hard-drinking and vocal but gracious to the few Argie-supporters in the crowd. Watching the gigantic front liners — 6’5″ 250-pound, V-shaped behemoths — run up and down the field without a break, beating the shit out of one another, one imagines this is what American football players, especially the linemen, would look like if they were obliged to play the whole game, on both sides of the ball, without commercial interruption.
I’ve often heard American skeptics dismissively brag that the US would dominate rugby if we could just poach enough U.S. football talents to play the game; indeed, I’ve heard Australians say the same thing. This simply doesn’t apply to the linemen: A year’s rugby training /playing would cleave 100 pounds off Vince Wilfork or any of the huge interior linemen playing today. I don’t care what American football apologists say; they are simply not fit. But it does apply to the other positions on a rugby pitch, esp. the backfield, the fleet fellows who mainly run the ball. LaDainian Tomlinson or Edgerrin James in their primes, taking the oversized ball wide, shedding and juking would-be tacklers and breaking into the open field? I’d stay up until 3:45 a.m. to see that, too.