Last weekend, I watched the Rugby World Cup semi-final that pitted New Zealand’s All Blacks, who resemble athletes that are part Oakland Raider and part Nasty Boy, against the Springboks of South Africa, who are also equally fierce looking meatheads (in the kindest sense of the word!). First of all, kudos to World Rugby for embracing the national nicknames, now if only we could eliminate “USMNT” from our vocabulary. (Seriously, anything would be better — the Bald Eagles, the Uncle Sams, or whatever other apple-pie-nomenclature you prefer.)
I was excited when NBC announced that they’d be broadcasting the World Cup on their family of networks this fall. Their coverage of the Premier League brings a new Christmas morning every single Saturday during the season. Unfortunately, in this AT&T U-Verse household, NBC only offered to air two games of the entire World Cup tournament on free TV, this semi-final, and tomorrow’s championship. If that doesn’t tell you how NBC feels about rugby in the US right now, then the $45 PPV fee for Australia and Argentina semi-final should.
Taking a page from their own handbook, NBC’s in-studio crew paired an attractive young anchor with two former players to promote the pre-game. I seem to remember liking the guy who played for Fiji, but there wasn’t nearly enough information there to prepare me to watch an 80-minute rugby match. So, as the All Blacks performed their pre-game Haka, I queued up the Wikipedia entry for rugby rules and started reading, and thankfully the announcers kindly coddled me and the rest of NBC’s audience along during the match.
Before this game, I’d probably watched half an hour of rugby in my life, so a learning curve was to be expected, surely. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I settled into the groove. I won’t attempt to explain tries (uh, touchdowns, I guess?), penalties, line-outs, drop-kicks, or scrums for you here, but perhaps the key that unlocked the sport for me will work for other newly-minted, American viewers too.
Prior to this semi, I’d always tried to understand rugby in terms of American football. The ball was the same shape (ish), and they both have goal-posts, so of course it must also be static, regimented, and logical. I quickly learned that Bill Belicheck’s micro-managing prowess would have little influence on a rugby squad. So to my delight, I learned that rugby doesn’t resemble American football at all. Instead, I started looking at it through prism of English football and I realized that the game never stops moving, the ball is almost always live, and the teams contract and expand across the field in real time. They fight and concede possession instantly, defend and attack in fluid rhythm, all while getting seriously jacked up by the other team. And nobody’s got a goddam helmet on either!
I very quickly fell in love with this game’s energy. The All Blacks tried to mow down South Africa, pummel them into the pitch, and score try after try. But the Springboks were content to park the bus, settle for kicking field goals (yes, I know that’s not what they’re called but forgive me, that’s one thing the NFL got right), and winning a close game. It was a great narrative, and it came down to the very end, as New Zealand just came away with the win, 20-18.
So while I grieve tonight for my New York Metropolitans, down 2-0 to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, I have hope that at least tomorrow morning I will wake up and see something invigorating. The two best rugby teams in the world, New Zealand and Australia, will battle for a trophy. I’ll never look sideways at this “niche” sport again.