Monday, 5 October 2015

I Think I've Got It

I spent yesterday watching rugby. I must confess, I have never watched rugby before. I've glimpsed it, I've heard about it, but I've never watched it closely. Until yesterday, I thought it was just an excuse to mud wrestle while running.

I know better now.

Rugby is, it turns out, a game of high refinement and complexity. It obeys laws that would baffle many of the world's finest minds. I don't claim to have grasped more than the most basic elements of the thing but this is what I did manage to work out.

The main aim is to hurl yourself at the people on the team opposing yours, despite the fact that they are almost all built like gnarled old trees and colliding with them is likely to do you an injury, (if you are sensible, you will also be built along similar lines, making the impact greater between the two masses as they meet, but possibly making the effect less devastating than it might be, were you of a less sturdy size and shape).  I should add that, ideally, you should be holding the ball while using your body as a battering ram against these extraordinary physical specimens. If you fall under their onslaught, you must try to pass the ball to someone behind you, which makes things tricky as you have to keep an eye not only on the hulks ahead of you but also on the team mates who may or may not be behind you, ready to catch your throw.

Supposing you, or one of the people dexterous enough to have received your pass - after running the gauntlet of your alarming opponents and the thorough battering that that entailed -  somehow manage to get near the end of the pitch still holding the ball, you must be prepared to be set upon by another hundred weight or so of brawn and - vitally - still holding the ball, (which, incidentally, is not spherical, but shaped like a lemon, who knows why), it is then incumbent upon you to slide across the touchline, scraping the skin of your knees and any other exposed parts of your body, your weighty opponents piling on top of you, as if hitching a ride on your graceful - or more probably simply desperate - dive.

Of course, this makes it all sound so simple. In fact, many things can go wrong along the way. One of your opponents may grab your arm and hurl you through the air like a tiny pre-dinner snack tossed playfully across the tundra by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Or they may wrap their arms around your upper thigh and thrash you about on the grass for twenty or thirty seconds. If either of these things happen, a five-metre scrum is called for, apparently. A scrum - five-metre or of any dimension - is quite a spectacle. Both teams bend towards each other with outstretched arms and huddle into a crablike embrace. They wander about the field in this strange bent bondage until the ball emerges from their midst, and then the whole wild turmoil of running and hurling and grabbing and pushing begins all over again.

Perhaps to add variety to proceedings - and certainly randomly, so far as I could tell - from time to time a team member will break things up by suddenly deciding to simply kick the ball. This comes as quite a surprise given that for the bulk of a match, a) kicking isn't allowed and b) the ball must only go backwards when not in someone's arms. That is, during general play, it is only in a player's embrace that the ball is permitted to be carried forward, but on rare occasions a kick can be taken that sends it straight forward. Why this is allowed sometimes I do not know, and in fact the question I want an answer to is not that one anyway. To my mind, the real question that arises is: why isn't kicking allowed all the time? Surely kicking the ball forward would be a more sensible way to play the game? You wouldn't need to bang into each other or risk having your bones broken. Surely it would be a lot more pleasant for everyone if the players could simply run and kick, without all this whacking into each other business? Or could it be that I am missing the point somehow?

Anyway, when the ball is kicked, a man who is not a player, but is in possession of a flag, goes along the sidelines and waves his flag at a point that does not exactly tally with where the ball came down, but presumably is decided by combining some arcane rule of geometry with a calculation about implied velocity - or something. When he has done this, both teams roar down to the point where he stands and queue, surprisingly meekly, in two lines, (it almost looks like Madeline -

but not quite) in front of him. A member of one or other team, depending on something to do with the way the thing bounced - or something - stands beside the man with the flag and throws the ball at the two queues of players. Pandemonium instantly ensues: they roar off once more, snatching and colliding and struggling as energetically as ever, breaking off only when one or two collapse writhing on the ground, which is a signal that everyone else can have a drink of water.

It doesn't LOOK very enjoyable, but I suppose it must be. The players presumably imagine they're having fun, which makes you wonder how dreadful the rest of their lives must be. People tell me it is all a great escape valve for pent up feelings. Personally, if you want a release valve for emotions, aggression and general tension, I'd recommend question time in the Australian Parliament as an alternative. If you like your release valve with added mud though, I guess rugby will have to do.


  1. I think it's a ridiculous game, as tedious as American Football, but pointlessly dangerous. My antipathy probably stems from growing up a mile away from Twickenham Rugby Ground, as every match day meant that the roads would be blocked and the pubs would be full of ruddy-faced people from God knows where.

    1. My mother confessed to me the other day that almost the first thing that happened to her, on arrival in England from Australia as a 23 year old, was someone took her to a rugby match at Twickenham. I got the strong impression that, had the only option in those days not been a v long sea journey, she might have chosen to go straight home again as a result

  2. During the freshman orientation at my university, some hopeful type tried to recruit an acquaintance and me for the rugby team. Why, I don't know, for though tall and big-boned I was then very thin, built more for cross country running than for rugby; my acquaintance was almost certainly a better athlete, but on the small side. I would not have signed up in any case, but I had just been reading in the student paper that a member of the rugby team had blood in his urine, presumably from a bruised kidney, but was expected back on the pitch soon.

    1. Gruesome, but not entirely surprising. It's the neck injuries that would especially terrify me.