On the 9th of September 2011, the Rugby World Cup (RWC) returns to New Zealand for the first time since the inaugural tournament almost a quarter of a century ago. New Zealand is the fabled home of the All Blacks and the Haka, and has a storied tradition of producing great, unflinching rugby teams. Over the past two decades, New Zealand has dominated the international stage; however, they have not managed to win a single World Cup since they hosted the inaugural tournament.
This coming month of rugby is more than a test of New Zealand’s firepower, as countries from each of the six inhabited continents send teams to the twenty-team tournament. Each of these twenty nations has a unique style of play, with distinct characteristics. This makes the RWC quite unlike the FIFA World Cup, where 32 nations attempt to play the beautiful game in the best manner, and where single-score games are decided by players with solitary moments of genius. In comparison, the RWC results in titanic clashes not just between players and teams, but also between national identities and cultural interpretations of rugby.
The Pacific Island nations are known for their rib breaking physicality combined with an extraordinary amount of pace (think of fifteen Troy Polamalus) that makes for a frightening highlight reel. Unfortunately, they can rarely perform at such an explosive level for a whole match let alone a whole tournament.
The French combine an aristocratic free flowing passing game with a Gallic temper and impatience which can result in either a beautifully intricate 80 yard score, or a fifteen man scuffle in the corner of the pitch. It’s impossible to predict which one will occur; sometimes both happen at the same time.
The personification of teams into national stereotypes may seem farfetched to the majority of unfamiliar American readers. However, it is merely a testament to the simple beauty of rugby, which allows it to be interpreted differently the world over.
While an NFL game can inspire with dramatic plays that run against a timer and spectacular hits that are softened by pads and helmets. I am constantly struck by the inflexible roles of most of the players: one player kicks field goals, one man snaps the ball, and one team defends.
True, there is a ridiculous level of individual athleticism throughout the NFL, but all the players are performing tasks given to them by a QB or coach. Players are rarely given the scope to be responsible for these critical decisions. It’s far easier to perform once the responsibility to create structure and rhythm is given to a huddle of old white men with walkie-talkies on the sideline.
Rugby is played by two teams of 15 men with a minimal amount of interference; there is one referee, two touchline judges and a video referee (if you’re lucky). There are two halves of forty minutes, in which the clock only stops if a player needs to be stretchered off. Possibly most importantly, the Coach is only responsible for the substitutions and half time talk. For the rest of the game, they are spectators in the stands like everyone else. This allows for an unconstrained game similar to soccer.
Soccer is beautifully unrestricted: it allows and requires crisp passing patterns, visionary movements and delicate strokes of the ball. Importantly, the responsibility for these patterns, space and goals lie completely with the men on the pitch, who must create them spontaneously. Their ability to create these opportunities and more importantly to capitalize on them is what wins soccer matches. Unfortunately, in soccer there are large lulls in a game, as a majority of the time players fail to create anything, and the viewer is often left watching a cluster of lifeless players aimlessly passing each other the ball.
This team sport with its lack of individual athleticism (and heroism) has failed to spark the American imagination, despite the best efforts of countless corporate sponsors. Frankly, I don’t believe it ever will.
Rugby looks on the track to supplanting soccer as “the next big sport.” As American Football’s venerable ancestor, it possesses the tactical mannerisms and frightening physicality of the NFL. Thanks to its roots in soccer, rugby also maintains a technical simplicity, free flowing passing patterns and the expressive rhythm of soccer.
Indeed, rugby is the fastest growing team sport in the US over the last 2 years, with the amount of registered players jumping from 750,00 to 1.13m. Thanks to its inclusion in the 2016 Olympics, it has for the first time in its history received a huge amount of funding in the States. The 2016 Olympics is the first time rugby has been included in the Games since the 1920s, a period in which the US won two Gold medals, making the US the reigning Olympic champions! Does this beckon a return to the top tier of international rugby for the US?
Follow the Rugby World Cup on Zeus of Sport for coverage.