Rugby for Dummies
Most of us know at least one very specific fact about rugby: We don't want to play it.
But for the moment, move past the visceral fear of a cranial collision with another human, and you will gain an understanding of this ancient sport.
Let's start with a very basic human need: stress release. Peter Winder, author of Rugby Tactics, writes, "Rugby provides a suitable outlet for the controlled release of any frustration or aggression within the structured framework of sport."
According to Mr. Winder, legalized mayhem has therapeutic value.
And legalized mayhem it is. There are no pads or helmets worn in rugby, and the collisions are often of the high speed nature. Size is an advantage, but not as much as one might think. A quicker, smaller player can be invaluable. Injuries are an accepted part of the game. One is expected to play hurt if at all possible. Clearly rugby is a sport for the lion, not the faint-hearted.
Maybe the best way to understand rugby initially is from the viewpoint of the spectator. Not all of us are cut out for such brute physicality, even within the "framework of sport."
The terminology and jargon is revealing: scrum, ruck, maul, hooker. It just sounds rough, although there is much more to it. Here are the basics:
The game of rugby involves 15 players per side, though seven-a-side tournaments are popular too. The responsibilities of those 15 positions are loosely interpreted, depending on the league and/or country where the game is played, but the 15 positions include 8 forwards, 2 halfbacks, 2 centers, 2 wings, and 1 fullback.
The field of play is called a "pitch," usually the size of a soccer or football field (i.e., whatever's available, especially in the U.S.).
The object of the game is to score as many points as possible by carrying, passing or kicking a leather oval ball, about twice the size of a football, toward the scoring zone at the far end of the pitch called the in-goal area, akin to an end zone in football. Grounding the ball (literally touching it to the turf) in the in-goal area must be done with downward pressure, and results in a try (score), worth 5 points.
A conversion may then be attempted by a place kick off either a tee or the ground. If the ball is kicked through the uprights, 2 more points are awarded. The ball is then kicked back to the other team and play resumes.
Points may also be scored from a drop kick during play -- no easy feat with 30 guys swarming around -- or a penalty kick, which is awarded after certain breaches of rugby etiquette are spied by the single referee. Yes, believe it or not, at least on the local level, there is only one referee on the field to monitor the actions of 30 players. If the drop or penalty kick is successful, it is worth 3 points.
Here are some basic rugby rules might raise more questions than answers:
There are no "downs," as in football, nor is a "first down" required to maintain possession. In fact, possession is exchanged often and quickly. There are few long, sustained "drives" toward the in-goal area. Progress up and down the field is achieved grudgingly, usually in short chunks.
The ball may not be passed forward, though it may be kicked forward. Players cannot be tackled unless they possess the ball. Once in possession of the coveted leather oval, of course, one is, you might say, fair game, or dead meat, or an endangered species. You get the picture.
Play stops only when there is an infringement, or the ball is thrown or kicked out of bounds, or when a try is scored.
When the ball goes out of play, a line-out results (see cover photo), where the opposing players line up perpendicular to the sideline and jump for the ball as it is thrown back in play (similar to a jump ball in basketball). The players are even allowed to hoist a teammate into the air to better reach the toss.
Penalties, which range from tackling too high to being offsides (a player further downfield than the ball) can result in either a free kick for the other team or a scrum.
Now there's a term most of us know. But what, exactly, is a "scrum"?
Without getting too technical, here is what occurs when each team's forwards link arms over shoulders on opposite curves of a circle, like a huge round centipede at war with itself.
After the forwards are locked together (this could be an intimate way to get to know your opponent), another player -- determined by either the team that was the victim of a penalty, or the team that was moving forward at the time of play stoppage -- rolls the ball into the center of the scrum, careful to roll it so the ball bisects the human circle so as not to give either team an advantage in gaining possession.
Once in the center of the scrum, the ball cannot be touched by hand. Each team has a "hooker" in the scrum, a player positioned forward of his teammates, who tries to hook his foot around the ball and drag it behind him, where his teammates then caterpillar it with their feet until it squirts out the back of the scrum. Then yet another teammate, preferably a quick, elusive lad, picks it up and initiates play.
This looks almost as absurd as it sounds, but there is much strategy involved in emerging from a scrum with possession of the ball.
The game consists of two 30-minute halves, with a brief half-time break. There are no time-outs, save for an injury, which is also the only circumstance under which a substitution is allowed, though this rule is flexible at the local levels.
The Peninsula Green game versus the Canadiens was my initial foray into the world of rugby. Standing on the sideline afforded me a front-row seat to view the violence of the sport, yet also a window into the strategy and technique that may not be obvious from afar.
There is clearly a method to the madness that is rugby. Just be careful of those cranial collisions.