Four or five months ago I was looking forward to the Rugby World Cup that opens in three days, but without much hope that I would make it. With now only three sleeps to be survived, I am beginning to think I may make it after all. And that has brought me to an understanding of the puzzling fact that most of the people who are reading this Chronicle have minimal interest in Rugby, and will not really welcome any attempt by me to explain it. One thing I will say in favour of this ignorance: it is not as profound as the North American ignorance of that other British-invented game, cricket, a game that I consider to be the greatest game on earth.
Whenever cricket rubs its way into the North American consciousness, I realize I am about to be assailed by one of those feeble attempts at humour essayed by the popular press about this game whose fundamentals appear to be too complex for their understanding.
Never mind: the least I can do is try to give you poor souls some minimal understanding of what all the fuss is about. I know it is going to be tough for you, because your own favourite Canadian game is wrought with expressions about fighting, hitting, body checks, sticks over the heads, and lifetime concussions in spite of the extravagant body shields worn. I freely admit that this wonderful Canadian game is the fastest played by anyone, and is a game to be immensely enjoyed for its superb skills on those rare occasions on which they do not start punching each other out with the intention of wounding and hurting, objectives that I have long ago taken to be the antithesis of sport and games.
By contrast, Rugby Union, the game I am espousing in his piece, is composed of hard knocks, but never with the intention of hurting or wounding anyone. In fact, the prevailing ethos of the game is that when the final whistle has blown, the losing team will form a line of applauding players through which the winning team makes its way off the field. Thereafter, as is well-known, it is customary for the teams to gather in the pub, or even in one of the dressing rooms, to share a quick one. Or two. Or so. In an atmosphere of cameraderie.
When I started to read up about the history of these British-invented games, I was surprised by how ancient they are. Cricket began late in the 16th century, had become the national sport of England by the 18th century, played its first international match --- between the USA and Canada, no less! --- in 1844. For generations the game was dominated by intense gambling, just as it is now in India and Pakistan, and the present system of professional county teams began to appear by 1709, with a regular scorecard employed since 1772, and the Lord’s Cricket Ground, which still lies at the heart of the game, was opened in 1787.
Although the Chinese have put in a claim to have originated the game now called soccer in many millennia ago, that is not really surprising, because as the British scientist Joseph Needham showed in his monumental 16-volume study of Chinese life, that long-lived civilization has a virtually unquestionable claim to having originated almost everything.
When I enquired of the Internet about origins, it came up with his concise description:
Records trace the history of soccer back more than 2,000 years to ancient China. Greece, Rome, and parts of Central America also claim to have started the sport; but it was England that transitioned soccer, or what the British and many other people around the world call “football,” into the game we know today.
Being so very cheap to play, requiring no more than a shirt and a pair of shorts, and a ball, or something resembling a ball, it was from the first the game of the people, who, in Britain over many centuries, had been great and persistent gamblers, who quickly took to gamble over the games of football (so called, apparently, not because it was played with the foot, as from the fact it was played without the use of horses.)
The particular version of football that I grew up with is known as Rugby Union, and it came about because, so it is said (although rigorous researchers have taken pleasure in doubting the historical accuracy of this “fact”), during a game being played at Rugby school, in Warwickshire, when a boy called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it. The Cup awarded to the victor in the Rugby World Cup is named after Ellis. I am indebted to the school’s Wikipedia entry:
The game of Rugby football owes its name to the school. The legend of William Webb Ellis and the origin of the game is commemorated by a plaque. The story has been known to be a myth since it was investigated by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. There were no standard rules for football in Webb Ellis's time at Rugby (1816–1825) and most varieties involved carrying the ball. The games played at Rugby were organised by the pupils and not the masters, the rules being a matter of custom and not written down. They were frequently changed and modified with each new intake of students. The sole source of the story is Matthew Bloxam, a former pupil but not a contemporary of Webb Ellis. In October 1876, four years after the death of Webb Ellis, in a letter to the school newspaper The Meteor he quotes an unknown friend relating the story to him. He elaborated on the story four years later in another letter to The Meteor, but shed no further light on its source. Richard Lindon, a boot and shoemaker who had premises across the street from the School's main entrance in Lawrence Sheriff Street, is credited with the invention of the "oval" rugby ball, the rubber inflatable bladder and the brass hand pump.
This occurred before professionalism in 1885 entered the older game known formally in the United Kingdom as Association football, and elsewhere as soccer, this being a shorthand version developed from the initials “assoc”, often used to delineate the game in its early years.
It is a matter of some interest, I suppose to Canadians as to why this articular colony should have been almost the only one in the British Empire that did not wholeheartedly adopt these two British sports, cricket and soccer. Today, cricket is said to draw the largest following world-wide, but there can be no denying that it is soccer that is the favoured game of the greatest number of people.
Rugby’s relatively genteel origin is still evident in the composition of the 20 nations competing for the World Cup about to get under way tomorrow, no fewer than 12 of the 20 owing their origins to British imperialism. It is said today that the game is played in some 62 nations, but that still today the British Isles have more players than the rest of the world combined.
Although with a mind like mine, one can watch a soccer match for 1000 hours without ever seeing anything much happening, I am willing to concede that the game, when played expertly, can be a thing of beauty, but I do not accept the designation as “the beautiful game,” given by its followers. That rosy view of the sport has been dented by the hooliganism that has invaded the supporting group of citizens in most countries but so far as I can tell in Britain, and possibly Russia, above all others. Such hooliganism has never appeared among followers of the Rugby persuasion, at least not to anything like the degree common among the Socceroos.
I admit that our Rugby World Cup, which began in 1987, is a straight steal from the FIFA World Cup, which began with a victory by Uruguay, in 1930, and has since been won five times by Brazil, and otherwise shared between Germany, Italy, Spain, France and England, among European countries and Argentina among Latin Americans. (The acronym FIFA itself is proof of the widely spread origins of the game, because it stands for Fédération Internaionale de Football Association.)
The Rugby cup has been won three times by New Zealand, twice by Australia and South Africa and once by England. France have been the most unfortunate with three runners-up performances.
One aspect of the game that might be confusing for North .American audiences is that to pass or throw the ball forward is not permitted; also, in a game of such avowed contact by its very nature, strict rules govern the type of tackle that can be essayed. To tackle legally, the tackler much have his arms around the man being tackled; it is also forbidden to tackle around the head, and it is a violation to tackle a man who, while jumping to collect the ball from a high kick, is pulled down while still in the air. The central rule is that one is allowed to tackle only the man with the ball: this is one of the major differences, in terms of physical contact, from the North American gridiron game, whose players apparently can be hit from any direction whether they have the ball or not. These are rules designed to ensure as far as possible that contact will not lead to injury, although it has to be admitted that with the game finally passing into professionalism in 1995, injuries seem to be more frequent and possibly more severe than when the game was amateur at all levels.
Still, the game has a huge public following, with crowds of 80,000 to 110,000 being attracted for major so-called Test matches in Australia, Britain and France.
The team I will be following, because I grew up as a child for some years believing it my sincerest wish to become one of them, are known as the All Blacks, representing New Zealand. A team, mostly of Maoris, toured Britain and Europe in 1888, one of the first international tours ever undertaken, and it became common to refer to them as All Blacks because of their all black uniform with a silver fern insignia. (An alternative explanation is that an admiring reporter once described their hard and fast running game by saying “they are all backs,” a reference to the half of the team comprised of swift runners, smaller and lighter usually than the eight so-called forwards whose primary task is to obtain possession of the ball by way of a scrum, following an infraction, or from a lineout when the big men contest for the ball that is thrown in between their two lines.)
The place of the All Blacks as the iconic team of world Rugby was solidified by the team of 1905, which toured Britain and Europe, playing 35 games with only one loss, and scoring 976 points to only 59 against. A reporter of the time wrote: “These New Zealanders turn from defence to attack with such rapidity….there is nothing in the game at which they do not excel.” They had never seen anything like it in Britain; and New Zealand at the time had a population of only 815,000. Ten years later, New Zealand provided nearly 17,000 of their young men and women to be led to the slaughter in the First World War, a war fought in Britain’s interests.
I am pleased to be able to report that even today it remains the objective of the All Blacks to produce a fast, exciting and beautiful version of the game whose fundamental purpose, after all, is to pass the ball, and run with it.
That they are, as so often before, entering this competition as the favourites to win, is not something they take for granted: many have been the worries expressed among their followers that their game plan seems to have been disrupted by the recent improvement of the northern hemisphere sides, and the recent revival of South Africa, their long-time nemesis, who have emerged from a period of confusion following the downfall of apartheid, under which the springbok Rugby team was the favoured symbol of the racist rulers of the country. Now, following an imposed quota system designed to encourage black Africans to play the game, South Africa is emerging with a hefty proportion of swift-running, hard-tackling and ferociously-scrimmaging players of whom any team must beware.
Whatever happens, whoever wins, in the end it will still be possible for New Zealanders to say,
“Wot the hell, wot the hell, it’s only a game, chaps, only game.”