Rugby: The Sport of Men

Today I attended my first professional rugby match, featuring the local favorites, The London Irish, versus Leeds. There’s a nice stadium just outside town and convenient bus service from the city center, so off I went. I’d followed this team a bit over the last few months here, watching parts of matches in pubs, but I was intent on attending because today was their last home match of the season.
Rugby has the reputation of being a brutish sport and most Americans know little about it. It is, actually, a very interesting game, requiring lots of strategy, skill, and athleticism. The rules are totally beyond me, though, and learning them is my off-season challenge. Note that rugby doesn’t attract the kind of violent fans that football (soccer) does here. Supporters of both teams mingle in the stands and will even applaud scoring and good plays made by the opposing team.
I’m going to post my observations and leave an explanation of the game to Wikipedia. I plan to look for a “Rugby for Idiots” book to see if I can figure out what’s going on during the off season.
The stadium is very nice but small: maximum capacity 25,000. So, there’s not a bad seat in the house. My walk-up ticket was in the upper deck, along the south side of field and just a bit off center. The view was fantastic.
The scoreboard is modest in size and tucked into one corner of the stadium; there were no pre-match fireworks, dancing girls, etc. though the crowd sang along with traditional Irish songs that were played. Did I mention this team has a heavy Irish heritage thing going? Yep, and so do I: me mum was of Irish descent.
The teams engaged in 40-minutes of pre-match warm-ups, calisthenics, and drills before withdrawing to their locker rooms. Local middle school children formed the “Walk of Honor” down which both teams later entered the field. The players are a bit like NASCAR vehicles, with advertisements plastered on their jerseys, totally upstaging the team name, but the whole scene was very charming anyway.
There was no security search of bags upon entry, there’s no smoking in the stadium at all, and alcohol is only sold before and after a match, and during half time. When they’re being sold, you may stock up on beers and take them to your seat, but I saw no one who behaved as if they needed to be cut-off.
The traditional stadium hot dog exists here, too, only it’s a foot-long and served in a baguette (French bread). From the look of them, they enjoy the same questionable nutritional content and health risks inherent in all stadium dogs.
A match has two 40-minute halves and 5 points are apparently awarded for running the ball across the goal line, 2 points for the “extra point kick”, and 3 points for a penalty kick. The extra point kick, for reasons that eluded me, is kicked straight-on sometimes and sometimes from a right or left hash mark (which makes for a much smaller target). Get this: the team who is scored against must then kick off to the team that scored! A sort of “off-sides”, high tumbling kick is usual, followed by a wild scramble for the ball.  Team members who are “on the bench” often stand behind the end zone and shout encouragement as their teammates approach to score.
Basically, the ball (which is football-shaped) is moved down the field using a series of lateral passes (must always go backwards) that moves the ball down a running wave of players spread across the field. Ball carriers are tackled and brought down and immediately swarmed by players. The ball squirts out the back of the pile and the lateral passes begin again. The ball hitting the ground and being “down” isn’t a concept that applies here. Helmets, shoulder and kidney pads, and all that other sissy U.S. football gear isn’t worn either. Oddly enough, no one was injured and carried from the field during the match.
Well, anyway, it was a terrific afternoon and lots of fun. I’m considering buying season tickets for next season (starts in August) which are laughably cheaper than, say, Redskins season tickets. Oh, yes, we won: 43 to 20.

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