Why Rugby?

I just don’t get rugby (the sport, not the town). Come to think of it, I don’t get Rugby the town either – all I know about the place is from passing it at high speed on the M1 with all of its aerials for LW radio and the world time clock (I think anyway). It’s also probably the furthest inland you can get in the UK. But back to my original point – rugby the sport.

I just don’t get it. A few weeks ago, the Rugby World Cup final was showing on the telly with England and someone else playing (probably New Zealand or South Africa). In theory, then, this is the absolute pinnacle of rugby excellence. The best set of players from the best two countries in the world head-to-head on a global stage. Unfortunately, what I saw was a game which lacked rhythm, had bizarre rules, and (apart from The Holy One Jonny Wilkinson) lacked individual talent. I must confess at this point, that I didn’t manage to watch all of the match: I turned it on with about 10 minutes gone, and lasted until half-time.

My first point: the lack of rhythm or flow in the game was terrible. It appears to be most advantageous to hoof the ball either up in the air, or out of play. There were brief moments when someone got the ball, ran forwards, the crowd got excited, but then the bloke with the ball realises that there’s nearly two tonnes of opposition waiting to stop that. Hoof! Out it goes for a “line-out”, which involves throwing the ball back in play (not to anyone in particularly by the looks of it) and avoiding all of that running business in the first place.

If the player did get tackled before he got rid of it, everyone ends up in a big pile, standing on each other, and generally going no-where. Suddenly though, the ball breaks and we’re off!! No: wait. The referee has spotted that a player at the bottom of the pile shoved the ball forwards with his leg before it broke free. At other times, it wasn’t even that clear what had happened. What constitutes a foul is also really odd. You can take out a bloke as hard as you want when he has the ball, but you can’t touch him when he’s about to catch it. Why?

Then we had what I remember from years ago at school as the scrum, where a load of people crunch together and push hard to do not particularly much. The referee choreographs a coming-together which must involve the two lines touching each other first, coming together, then stopping again for some invisible infringement. OK – back to the start: touch, crunch, ball in – nope he moved it forwards. Back to the start again. Touch, crunch, ball in, break!! Nope – something else to stop the play.

I mentioned Jonny Wilkinson earlier: I can see there’s talent in kicking the ball really hard between two sticks and over a third, but that appears to be the extent of talent in the game. Everything else in rugby appears to be weight, strength, and pace (even then it’s rare you get a chance to run somewhere). I want to watch a sport in which talent is the key and athleticism is just the differentiation between the good and the best. A Sunday league team isn’t guaranteed FA cup glory, just because they can all do a sub-11 second 100m. Even the stats people were concentrating hard on the combined weight of the team – what sort of a sport is that?

Contrast then, the Rugby World Cup final with the Liverpool – Arsenal premiership match a couple of weeks ago. That was a demonstration in footballing excellence. I have no allegiances to either team*, but as a neutral it was breathtaking. On many occasions, for several minutes at a time, there was crisp, one-touch passing which stretched the length of the pitch. The ball only went out of play when a mistake was made (which was rare), or when a player really had no other option. The pace of both mind and body was electric, plus you could see the skill involved in the individual touches and flicks.

I’m not claiming every football match is like the Liverpool – Arsenal thriller. What I do claim, however, is that I’d prefer to watch Wigan – Derby at the end of the season when they’ve both been relegated over a rugby match any day.

* although I would like Arsenal to win the Premiership this year.