Point of Brew: Rugby football is a sport Americans deserve

By From page A11 | October 13, 2011

Most Americans do not know that the Rugby World Cup contest, which takes place only once every four years, is currently under way in New Zealand. We in the United States are too much engaged in the opening of the football season and closing of the baseball season, with the endless playoffs between this and that team to determine who plays in the World (ahem!) Series, to appreciate the much broader panoply of sport around the world.

I understand the unattractiveness of soccer, of course; everyone does, except the billions of soccer fans who engage passionately in the game in almost every country on the planet. Soccer, with a typical one-nil score after 90 minutes of shuffling the ball aimlessly around the field, is not the stuff for which Americans fans are made.

Cricket, with its own passionate followers, though a more international game than baseball, also probably deserves the general disinterest of Americans, being more of a way of life than a game.

But rugby. Ah! Rugby. Now there is a game that Americans could and should and would take to heart, given the chance.

Americans could take the sport to heart because it has all the thrills and spills and scoring that American fans crave; also, it’s a rough game — some observers call it football without pads though that is a bit misleading — and fast-moving; it requires enormous skill and athleticism when played at the highest international level, and has the strategies of ball possession, field position, offense and defense that is so typically obvious in gridiron football.

It makes great TV theater so it can be enjoyed from the couch with beer and chips. It is our American male kind of game.

Americans should take the sport to heart because it is played in many high schools, including Davis High School and at almost every college in the land; compared to football, it is cheap to play. Rugby can engage those whom football and basketball passes by because only the star athletes play the game and often in a spirit of violent competition that is occasionally neither healthy nor attractive. Rugby is comparatively low-key; it’s a players’ game.

We should take more interest because we already participate at the international level. The USA Eagles played their heart out in New Zealand; our team beat Russia handily and lost to Italy and Ireland by rather small margins; of course, we were overwhelmed by Australia, one of the world’s powerhouse teams and, now, a semifinalist in the contest.

Americans would take the sport to heart if they had the chance to enjoy a few games because they soon would realize that beloved gridiron football developed from rugby, primarily at American colleges in the early part of this century. Those with Universal Sports Channel can see rugby from time to time, though the semifinals of the Rugby World Cup, which will take place this weekend, are on pay-per-view on Universal and on AT&T Channel 106.

I am running up a rather large PPV bill, to say nothing of sleep deprivation, to enjoy the World Cup games live from New Zealand. Worth every penny. The final will be broadcast tape-delayed on NBC at noon Sunday, Oct. 23.

An incentive to engage with the sport is that rugby will be in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. I think Americans would be amazed to know that the USA is the defending Olympic champion, having won the rugby gold medal the last two Olympics in which rugby was played: 1920 and 1924.

The 2016 version of Olympic rugby will be the seven-a-side game that is a breathtakingly fast, high-scoring and short version of the game. The International Sevens are played in Hong Kong every year and the USA Collegiate Sevens will be in Las Vegas in January.

I do not often watch sports on TV. I usually multi-task with sporting events, because I have an inherent sense of guilt merely sitting and watching on TV others play a game! I must do something: the crossword, read, shell peas, grade papers — anything to justify sitting down while Manning is doing his man thing.

The one exception to this general rule is rugby union football, especially Wales kicking the stuffing out of England (though any other team will do). That is such a rare event one hardly bothers to dream of it.

But Wales vs. Anybody at rugby was the one sporting event for which my dad would put down his tools on a Saturday and sit squarely before our little black-and-white TV set and shout and groan and sing (occasionally) with the crowd at the Arms Park in Cardiff or at Twickenham. He was not to be disturbed until the final whistle.

I understand this because, like my dad, I played rugby football for many years; I have the scars to show for it. Later, I coached the game at UC Davis and later still I was a referee. So I understand rugby and can recognize the tactics and strategies and skills involved and can marvel at what these top athletes can do, knowing how very hard it is to do it.

In contrast, I have never played any American game and so I just can’t truly appreciate what is going on.

Wales has reached the semifinals of the competition having played well throughout; so well, in fact, that the impossible dream of a place in the final and even a world championship begins to stir in every Welsh breast.

The whole country of Wales will come to a halt Saturday when Wales plays against a brilliant and experienced team from France to decide the finalists.

England, having been eliminated by France, will hardly notice.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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