One of the great things about sport is that it is never too late to start following or even loving a new one. Large events like World Cups and Olympics give sports fans the opportunity to learn about new sports – and this year’s Rugby World Cup wasn’t an exception. Following the spectacle in India was easy as the large number of dedicated sports channels coming up have greatly improved sports coverage – with niche events like road cycling tours, the NFL and winter sports regularly getting slots on one channel or the other.
There is however a larger problem – it’s really, really hard to get away from cricket worship in India. One might think there is absolutely no hope for a game like Rugby with its overwhelming physical nature to be accepted in a country that worships a gentleman’s game. Would we even give it a chance?
Well, we did, but sadly only some of us did. One reason for this is probably that Rugby is one of the most misunderstood sports in the world. However, at a fundamental level Rugby has similarities with various other sports – all other sports perhaps, even cricket.
While it may seem like there couldn’t possibly be a sport more different from cricket than rugby, in truth they have several commonalities.
To start with the trifling issue of rules – for the layman, cricket is a bit of a nightmare. While at its heart it may seem simple – two teams, the one with the highest score at the end wins – even one level lower and it gets impossibly complex to understand. Rugby’s situation is comparable – the team with the most points wins – but once we start getting into the details – the scrums, the stoppages, the line outs, the rucks, the mauls, the fouls, the penalties – following it becomes a challenge. On the other hand, if one can understand cricket, one can understand any game.
Understanding rugby is just one thing, learning to like this sport and follow it is quite another. For that, we cricket crazy Indians perhaps should create parallels with aspects of cricket that we really love.
Cricket has, over its long history, always given paramount importance to beauty, timing and grace. We still often look down upon the flat track bullies or cross-batted sloggers and are in awe of those who play that perfect cover drive. This is not without reason – the sloggers may entertain, but go out far too soon. Some have a patch of form over one IPL summer, but fizzle out equally fast. What really makes you successful are the softer aspects – not how far you can hit the ball. Similarly, the seemingly all-conquering brute force aspect of rugby is often where is the game is actually lost. What really wins you a rugby match is the skill, the timing and more often than not, deftness of touch.
For the uninitiated, rugby may seem like 30 men out to kill each other, but as one develops a deeper understanding of the sport – one realises that those perfectly timed kicks forward, those feigns, the drop of the shoulder to shimmy past a couple of charging full backs is often the difference between a yet another scrum and a try.
Time and again, we see those who watch cricket for the first time describe it as slow. It takes 5 days to complete a match, and even after all this we may not have a result. Cricket fans of course cherish that slowness – in fact they don’t consider it a “slowness” at all – the gaps between balls, the sheer length of the playing time are all little cogs that come together to manifest into one complex, engrossing creature – with time, weather, light, grass, pitch, stamina, concentration, talent, and will coming together as one. What this perceived slowness is to cricket – the perceived violence is to rugby. The violence in Rugby is not random. It is in fact highly coordinated collection of actions and counter-actions reflecting the primal urge to protect your territory. Players shift positions, and more importantly hold positions knowing well they are running into physical hurt for a reason. The team thinks as one, telepathically coordinating a surge forward or solidifying a defence. They play off each other at times and sacrifice themselves to allow one of their team-mates to run on to glory. And at other times, they instinctively clamp together in support of a teammate in need. Rugby may be violent, but it is a beautiful violence.
Add to all this traditional sporting values like teamwork, sportsmanship, respect and humanity – and you get the perfect concoction for a great sport to follow.
This year’s Rugby World Cup certainly didn’t disappoint – it had everything we could ask for. We began with the great underdog story – Japan beating South Africa with a dramatic last minute try. Then there was the slow, sluggish start for the eventual winners. The crushing disappointment of the host nation being ejected from the world cup. More underdog victories – Argentina reaching the semi-finals only to be easily defeated by Australia who gave them a gracious send-off. An extremely hard-fought match for the favourites to even make it to the finals followed by a masterclass in the final itself – where the All Blacks romped to victory. And after the match, the awe-inspiring image of a world cup winner – Sonny Boy Williams of New Zealand – giving away his World Cup winners medal (barely minutes after he got it) to a young fan who had been ruthlessly tackled by a security guard.
Only a few of us watched this. Maybe next time, there will be many more. Maybe a large number of Indians, most of whom had never watched a Rugby game prior, will trawl the websites of the Guardian and The Telegraph for team information, match schedules and the likes. Maybe people will look up the stars of rugby and watch YouTube videos of Jonah Lomu, Johnny Wilkinson and memorise the lines to the haka. Maybe they will read through “Rugby for dummies” and have animated conversations, either in person or in cliquish WhatsApp groups about the technicalities and the rules. Maybe twitter timelines will have more than the odd punctuation of “What a try!” between all the Bollywood gossip and outrage over India’s loss in some T20 match.
India already loves the gentleman’s game. Perhaps, we can also find some affection for another violent game played by gentlemen.
Image Credit: rugbyworldcup.com