Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rugby and South Africa

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Invictus is latin for unconquerable. It is the title of the poem above by William Ernest Henley. And it also happens to be the title of Clint Eastwood's new movie, and that movie is about Rugby! I played Rugby in High School and ever since then it continues to be my favorite sport. The United States isn't exactly a Rugby Country. It was once, and it will be again. In fact most people don't know that the last time Rugby was in the Olympics the United States took home the gold...and four years before that we took home the gold. That was seventy years ago and the world has changed dramatically since then. But in any case Eastwood's new movie is based on a book called Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, which is in turn based upon the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup and the end of Apartheid in South Africa. The stars are Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. And this movie has basically guaranteed that Freeman will finally win a Best Actor Academy Award. As one reviewer has already said "Freeman was born to play Nelson Mandela."

But the main purpose of this blog post is to inform you about Rugby. It really isn't that complicated of a sport. American Gridiron Football is much more complicated. Though it isn't as simple as Association Football (soccer). So here are some things you should know about Rugby before watching the film.

Rugby is a full contact multi sprint sport in which a prolate spheroid (spherical ball) which was the precursor to American Gridiron Football is moved around the field in order to gain territory and score points.

The actual name of the sort of Rugby being played in Invictus is Rugby Union Football 15s. This is what is usually meant when people speak of Rugby. Just like in America "Football" simply means American Gridiron Football though most Americans don't know that is the full name. There are fifteen players a side.

There are two codes of Rugby Football. Union and League. The rules and culture surrounding these two codes are vastly different. The difference in rules is not as important as the difference in culture for you to understand Rugby. League has always been professional since its inception in the late 1800s, but Union was not professional until the mid 1990s. The reasons for this are probably more complicated than I realize but one of the differences is that Union was always played for the purposes of sportsmanship because it was connected with the "upper crust" of british society, a sport for gentlemen. Whereas League has always had more of the reputation that Soccer has in England: Rugby is a thugs game played by gentlemen, Soccer is a gentlemen's game played by thugs. League always appealed more to the working man whereas Union appealed to more intellectual types. But since the declaration of professionalism by the IRBs (International Rugby Board) the cultures surrounding the sports have grown gradually similar.

Unlike Gridiron it is a continuous play sport. There are set plays but they are intended to restart play after a penalty or infraction has been committed.
Like Gridiron the ball forms an imaginary lateral line. The ball may only be advanced by carrying or kicking it. There is no forward pass. Passing the ball forward is called a knock on and is the most common and damaging penalty a team can incur. Lateral or backwards passes are the only permissible passes and are the most common way of advancing the ball to other players who then carry the ball forward.

There are two ways to score points. A try, which is similar to a touchdown, is the action of grounding the ball in the try zone. And the second is a drop goal which is a drop kick that goes between the uprights. A try is worth 5 points and after a try is scored there is an opportunity for a conversion kick worth 2 points. The kick placement is determined by the spot where the ball was grounded in the try zone. A drop goal is worth 3 points and can be kicked on the run at any point or time on the field.

A scrum is a common set play. The forward pack arranges in a formation where they bind head first onto the opposing teams forward pack and push over the ball. This formation is commonly used to restart play after a penalty.

A line-out is how play is restarted when the ball goes out of the bounds. The ball is thrown in to the forward pack who are allowed to perform any action to recover the ball as long as the ball has been thrown neutrally, in other words to neither team. The advantage is given to the throwing team because of the distance the thrower gives to the ball. Usually the thrower will call out a play call which informs the forwards of what play they will be performing to recover the ball.

A ruck is similar to a scrum except that it is part of continuous play. When a player is tackled usually a ruck forms over the downed player in an attempt to recover the ball. The players push and hook their foot agaisnt the ball trying to push it back to their backs.

The forward pack are the primary defensive players. They are large, heavy, and strong. Their job is to recover the ball from rucks and put pressure on the opposing teams offense.

The backs are the primary offensive players. They are smaller, fast, and agile. There job is to quickly restart play and move through the opposition's defense to try to score points.

That is basically it. I hope this post helped you understand rugby and will help you to enjoy Eastwood's latest opus. Obviously there is much more to the movie than Rugby. It will be dealing with political and social problems in South Africa, primarily racism. But the rugby scenes will be very important. If you have any questions I'll be happy to answer them below.