Rugby is a sport in which 30 men with no pads get on a 100-yard field and clobber each other in the defense of their “Try Zone.” It is a game of high-contact hits, but also 50-yard dazzling runs; a game of contradictions — violence one second and finesse moves the next — and a game where ball control, defense, scrums, passes, long runs, goal line stands and power hits all come into play.
Rugby is a game of scars.
At its most fundamental level, rugby is exactly like football in that the goal of the game is to protect your try zone and try to score in the other team’s zone. A “try”, or touchdown, is worth six points. An extra point adds one, and field goals or dropkicks through the uprights are worth three.
There are 15 starters that play both offense and defense for a continuous 80 minutes with a halftime break in the 40th.
All passes must be lateral, or behind the receiver, and like soccer there is an offside line. Attempting to black passes invokes an interference call. Rucks, scrums, and throw-ins are also distinctive features of rugby.
Like football, there are long drives to advance down the field, except there is no stopping between plays. After a tackle or loss of possession, the play changes on the fly.
“There’s no script like in football. … Once a tackle is made, whether you have the ball or you’re defending the ball, all it means is that it’s time for the next play. There’s tackling, turnovers, taking the ball back … all of these are beautiful parts of the game and they all happen so fast,” Ohio State coach Tom Rooney said.
Rugby is also a game in which ball possession and field position are vital. Commonly, a team will muscle its way forward like the old Woody Hayes offense, kicking up the dust with three-yard runs down the middle, fighting tooth and nail for every yard. For Rooney, it is this and field position that win or lose a match.
“We want to get to the opponent’s side of the 50,” Rooney said. “There, the offense will try to protect our possession. That’s the key to this game; it’s one of territory and possession.”
Although possession is a key for victory, just like in football, spectacular long plays are made, usually by the backline. In fact, much about rugby is similar to football, but at its best it can also be a harmonious blend of many other sports mixed into one.
The physicality and goal of the game is like football; from hockey comes the hitting and the non-stop play; from soccer, the fitness, teamwork and flow of a monotonous possession, driving the ball up and down each side of the field for an eventual score.
Like soccer, its growth is a slow one, but it is gradually becoming more popular. It was announced that rugby seven-on-sevens will be a part of the 2016 Olympics, while collegiately there is new structuring to the current rugby league that would tie the team to the university, give it more funding and re-arrange the league structure.
On July 4, the first rugby game on ESPN was aired between team USA and team Canada.
It could be a while before rugby reaches the popularity that it has in New Zealand (where it’s the national sport of the country), England, Wales, Scotland, and South Africa. While New Zealand and English players make up to $100,000 plus bonuses a year, the U.S. players (ranked No. 18 in the world) are considered volunteers, have other careers to provide for finances and only receive minimum funds.
It is uncertain whether rugby will ever become part of the mainstream sports circuit. The public views rugby as the step-child of football, only more brutal and with no structure.
Also, the many whistles and stoppages of play due to the strict rules stops the flow for some spectators and hinders rugby’s immersion into pop-culture relevance.
It is beginning to grow, but how much that growth will amount to remains to be seen. What is sure is that the next couple of years leading up to the Olympics are vital for the future of rugby.
With more young people taking up the game in high school, the number of supporters will grow. For the veterans and alumni players, rugby can count on that fan base until their deaths. There is a bond of allegiance between the rugby player, the game, and his fellow players.
“You can go anywhere in the world and if you meet someone who has played rugby, there’s just an instant connection,” coach Wes Campbell said. “It’s like a fraternity, a brotherhood almost. I was golfing with a 70-year-old man who helped create the NC State rugby program and we hit it off right away.”
Check out part two of the feature on rugby at Ohio State Tuesday.