Most casual sports fans probably can guess the world’s two most-watched sporting events: the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.
But third on that list? No, it’s not the Super Bowl.
That would be the Rugby World Cup, which attracted a reported 3.9 billion worldwide viewers when it was last held in 2011.
The 2015 edition of the quadrennial tournament is set to kick off Friday at London’s Twickenham Stadium, and since rugby remains a foreign concept to many Americans, NESN.com is here to bring you a little introduction to the sport they call “a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”
All right, so rugby. That’s basically football without pads, right?
That’s the most common comparison, and it’s somewhat accurate, as rugby is best known for its hits. It’s also true that rugby players wear very little protective equipment — typically just a mouthguard, though some opt for a soft helmet (called a scrum cap) or light shoulder padding.
Referring to rugby simply as a precursor to football is selling it short, though. It’s a game that combines aspects found in several different sports, including the frequent kicking and nonstop nature of soccer (the whistle doesn’t blow after a player is tackled, for instance), and even some passing strategy similar to that of basketball and hockey.
Interesting. So, what do I need to know before I check out a game?
Rugby is, admittedly, very confusing to watch if you have no idea what’s going on. Here’s a breakdown of some of the more basic rules:
— Each team fields 15 players at a time: eight forwards and seven backs. Generally speaking, think of the forwards as lineman/linebacker/tight end types and the backs as skill-position players.
— You can’t pass forward, only backward or sideways. To advance the ball, you must either run it or kick it, and if you choose the latter, only teammates who were behind you when you kicked can play the ball or tackle the player who catches it. Everyone else is considered “offside” — a rather complicated concept we won’t get too deep into right now.
— As we mentioned earlier, play doesn’t stop when a ballcarrier is tackled. Instead, players from each team will try to push the opposition off the ball in a sort of reverse tug-of-war. Whichever side wins gains/retains possession. This is called either a ruck (if the ballcarrier is on the ground) or a maul (if he/she still is standing).
— Although rugby is a very free-flowing game, there are occasions when the referee will blow his whistle to assess a penalty. The two most common ways of restarting play after these stoppages are by scrum, which usually follows a forward pass or forward deflection (known as a “knock-on”):
Or by lineout, which basically is a more acrobatic version of a soccer throw-in:
— As for scoring, rugby only is slightly different from football: five points for a try, two for a conversion kick and three for a penalty kick or drop goal.
The big difference: Rather than simply crossing the goal line (called the “try line”), players must physically touch the ball down on the ground for it to count as a score. Fun fact: This is how the term “touchdown” got its name.
Also, rugby’s version of an extra point must be kicked from a spot perpendicular to where the ball was touched down. The closer to the sideline, the more difficult the kick.
OK, I think I get the gist. Let’s talk about this World Cup for a sec.
Thought you’d never ask. The first Rugby World Cup was held in 1987. New Zealand, Australia and South Africa each have won the tournament twice, and England has done so once. Those four nations pretty much make up rugby’s elite, with France and Wales also traditionally enjoying success on the sport’s biggest stage.
New Zealand’s team, the All Blacks, is the reigning champion. Repeating won’t be easy, however: No country has ever won consecutive World Cups.
And what about the U.S? What are our chances?
Rugby is America’s fastest-growing sport, but anyone expecting a competitive showing in England will be sorely disappointed.
While the U.S. has gained international acclaim in sevens rugby (a more speed- and skill-based version of the game that features seven players per side and is more suitable for tournaments that last a weekend rather than a month-and-a-half) and will be a legitimate medal contender when the sport makes its Olympic debut next summer, the Eagles’ 15s side remains a long, long way from beating — or even contending with — the world’s best.
(For reference, the U.S. has played New Zealand and Australia within the last year and lost by a combined score of 121-16.)
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Americans, as their World Cup pool does feature a few beatable opponents. Defeating the mighty South Africans is a pipe dream, but the U.S. played both Japan and Samoa close in the Pacific Nations Cup this summer (beating the former and losing to the latter by five), and even Scotland could be vulnerable after an embarrassing 0-5 finish in the Six Nations tournament earlier this year.
So, there you have it. If you’ve gotten this far, you now possess at least a passable understanding of the game of rugby. The next 50 days will feature some of the best competition the sport has to offer. Enjoy.
Thumbnail photo via Twitter/@cnni