Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Watch Rugby

A couple of weeks ago, NBC broadcast a sporting event from Las Vegas, and though one could easily imagine all the possible sporting events NBC would broadcast from Las Vegas, it is unlikely that you'll imagine the right one. (Unless you bothered to read the title of this post, which, well, kind of gives it away.) It was an event in the Sevens World Series. “Sevens” is a variant of rugby in which seven, rather than fifteen players play on a side at the same time, which means that NBC was broadcasting rugby. I almost called in to work, but, luckily we have the wonder of DVR. 

It's always baffled me that rugby isn't more popular in this country. It has everything that's good about American football and everything that's good about soccer and none of the stupid stuff in either one of them. Grace and violence. Skill and strength. Knee socks and jerseys with collars. Practically perfect.

In a way it makes sense, though. It's actually fairly hard to learn how to watch a new sport. We don't really think of it, but most of us who watch sports learned to watch those sports in our childhoods. Whether we actively watched or not, we lived in families that had baseball, football, basketball, and/or hockey on all the time. These sports look natural and intuitive to us, because we grew up with them. We learned to watch baseball the same way we learned to speak English, and, in a lot of ways, watching a new sport is like learning a new language.

So, if you've never watched rugby before, here is a quick primer that can hopefully be applied to watching other sports foreign to you.

Focus on the Universals: Loving a sport is all about paying attention to the details, but when watching a new sport for the first time, focus on the universals. In rugby, players move a ball from one side of the field to the other, trying to get it across a line. (If that sounds familiar it is, as American football came from rugby.) Sure, there's tons of other stuff going on, but trying to figure out why that guy essentially just kicked the ball straight up in the air, will only frustrate you.

Focus on the athleticism: Part of the fun of watching sports is watching people do things that would give you a hernia or totally blow-out your knee and there's plenty of that in rugby. Sure there's a lot of strategy and sport specific skill, but there's also a whole lot of huge dudes running really fast and hitting each other really hard.

Listen to the announcer's volume: In contemporary sports coverage the announcers never shut up. For someone who's never watched rugby before, it's going to be a constant stream of, possibly British-accented, gibberish. But the volume of their voice will tell you when something exciting is happening. It doesn't particularly matter what, but it's important to know when you should be excited. If you can hear the crowd noise, they work as an indicator as well.

Root for the home team: Some emotional investment always makes sport more entertaining, and if you don't know anything about the teams, rooting for the home team will at least mean the crowd will help you know when to cheer and when to groan.

If you happen to be watching with someone who knows the sport wait until halftime to ask questions: I love helping people learn how to watch rugby. As a fan, I feel like an ambassador of the sport. And there is something fun about sharing something you know a lot about with somebody else. The problem though, is that there's always another level of background behind the answer to a question. For someone who doesn't have the basic assumptions of rugby, the question “Why did they just blow the whistle?” doesn't have a simple answer. You might have to know what a “ruck” is or what a “maul” is or how “off-sides” works on a kick. Just imagine you're watching American football with someone who's never seen the sport before and said individual asks you why the guy standing at the back of the line of the guys bending over just patted his helmet and started shouting. Sure you could start answering the question but by the time you've got the wide out checking down to a quick slant, five more plays have happened with all the questions they can generate. Waiting until halftime (which rugby has) means you have some time to go over the background. There's a break where nothing else is going on when you can follow a question through to a reasonable approximation of an answer, and follow tangents as they come up.

Every sport looks stupid when you don't know what's going on: Yes, in rugby there's a fair amount of shorts grabbing. Players have their ears taped. Every now and again, players line up and throw a teammate in the air. By his thighs. Without context it looks ridiculous. But just for a second, forget everything you know about baseball and watch a batter during an at-bat. Is that much adjustment necessary after every pitch? And what's that other guy doing that the batter looks at after every pitch? Again, it's like how foreign languages can sound silly when you don't know what the speakers are saying.

There's nothing wrong with loving one of (or all of) the four majors or remaining devoted to whatever sport you grew up with. But sport is one of the ways people, nations, and cultures express themselves, and watching foreign sports is one way to experience, at least a part of a foreign culture. And now with, you can watch rugby. And soccer. And lacrosse. And even cricket (which is totally worth it, just do laundry or something during the breaks), squash, volleyball, and more. Hopefully, you can apply the How to Watch Rugby principles to all of them well.

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