Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

I asked for, and did receive from my partner, a subscription to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which has just finished up. Over the last month and a half I've watched a whole lot of rugby, and a whole lot of it was some of the best sport I've ever seen. It's almost more surprising the sport hasn't caught on in the states. You have big hits, displays of dexterity, creativity of play, and feats of endurance, quite often all performed by the same guy. It's like every player on the pitch is a Troy Paulamalu, except he can also pass and kick. And he's not wearing any pads. It's a sport where both a slick passing, smooth running, underwear model like Sonny Bill Williams (pretty sure he's an android,) and an oafish, heavy metal haired, troll like Castrogiovanni can dominate a game. (No really. Castrogiovanni pretty much single-handedly demolished the U.S. He would have eaten their hearts to gain their strength, but he had already ground their will to live into a fine powder, so didn't really see the point.) Hopefully there will be enough of a TV and internet viewership in the states that NBC (or someone, Versus maybe, seems right up their alley) will start to carry more of it. But enough grandstanding.

The United States Eagles played themselves proud. It was clear that in the parts of the game that demand the most intuitive skill--the skill that is developed over such a long period of time that it becomes part of a player's intuition--they were severely lacking, especially in the scrum. To have a successful scrum at the international level, you need to have forwards who have been scrummaging their whole lives, and the U.S. just doesn't have that yet. The same thing goes for the kicking game, though this gap between the U.S and the first tier nations is not so stark. Until we start developing rugby players at a much younger age, we'll be on the outside looking in. (More on this later.)

But, and I can say this because I watched damn near every single game in the tournament, the United States was the best tackling team in the tournament. Their match against Ireland was awe-inspiring. They didn't have the skill or the strategy to beat Ireland, but they tackled so well, they hit guys so hard, that if not for two huge mistakes they might would have made it a very close game. Every time an Irish player touched the ball, he was immediately decked. Their efforts earned the rightful admiration of the announcers. They played their guts out in their other three games as well, beating Russia, running their second-stringers against Australia, and then doing alright against Italy until the game went to the scrum.

I don't particularly want the U.S. to win the World Cup. I can enjoy the sport and root for them, even when they're not #1. (Man, were Bruins tickets easy to get five years ago.) And frankly, I find it annoying and arrogant that we seem to focus only on being the super best at everything in the whole world of the Universe. (Anybody remember the “2010” plan where the best high school soccer players were drafted directly into the MLS in the hopes of fielding a team that could win the soccer world cup by 2010. Yeah, me neither.) However, I think it would be pretty cool for American rugby if opponents made sure to bring extra ice to every match against the Eagles. We might never be good enough to win a cup, but if we continue to hit like this, we'll leave our mark on every tournament we're in.

One for the coaches. Ending a 24 year drought, the favored New Zealand All-Blacks won the tournament. Though they were the most talented, player for player, team in the tournament—and this will make all the youth anything coaches happy—they won the tournament through discipline. Against teams that just didn't have the man-power to play with them, the All-Blacks scored a lot of tries and showed a lot of flash, but against the more talented teams like Australia and France, the All-Blacks won simply by giving up far fewer penalty kick chances than their opponents. They took chances in their offensive end trying to win the ball back, but once they got into reasonable kicking range (you kick penalty kicks from where the penalty occurs) they played it safe. The result of this strategy is they slowly but surely pulled away from their opponents. And when they got the chance to show their flare they did.

I watched a lot of rugby in the last month and pretty much every game offered something spectacular, even for the second tier teams. There was the five minutes when Namibia had the greatest kicker in the world, the Argentina winger who became un-tacklable for ten seconds and broke Scotland, the Tonga defeat of France in the biggest upset of the tournament, the All-Blacks winning it at home, and of course, that first hit the US laid on the Irish, that told Ireland they were in for a game.

(Finally, American commentators are, by and large, an abomination of the spoken word, compared to the commentary offered for the rugby world cup. I don't know where the difference comes from, but it is downright embarrassing.)

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