Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rugby: An Introduction

Last night I went to my first rugby game with my friend Max. Two styles of rugby are played in Australia: Rugby League and Rugby Union. There are a number of differences, ranging from field size to advancing the ball to scoring. In general, League play is more about finesse (as much as rugby can be about finesse) while Union play is more about strength (ripping the ball out of your opponent's hands is more common in Rugby Union). League play is most popular in New South Wales, Queensland, and Canberra, whereas Union has international matches. The game last night was Rugby League.

The home team, and the team I rooted for since Max is a die-hard fan, was the West Sydney Tigers. They played the South Sydney Rabbitohs (Rabbits probably aren't the best mascot, unless the goal is to conjure up the Killer Rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Max refers to them as the "Bunnies"). It was a Heritage Round game so both teams wore throwback jerseys and brought out old rugby stars before the game started.

The stadium, which is plopped right next to the posh neighborhood of Paddington, holds 45,000 and was half full. But the striking thing is there are a number of Sydney area teams in addition to the Tigers and Rabbitohs: the Cronulla Sharks, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, Parramatta Eels, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Penrith Panthers, and Sydney Roosters. Most of these teams' hometowns are within a couple miles of each other. So a regular game fills about half the stadium and a big game will sell out. It's hard to imagine Pittsburgh having eight professional football teams that all play each other.

The scale is different in other ways as well. A star player might make half a million a year for a season that lasts 22 weeks. Lesser stars make ~$250k and the regular joes make about $100k. Teams struggle under an annual salary cap of $4.5 million. In the NFL, by way of comparison, the minimum salary for a rookie is close to $300,000 and teams have a salary cap of $128 million.

I pestered Max for the first 20 minutes, trying to learn the game. "Why are they doing this? What did they do that for?" By the end of the first 40 minute half I had the basics down. Like the NFL, many of the plays are of the "grind it out" variety, gaining only a couple meters of ground. But there are plenty of big plays, with players pitching the ball to teammates just as they're brought down, giving new life to the effort.

Raised on American football, one of the first things that struck me about the game was the silence: there's no crack of pads as the players collide. This almost gives the impression of it being a soft sport, but it doesn't take much imagination to guess at the impact created when two guys weighing more than 200 pounds a piece run into each other. The injury list backs this up; about five of the Tigers' key players were on the injured list, one of which had disclocated his hip the previous week.

The Tigers team includes Benji Marshall, considered one of the best players around. "Rocks and diamonds," Max said of him. "He makes amazing plays and then follows up with the dumbest moves." True to Max's word, Marshall scored early with a 40 meter dash and then again in the second half; he balanced these out with some wild passes and turnovers to the Rabbitohs. In the end though, these infractions didn't matter: the Tigers won 30-6.

1 comment:

  1. You guys always do the same things we've done...make sure to go to a Union game, we liked it much better than the Manly Sea Eagles