Since coming to New Zealand, I’ve been fascinated by the nation’s obsession with rugby. To Yanks like me, rugby was something we saw every once in a while on an old ABC weekend program called Wide World of Sports. Before coming here, I hadn’t given rugby a thought for 20 years or so. I could inform the Kiwis that much of the world isn’t paying attention to their national pastime, but they’d probably just tell me no one is paying attention to ours, either.
When I first came to NZ, I watched a few rugby matches on TV, including the Ool Blicks (as “All Blacks” – the national team – sounds to me) against the Wallabies and the Springboks, and the Blick Foons (the women’s national team) in their World Cup victory over England.
A couple months after we arrived, I took Leif to a Southland Stags game, which was an education. It took place in Invercargill, and it felt almost like a high school football game. We saw some people we knew from Tuatapere, and most people seemed to recognize more than a few of their fellow spectators. Nothing like a Minnesota Vikings game, where two and a half million residents of a metropolitan area are whittled down to 50,000 football fans (one in fifty). Here were about 5,000 people from a town of 50,000 – one in ten.
The Stags beat Taranaki that night, due to one of the most spectacular plays I’ve seen in any sport. In rugby, there is no forward pass, so they compensate by kicking the ball forward, sometimes on the ground (resulting in a mad race for the bouncing oblong), and sometimes in the air, which can be the equivalent of football’s “long bomb.” In this case, a player on the near side of the field, about 25 meters out from the goal line, punted it all the way across the field and into the end zone. A teammate who had been streaking down the far side went airborne, along with the defender, and snapped the ball out of midair, resulting in a five-point “try” for the home squad.
Suddenly this strange game seemed worth watching, so I became something of a student of the game. A C-student, probably, but a student nonetheless. At the beginning, rugby was a great mystery, but little by little I’m starting to get it.
When I first came, I couldn’t make sense of all the different leagues. There were the NRL and the NZRU and the Super 14 and the Air New Zealand Cup and the Tri-nations. There were two national teams, the All Blacks and Kiwis. There was one league with teams that have names like the Warriors and the Lions and the Sharks, and another with teams named after regions, like Southland, Otago, and Canterbury. Some players got promoted from those leagues to the national teams, and there was some controversy about the All Blacks sitting out the Super 14.
Eventually I figured out that there were two slightly different games, rugby league and rugby union, or “league” and “rugby” for short. Each game has a different professional league and a different national team – the Kiwis for league and the All Blacks for rugby.  Rugby has a spring league (Air New Zealand Cup) and a fall league (Super 14), and league plays rugby in the summer (confused yet?).
Feeling proud of myself, I once made the mistake of saying to a guy I met, “So there’s two kinds of rugby, eh? Rugby League and Rugby Union?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “There’s rugby, and there’s league,” he said condescendingly. “But league isn’t real rugby.” That seems to be the sentiment of most New Zealanders. There’s no question that the All Blacks are the nation’s true kings and the Kiwis mere pretenders.
The positions were another mystery. There were locks and flyhalfs and props and even hookers. I could guess the difference between a forward and a back, but what in the hell is a “first five-eighth”?
After watching a few games, I still don’t know much, but I do know where the hooker and props and locks line up, and that the numbers on their backs represent the positions they play. Apparently the positions in American football are historically related to those in rugby. There’s a quarterback and a halfback in both games, but when it comes to rugby, I still don’t know the difference between a quarterback, a halfback and a first five-eighths, and I wonder if there has ever been or will ever be a 9/16s or a 15/32.
I didn’t understand the kicking, either. I didn’t know why they got to kick what we would call a “field goal” in football, and which is called a “penalty” in rugby. I saw a guy punt one through the uprights out of the blue one time, and I wondered why they don’t do that more often, because it seems like an easy three points. I didn’t understand how they lined up the extra point or conversion after a “try” (like a touchdown in football). Finally, I didn’t understand why they kicked the ball on the end instead of on the side, like football punters and kickers do. It seemed to be working for them, though. When All Black Dan Carter kicks, it looks like he could break Tom Dempsey’s field goal record. And he looks good in Jockey shorts, too.
I’ve learned that they can kick it through the uprights any time, but they usually don’t, and I still don’t understand why. As for the conversion, I suspect it has something to do with where the person crosses the goal line, or the try line, but I’m not sure. Somebody told me they used to kick it like we do, with the top leaning toward the kicker, but at some point it changed.
At first I had no idea what the teams were being penalized for. Now I know that one of the penalties is called “hands in the ruck,” but I still don’t know what that means. I know that some penalties result in a scrum and some in a kick, but I don’t know which result in which.
The scrum was possibly the most mystifying of all. The term is related to our term “scrimmage.” They talk about the team’s “scrummage,” meaning their ability to win a scrum, which has to be the weirdest phenomenon in all of sports. How do they decide who gets the ball, and where he can throw it into the pile, and when they have to start over? As for the ruck and the maul, I haven’t a clue.
I’ve learned that the guy front and center is called the hooker, and the two guys beside him are the tighthead and loosehead props. The names actually make sense. The hooker hooks the ball with his feet as they move the scrum forward. The tighthead prop has an opponent’s head on each side of his and the loosehead has only one. That means you can tell an old tighthead prop because he has two cauliflower ears, while an old loosehead only has one.
The lineouts were another mystery. When can you kick it out of bounds and get to throw it in, and when does the other team get to throw it in? And why doesn’t the guy just throw it to his teammates? Why all this lifting? I feel sorry for the guys on the bottom who have to look up the shorts of the guys on top.
Now I understand that the thrower has to throw it exactly perpendicular to the sideline (touch line, I think it’s called) or else the other team gets to throw it. The trick is planning which guy to lift and timing it just right so the other team can’t lift their guy up and steal the ball. An old guy sitting next to me at one game said when he played, they couldn’t lift each other up to catch the ball. So why did it change? I still don’t know.
I also didn’t understand the kickoff. Why does the team that scores get to receive the kick? Isn’t it more fair to give the other guys a chance?
Now I understand that rugby is more a game of field position than possession. That’s why you’ll sometimes see two teams punting it back and forth to each other. Having the ball in your own end isn’t necessarily better than being on defense in the other team’s end. That’s because it’s pretty hard to move the ball just through laterals and kick-throughs, and the offensive team often ends up going backwards.
Finally, I didn’t understand the try. What’s with the headfirst dive into the end zone? Is there some kind of rule that you have to get grass stains on your shorts for the points to count? And for an American the terminology is confusing. When I kick the rugby ball to my son and he misses it, what should I say instead of “Nice try”? To me, it seems like you should call it a touchdown, since you actually touch the ball down. We’ve got a touchdown in American football, but no rule that you have to touch it down. Maybe we could trade words.
Since then I’ve seen guys just touch the ball down, so the head first dive must be more a tradition than a rule. I guess it makes for a nicer try.
I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still plenty confused. On our side of the world, if you get tackled, play stops, but in rugby, if a guy falls down he tries to get up and keep running. If he can’t, he just pushes it backwards to one of his teammates, kind of like hiking a football while lying down and being pounced on by guys in short shorts. The guy who gets the ball starts a series of lateral passes and runs, a sort of controlled chaos that ends with either a fumble or a tackle or a guy running out of bounds or a guy from the other team grabbing the ball, or a try or a scrum or a ruck or a maul or a penalty or a lineout or something else I don’t understand. Now I know how my wife feels when she watches football.
I have learned that when a guy goes down, the opposing team can only come from directly down field to steal the ball. They can’t come in from the side. That’s why when a guy goes down, a couple of his teammates come flying in and land in front of the ball. It keeps the other team from coming over the top and taking it.
One thing about rugby I understood from the beginning: it really is the toughest team sport on the planet. These guys break and bloody themselves and each other more than any athletes I’ve ever seen, and their faces show it. Broken noses and cauliflower ears are the battle scars of first five-eighths and tighthead props. Perhaps it is football players’ lack of true toughness that leads to all the dancing and taunting. In rugby, tempers flare and players get in each other’s faces, but I have yet to see an endzone dance.
Since the Super 14 season started, I’ve been to two more rugby games, one in Dunedin and the other in Invercargill. The Super 14 league is made up of five teams from New Zealand and nine from Australia and South Africa. It’s a step up from the Air New Zealand Cup, since there aren’t so many New Zealand teams. Only the best play in Super 14, and the best of the best represent the country on the Ool Blicks.
The Super 14 team from our part of the country is the Highlanders, who are based in Dunedin but play some games in Invercargill and Queenstown. The games begin with a dude dressed up like Mel Gibson in Braveheart singing not the national anthem but the Highlanders theme song, which has to be one of the worst songs ever.
When the All Blacks play, the pregame ritual is a Maori dance called the haka, which is apparently meant to inspire the team and the fans and intimidate the opposition. The All Blacks have been doing the haka for over 100 years. At times it was a kind of parody, but a few decades ago one of the All Black captains emphasized the need to do it properly, out of respect for the nation’s Maori minority. Nowadays it’s a kind of intercultural phenomenon, with thousands of white kids (Pakeha, in local jargon) as well as Maori and Pacific Island immigrants learning the haka in school as a rite of passage.
Shortly after we got here the All Blacks played in Wales, and the home team tried to make them do the haka before the anthem instead of after. This was apparently an offense to the All Blacks, the Maori, the nation of New Zealand, and possibly God himself. The All Blacks did the haka in the dressing room rather than bow to the will of the Welsh, thereby robbing hundreds or thousands of expatriate Kiwis of the chance to see the haka in person.
The most famous example of rugby getting political occurred with the infamous Springbok tour of 1981. The Springboks are the South African national team, and 1981was during the height of anti-apartheid sentiment and boycotts around the world. The All Blacks were forbidden by the government and the International Rugby Union from traveling to South Africa to play, but some rogue rugbiers went anyway. When the Springboks came to New Zealand, there were protests in the streets, and the entire nation was divided between liberal sticks-in-the-mud and good-ol’-boy sports fans. It turned some Kiwis against the sport and others against “political correctness” (before the term existed). It’s still a sore spot with some people from both sides.
Rugby’s checkered past aside, one thing I like about the sport is that it’s democratic – kind of like the country of New Zealand as a whole. Here the distinctions between classes are not as noticeable as they are in the US – no three-story starter mansions, but not so many hovels and ghettoes either. Most people who work seem to make a decent living, unlike in the USA, where minimum wage keeps a person below the poverty line, and the average CEO makes approximately a bazillion times as much as the average worker.
In the USA, if you want a good seat near the football field, you have to pay more than most of us can afford, but here in New Zealand, one side of the field – the terraces – is reserved for the poor folks who pay less to stand throughout the game.
At the Dunedin game, we paid for a seat, but we were just above the terraces, so we could see how the other half lives, so to speak. But at the Highlanders game in Invercargill, Leif and I went with some students of mine and stood among the hoi polloi. They sell beer in six packs, rather than single cups, and at the beginning of the game, most guys are walking to their places with six cans of Speights under their arm. By halftime, they are swaying and bleary-eyed with the empties crushed at their feet.
It’s a good thing the games are shorter than American football. A 7:30 game is over at about 9 o’clock, where in the US, TV advertising requires that the game drag on for nearly four hours. That wouldn’t work here because of the cleanup required – not just 12 empty cans per person, but a lot of passed-out drunks as well.
Sports say a lot about a country, as I’ve learned from my brief and incomplete exposure to rugby. As similar as the US and NZ seem on the surface, the sporting cultures of the two countries could hardly be farther apart. The biggest sports in my part of the US (football, hockey, baseball and basketball) are almost unknown here, although basketball is becoming more popular. The big three in New Zealand are rugby, cricket and something called netball, which I had never heard of before coming here.
Netball is a game women play by throwing a volleyball through a basketball hoop without a backboard. They’re not allowed to dribble, so they move the ball by passing.
As for cricket, check back in about a decade. Maybe I’ll have it figured out by then.

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