The series of Autumn Internationals starts this weekend, Eddie Jones' England side face a resurgent Springboks first up, followed by the world champions New Zealand at Twickenham. Two defeats would ask further questions of the direction and momentum under Jones with the World Cup in Japan next year looming.
England are shorn of key personnel up front, and changes in the coaching staff mean new systems and structures have been introduced but not fully embedded. With the clock ticking to Japan, England should be fine-tuning rather than re-setting, but the sign on the dressing room door says ‘work in progress’.
The next few weeks could shape whether Jones and his men will be serious contenders in Japan next year - or merely making up the numbers. But whatever the state of readiness in the England set-up, I can’t wait, as someone who played rugby from the age of 8 to 47, hanging up my boots after playing on a veterans tour in Australia and New Zealand, I’m looking forward to the start of the international season more than I ever did to Christmas as a kid.
Of course, rugby union doesn’t really mean much to most of the population, and utter cluelessness will abound over the complexity of rules in what most see as men running around looking to knock each other over and engage in a bun fight, wrestling for an egg-shaped ball. Let's face it, if you weren't brought up on rugby union, you just don't get it.
Most first time observers will notice that everything in rugby is oblong. The field is oblong, the players are oblong, and consequently, the shirts are oblong. The shirts are the sort of thing that once no longer able to absorb the mud, water and yanking on the field, you can wear to wash the car in, or indeed, with.
So, let me explain some of the history, rules, formations and etiquette of the game.
History of the game
Rugby union is a 15-a-side game containing amorphous huddles of large, oblong men who step on each other. Rugby league, on the other hand, is a 13-a-side game, in which large, square men run full pelt into each other. These differences are vital.
Rugby union is the game they play in heaven, and yet the most painstaking study of either Old or New Testament is unlikely to reward the reader with any reference to Jesus, St Peter or the Archangel Gabriel scrummaging on the 22m line.
The game split following a meeting in The George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, driven by the authorities seeking to enforce the amateur principle of the sport, preventing ‘broken time payments’ to players who had taken time off work to play rugby. Northern teams typically had more working class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to affluent southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle (check out Downton Abbey). As a consequence, rugby league is stronger than union in the North of England.
However, this is at least as likely as the official version, which contends that rugby began during a game of regular soccer at Rugby school in Warwickshire. In 1823, goes the story, a schoolboy named William Webb Ellis, basically bored by the football game, picked up the ball and ran the length of the field with it. And a whole new game grew out of that. What a wonderful world.
Assuming the positions
A rugby team consists of Forwards and Backs.
Among the Forwards – the hearty muscle men - are such positions as the Props (2), a Hooker, the Second Rowers (2), Flankers (2) and the Number Eight. These are the real blokes who do all the work, have punch-ups and bully the backs (see below) in training, the dressing room and when out socialising as a team. The Forwards stick together as a ‘pack’, and you’ll hear them running like the sound of a stampede of deranged wildebeest. You want your daughter to marry a Forward, not a Back.
Lurking behind the Forwards are the Backs, who include: Scrum-Half, Fly-Half, Inside and Outside Centres, two Wingers, and a Full-Back. No scientific research has ever revealed what they do other than run with the ball, fall over with operatic drama when get tackled and give yet more work to the Forwards. The Backs dive around a lot trying to look good.
Backs are clearly distinguishable from the Forwards by their obvious over- use of men’s beauty products and visits to the dental hygienist, fear of getting dirty - they leave the field with shirts unblemished whilst the forwards are typically ripped to smithereens and covered in mud, blood and sweat – and drinking fresh coconut water in the bar, whilst the Forwards get stuck into the beer. And then get stuck into the Backs.
The game goes for two halves of 40 minutes apiece, plus injury time. This is about the only rugby rule you've got a chance of understanding if you didn't play the game at school.
The team in possession of the ball (egg-shaped, 27cm x 60cm) is seeking to score a ‘Try’, by putting the ball down across the opposition try-line (there’s the clue.) So a bloke runs with the ball until tackled, and then everyone sort of gets giddy, jumping in together into a shapeless mass, highlighted by a spirited form of folk-dancing in which they attempt to sink their boot-studs into the nearest deposit of opposition soft tissue.
By the way, this is for the Forwards, the Backs stay well back for fear of getting a chipped fingernail in the melee.
Every so often, the referee blows his whistle, apparently out of pity, contrariness, or boredom. This will usually result in either:
A scrum: a vital attacking and psychological tool. The scrum takes place after certain infringements. The Forwards pack down as a unit, link arms and immediately group-head-butt their opposite numbers while frantically kicking at their ankles and trying to out-grunt their counterparts and win the ball to teammates behind them, using their feet only.
How dominant the Backs are in a match, and how much space and time they have to work with, is determined by the dominance of the Forwards and the scrum.
A ruck is the phase of play when one or more players from each team are bound over the ball, which is on the ground between them. The aim of the ruck is for the players to roll the ball with their feet to their teammates behind them.
A maul is similar to the ruck, except the ball is not on the floor but is the hands of one of the players.
The lineout takes place after the ball has left the field of play. Here players from both teams form lines, a player throws the ball between them and they jump up to catch it, and then feed the ball to the scrum-half. It is a combination of a ruck and ballet, in that players are allowed to propel their teammate by grabbing a fistful of crotch and/or buttock and launching him skywards at the incoming ball.
Line-outs and scrums sometimes resemble mayhem, in that the players often don't get it quite right, prompting the referee to get flustered and angry and eventually award a kick to one team out of exasperation.
Every time the ref interrupts the general pandemonium by blowing his whistle, he shouts out in a booming Brian Blessed-type voice what decision he has made, and despite the testosterone physicality of rugby, you’ll see 100% respect for the referee and his decisions - no petulance, answering back or heckling like you do from footballers.
Talking of football, rugby is a game played by men who spend 80 minutes trying not to look injured and play the game honestly; football is a game played by men who spend 90 minutes trying to look injured and not play the game honestly.
The ball has to be passed backwards, whilst running forwards, and you can’t knock-on or be offside. (Blimey, see second blog next week on more rules).
Simple. A try is worth five points. A conversion, which comes after a try is scored, two points. Three points for a penalty, which results from a successful drop-kick going over the cross bar. So nine times out of 10, the team with the most tries wins.
So that’s it really. Enjoy the game, and come back to the CheckdMedia web site for more rugby union blogs over the next four weeks as we follow England’s progress in the Autumn International series.