The success of the All Whites in making it to next year’s soccer world cup finals reminded me of my love for ‘the beautiful game’ and my absolute failure to understand the appeal of rugby. This is probably an indication that you can live in a country for almost half a century, become a citizen of that country, regard it as home, brook no criticism of it from strangers and yet never fully understand or share the mindset of those who were born and bred there. If I were a Kiwi, I might feel quite differently about the national game. Then again, I might not. My dislike for rugby can not be fully explained by my being a stranger in a strange land. I’m quite capable of nationalistic pride when it comes to cricket or netball. And, like most born-again Kiwis, there’s nothing that pleases me more than when the Black Caps or the Silver Ferns humble the Aussies. No, my distaste for the oval ball has more to do with the game itself. It is terminally boring to watch. The core principle of rugby is that 15 guys try to carry/kick a ball to the far end of a paddock and deposit the ball on the ground across the goal line. 15 other guys are trying to stop them and to achieve the same result at the other end of the paddock.
Up to this point, rugby has something in common with soccer. Both games involve getting a ball from one end of a paddock to the other. But there the similarity ends. The main difference is that In rugby you’re allowed to pull the player in possession of the ball down onto the ground. Indeed, it’s positively encouraged. Then a whole lot of other players, from both sides, fall down in a heap on top of the first player, pushing and shoving, until either the ball emerges or the whole human tangle disintegrates. In any rugby match this will happen dozens of times, with the result that the game is slowed to a crawl. But this was still too fast and exciting for the inventors of rugby, who decided that the disorganised heap situation or ’scrimmage’ should be followed by an organised heap situation, which they called a scrum. One might have thought that the combination of dozens of scrimmages and scrums would have slowed the progress of the ball from one end of the paddock to the other enough to satisfy even the most excitement-averse spectator. But the game’s inventors had one more card to play. Despite the fact that the stated aim of the game was to advance the ball forwards to the far end of the paddock, the rules of the game would say that you could only throw the ball backwards. In sum, the average rugby game consists of players running a few yards, falling in a heap, getting up again, running a few more yards, falling in another heap, getting up again… well, you get the picture. There are occasional moments of brightness when the ball is passed from hand to hand in an elegant moving line or when a player manages to send if flying over the crossbar to convert a try. But mostly rugby is a mind-numbingly tedious stop-start affair. Soccer, on the other hand, is fast-moving, aesthetically pleasing and requires delicacy, precision and a degree of physical co-ordination that would be largely wasted on the rugby pitch where brute force and speed are the main, if not the only qualifications for success.