Saturday, November 29, 2008
The Best Sport You've Never Heard Of: Rugby League
Rugby league is the best sport that North Americans have never heard of.
It is not quite the rugby that we are vaguely familiar with over here. That sort of rugby is actually called rugby union. It is also a great sport. Rugby league is a different thing, though.
The game is simple (much more so than rugby union). In league, two teams of thirteen players each try to score more points than the other by either moving the ball down the 100 meter, rectangular pitch, and across the try line (that is, into the end zone) and laying it down on the ground (called scoring a "try", worth four points), or kicking the ball through the uprights (either as a conversion kick after a "try" for two points, a drop goal [where the ball bounces off the ground prior to foot contact], or a penalty kick).
Each team, upon getting possession of the ball, has six tackles (equivalent to downs) to advance the ball as far as they can. As in football on the fourth down, often teams choose to punt the ball downfield after the fifth tackle.
Here's how the tackles work. Upon tackling the ball handler, defenders will then back away while the runner stands up, puts the ball down on the ground, and rolls it backwards to a teammate with his foot. The player behind him will then grab the ball and either run with it, or pass it, and so on for each player that handles the ball. The only trick is that there are no forward passes allowed. Passes must be either perfectly lateral, or backwards. However, players may kick the ball forward at any time, and any teammates who were parallel to or behind the kicker may run up and try to recover the ball before the defenders do.
There are no huddles, no real scrums, no rucking, the rules are relatively few - the action is non-stop and the players, wearing no, or hardly any, padding, move very quickly. It requires as much grace as it does toughness, as much finesse as it does brute strength, as much endurance as it does quickness, and as much quick-thinking as it does overall game sense. My guess is that rugby league players (along with the MMA guys) overall are probably the most fit athletes in professional sports.
I first got into rugby league visiting Australia a few years ago. I went to a packed pub with the Sony guys to watch the State of Origin match (Queensland against New South Wales - the State of Origin is sort of the equivalent of the Super Bowl). I ended up thinking, "this is the greatest thing I've ever seen". It had it all: blood, smashing, leaping, diving, spectacular passing and kicking, drama, everything.
It's why I got my satellite dish - so I could watch all the rugby league games on the Setanta Sports. Which I just spent the last nine months doing (the Rugby League World Cup, held once every four years, just ended, with New Zealand upsetting Australia to win the final for the first time ever).
Anyway, I don't really have any story to tell; I just wanted to plug rugby league, the best sport you've never heard of.