Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Game They Play In Heaven


Listening to: Foolish Games - Jewel - Pieces of You
today's Get Fuzzy strip - Bucky Katt does the Haka Ka mate, Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora! Ka mate, Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora! Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra! A hupane, kaupane A hupane, kaupane whiti te ra! Hi! Wonder what Bucky Katt's haka sounds like. I know the All Blacks' version is fearsome, sometimes causing your testicles to retract and make you wonder how come you have three lumps in your throat. This year's southern hemisphere rugby season begins next week, with Australia taking on (and walloping) Scotland, and New Zealand All Blacks taking on England. "The main scheme is to work the ball down the field and somehow deposit it over the line at the other end. ... In order to squelch this program, each side is allowed to put in a certain amount of assault and battery and do things to its fellow man which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days without the option, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench". ~P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves (1930). I liked rugby for the wrong reasons when I first played the sport in school. The only thought I had for the game was how many chicks I could pull by playing such a manly sport. Still, it got me started, and once I got bored with the chicks I pulled, I concentrated on the game a little bit more. That was five years after I took up the sport. The history of rugby has been told to death, but I'll tell it again. ...Legend has it that one William Webb Ellis, a boarder at Rugby School (for which the sport is named) in England was playing football as you and I know it - with the foot - some time in 1880 or thereabouts - and out of boredom, he picked up the ball, ran to the goal line and was pummelled by everyone else, his own teammates included. Rugby Football was born. Being invented in a private (public) school system, the new sport was subject to many archaic rules - known as Laws of Rugby Football - such as "No player shall receive moneys for playing". This meant that rugby was not a professional sport. For over 100 years, this remained the case until 1995, when Rupert Murdoch proposed television rights and payments to elite national teams such as the Wallabies, the All Blacks and the Springboks. For decades, player profiles included the player's position in the team, his statistics and his occupation. E.g. N.C. Farr-Jones, Captain, Scrum-half, caps: 60, Club: Sydney University, Occupation: Barrister; or my favourite: Samoa: P. Fatialofa, captain, tight-head prop, caps 40, Club: Auckland, Occupation: Piano Mover. Of course, there were objections to the amateur rule, and this caused a rift early in the sport's history, and a new breakaway sport was created in 1895, called Rugby League. This happened in the north of England, where mostly blue-collar workers played the original game, and who did not have the luxury of understanding employers giving them time off for the sport or for injuries sustained playing the sport. This breakaway sport is still played but mostly in the north of England and in New South Wales and Queensland in Australia. The original game, played under the Laws of Rugby Union, and known more informally as Rugby Union continued to flourish as a gentleman's game, and was propagated throughout Empire and some parts of continental Europe (e.g. France). The four Home unions (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales) still play an annual competition that now includes France and Italy. The Rugby World Cup, first staged in 1987, is the third most watched sporting event in the world after the Olympics and the soccer world cup. Rugby is a team sport, but one which has been said to be the most 'democratic'. That is, all creatures great and small can play the game. From the big burly squat prop forwards to the fleet footed and svelte wingers. Every manner of player has a role to play. I was an automatic selection at either scrum-half or winger because of my lack of size, both during school days and when playing for my club in Sydney. If you can pummel an opponent twice your size, you're an instant hero. If you can't, you still can pummel your opposite number on the other team who's about the same size as you. (Except one club game I played, where my opposing scrum-half was 1 foot and 20 kilos bigger than me, and he pummelled me good). The competition I last played in had teams which fielded 50-something year olds next to 18 year olds. And if you've played for several seasons, you'd know not to underestimate the wiliness of the old fogies. And it is demoralising at first, to be pummelled by a golden oldie. It is only afterward you cheer up, because you know that by the time you're a golden oldie fogie, you can pummel people half your age too. Having said all that about pummelling, rugby isn't all about that, really. No matter how big or how fast you are, if you don't got no brains, you don't got no chance to be chosen in no elite team. Some rugby nuts have compared rugby to a game of high-speed chess. I'll vouch for that. And mostly because it's true. Though it's because you have to use your brains to avoid being pummelled so often. And so, there is that added joy of outwitting your opponents with dummy (quite smart actually) runs and decoy moves. While it is not my object to deride soccer, the global game, I like it that there are seldom histrionics and oscar-winning injuries being faked by rugby players to milk a penalty. In rugby, if you roll around on the ground in agony, it's for real. If it's not for real, your own teammates will make sure it's for real. In rugby, if someone infringes on your rights by hitting you on the nose, you hit back, and the referee comes and warns you that if you fight again, you're both off. One of the unwritten requirements for referees is comic timing. In the last match between the Australian Capital Territory and Canterbury, the ref broke up a punch-up by asking the participants, "OK, stop the nonsense, you fellas know each other well now? Good. Now stop it". "My drinking team has a rugby problem", reads a souvenir t-shirt popular among nuts. The social aspect of the game is what keeps it alive as a sport. Every Saturday afternoon in Sydney during the season, we'd belt the crap out of each other on the paddock, and then retreat to whoever's home ground pub it is, to nurse our wounds and exchange stories over half a dozen or so beers each. It has also been said that rugby is a great social lubricant. Important contacts are made. Deals are struck. Careers are made. If not on the paddock, then maybe in the pub afterwards. Last year, an article written by Peter Fitzsimons (my favourite journalist - he once was a Wallaby) in the lead up to the World Cup listed several vaguely familiar personalities to have donned a jersey, worn a mouthguard and been pummelled on the field. His 'dream team': Bill Clinton (Oxford), George W. Bush (Yale), Idi Amin (Sandhurst & Uganda), Che Guevara (San Isidro, Argentina), Pope John Paul II (not verified in biographies), Sen Edward Kennedy (Harvard), Jacques Chirac (Brive, France), Boris Karloff (South Calif. RU), P.G. Wodehouse (Dulwich College), Prince William (St. Andrews), Richard Harris (Munster, Ireland), James Joyce (Belvedere College, Ireland), Sir Edmund Hillary (Auckland Grammar), Benito Mussolini (didn't quite play, but introduced the sport to Italy). And before anyone thinks that what I'm talking about is a purely brutish male domain, the club I played for has a girls' team which is better than the boys'. They're ranked number 4 in Australia or something. And they're not ugly as dogs either (such is the impression people get of female rugby players). I once was mesmerised by the sight of the girl winger gliding along the touchline, ball in right hand, palming off opponents with left hand, blonde ponytail flying, long lanky strides taking her over the goal line with a swan dive. I tried to pull off the same thing playing winger later that day, but didn't have the requisite grace to mesmerise anyone, and earned the nickname that I resignedly still use now: Mister Miyagi, wax on, wax off.


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