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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Rugby and the Language of Sports

Stormer Spoken Here (Badly)

Last night I finally met some of my classmates; not so much during class (a painful 4.5 hours long, starting at 4:00) as during a bout of drinking afterwards at the student "bar", The Brig. Far as I can tell, The Brig is actually a large, unused room that was repainted and supplied with a foosball table and a few refrigerators (and no bathroom); the students supply the beer and tend bar and generally keep it up as a convenient student hang-out in lieu of heading to town to drink. Last night, one of my classmates, who works for a brewer in Mauritius, supplied free promotional Phoenix Lagers to all, precipitating a lovely evening of chat and relaxation, albeit somewhat curtailed by way of it being Monday. As usual in a room full of guys, the talk turned to sport, wherein I enthusiastically recounted my hope that I could catch the upcoming rugby match between Vodacom WP and the Sharks, and, after a pause filled with bafflement, one of the locals remarked, "You speak some rugby, is it?" Well, no, but I'm learning.

Rugby came to South Africa with Brits and Boers, along with the English and Dutch-inspired Afrikaans languages, tea biscuits, and tuburculosis,  and is therefore a historically white sport, whereas football is historically black; as such, rugby has a very divisive and controversial 20th centurey history here, but after Apartheid is is slowly finding support in both communities (for more on this, and on the World Cup game that helped turn this notion around in 1995 with the help of some anti-apartheid coaches and Nelson Mandela himself, check out Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, which I'm sorry to say I did not finish before arriving here - they're making a movie of it, though, with Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon in rugby shorts as captain Francois Pienaar.  Perhaps Damon was just jealous that Leonardo DiCaprio got to use an afrikaans accent in Blood Diamond?  This picture taken from here. )

The national team and stars of that book, the Springboks, are the current Rugby World Cup holders and Tri-Nations (SA, Austrialia and New Zealand, powerhouses all) champions, so this is still nothing to sneeze your nose about around these parts, though still a distant second to football (in the same way hockey lags American football at home).

In the States, Rugby is still something of a cult, played by some private school would-be toffs, and loads of ex-American football players who still have urges to drink copious beer, and to hit people very hard without being arrested (not necessarily in that order). US Rugby was apparently exported from Canada; according to the US Rugby site official history, the first recorded rugby game on US soil was between Harvard and Montreal's McGill University, and Harvard won.   It has flown under the radar of mainstream sports ever since. Possibly this will change now that rugby, along with golf - golf? - has been voted back in to the summer Olympics (as 7s, though - anyone care to explain why that is? Maybe the US can't field more than 7 decent US players, but isn't 15s more usual worldwide?)  The US national team, the Eagles, god bless em, actually won golds in Olympic rugby in the olden days, in the 1920s, but now habitually get their asses handed to them when playing ranked international teams, because they are unpaid amateurs who all have normal jobs and have only been playing like 5-10 years by the time they have to retire, vs. years and years of training for professional international players. (EDIT: I am informed we are actually ranked 18th, so there.  Go Eagles!  Eagle pride!)  The US Rugby Association has a stated goal to make everyone "fall in love with rugby", though since American Football will always take many potential rugby players out of circulation, that seems an uphill battle.  The Eagles do, however, have a bitchin' logo.

Rugby was exported to my family, incidentally, by my oldest sister, who studied abroad during undergrad in London. She came home smoking cigars, playing rugby, and suffused with a hatred of English peanutbutter and weather. Despite her diminutive stature (are you reading this, sis? because if you are, please don't hit me) she went on to lead the lady Illini club team in vicious play, illegal tackles, and obnoxious song-singing for some years. Not to be outdone, both of my brothers subsequently played rugby at SIU, and one went on to play club ball in Chicago, until necks and knees and will to show up for practice gave out, respectively; but my oldest brother still refs rugby now, and provides running commentary for me at the few matches I attend(much to the edification of similarly confused would-be fans in the stands around us: during one such monologue at a US Eagles match, he apologized for commenting too loudly to some folks sitting nearby, who jumped to assure him that he was providing a useful public service and should please continue.) In any event, as long as the Bears aren't on TV, it remains an in-family subject of equal parts reverence and ribaldry, as all good, well-loved sports are. I personally find it to be a glorious, barely controlled mayhem, filled with brute strength, delicate grace, amazing bursts of speed, unbelievable endurance and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Also, you have to be completely crazy.  These guys tape their ears down so they don't get torn off, you know? It's not a space-age fiber helmet between them and concussion: it's fair play and their own thick heads. The whole regard for rugby can be summed up, and frequently is, by the Churchill quote, "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by ruffians; rugby is a ruffian's sport played by gentlemen." Which all goes some way to explaining why I feel, now that I am in a country with such rich rugby history but don't have my brother's play-by-play to rely on, that I should at least make an independent effort to learn something about the game.

First, though, I had to figure out who to root for. At the sub-national level, each province has a semi-pro team or two who provide local action to rugby-happy South Africans. One of these is Western Province, or simply WP (which sounds like Vee-Pee, for you non-Afrikaans-speakers), the local ruggers hereabout, whose rallying cry is "WP, jou lekker ding!" (wp, you lovely thing!). Their strong second-place status proved them to be the perfect team to support - a win is possible, even likely, but would still be a bit of an upset. Perfect! Just to be confusing, they also play as a Union team called the Stormers, but the players, and coaching leadership, is the same. Perplexed? Me too, and I haven't gotten to the actual rules of the game yet! (I won't, since I'm no expert, but here is a great overview for rookies, which I have found very helpful.)

WP, who ran 10-2 during regular season play, is currently playing in the glamourous season-end ABSA Currie Cup, and this past weekend qualified for semi-finals home pitch advantage (despite actually losing their match to the Xerox Lions 27-25) at historic Newlands Stadium.  Though home pitch was secured by total number of points, WP's loss means they come up against the 3rd ranked Vodacom Blue Bulls, with whom they split wins during regular season play, rather than the lower ranked Cheetahs; after this bruising matchup, they will likely play the deadly #1, 10-2 Sharks (slated to romp all over the Cheetahs on Saturday). Will I be able to get tickets to this popular match, and if I do, will I have any clue what's going on? Will the scrappy WP be able to score enough to secure home pitch advantage for the finals, and if they do, will they have energy, desire, and intact cartilage enough to best the Sharks next week? Of course we will! WP, jou lekker ding!

hooker Tiann Liebenberg

Back at the Brig, I was standing in a veritable ring of favored nations: a Portugeuse guy, a Frenchman, a Brit, a Mexican, a Norweigan, two Jo'Burgers and a German, among many locals. The Capetonian who wondered at me speaking rubgy went on to say, "If you really want to speak an international language, though, you need to speak football." This launched a lively discussion about World Cup qualifiers and whether South Africa was ready fo their big debut in the international sport arena, during which I was forced to admit I didn't know a single player on the American football team ("How can you not know Landon Donovon?" the Mexican protests. "He's played for your team for 10 YEARS!"), though I did recognize the name Freddy Adou, the child prodigy; and when pressed, could come up with only Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain from the far more dominant women's team.

Apparently the US men just beat Honduras to clinch their own trip to South Africa for the Football World Cup this spring. My classmates assured me that the US team, thanks to players toughening up in European leagues, is coming along nicely since they days when they were routinely thrashed as soundly as the US Rugby Eagles are now, and might actually be a contender in years to come. Which doesn't make me care much more about soccer - I mean football - but does give me some hope that rugby will progress in the same way, and by then, I'll have figured out what all the rules are.  Until then: I am a Stormer!


  1. Awesome post! Jou lekker ding, you! Now go out and get me a WP jersey, 4x tall. And be quick about it.

  2. i'm on the case - though the stormer jerseys are a little cooler, actually, but you can't beat a stadium full of blue and white striped FREAKS. incidentally, the semi-final match is sold out, but if WP wins to play the Sharks, I believe they play here, and I and some of the other exchange students are going to be first in line, online, so to speak.