The American's Guide To Becoming A Rugby Fan

Manu Tuilagi tries to break the line against Gloucester.

Introduction

Hello beloved Giant readers. You all know I'm a huge rugby fan. After all, I can't help but to show occasional highlights on my Facebook page, or to write posts like Five Things I Learned From Rugby. I grew up playing basketball, I like volleyball and soccer, and I loved watching football. When I discovered rugby, though, it just took over. It had the fluidity of basketball combined with the toughness of football and the tactical sense of soccer. Best of all was the courage, decision-making, and team support that was a natural part of the game. Not only did I become a player, I became a full-time fan. When my two-year-old spots a football game on TV she calls it rugby. It's in the family now.

Like most Americans who love the beautiful game, I came to it late in life (age 27). The U.S. actually has a good number of rugby players compared to other countries. The reason we keep getting our butts handed to us on the world stage is that the world's players grew up playing the game, while our players started in college, or switched over from football one or two or three years ago.

Click on the image to get a perspective
on the worldwide playing population.
Still, over the next many years that should change. Youth rugby numbers are way up, as they pick up some of the kids whose families are part of the mass exodus from youth football we're seeing right now. Soccer is getting most of those boys, but it is rugby that offers the sort of character-building that American parents hope football will give their kids, and more besides.

Whether you're interested in rugby for yourself or for your family, perhaps as an alternative to football for your sons, understanding the game and being able to watch it on TV is an important part of the experience. You know, cheering for favorite teams and players, watching highlights, sharing the tension of a down-to-the-wire finish or expressing amazement together at a particular demonstration of skill is all part of the sports experience these days. That is, you and your kids don't want to just be rugby players, you want to be like Richie McCaw or Israel Folau.

In view of that, and at the request of a cherished Joffre The Giant reader, I here provide you with The American's Guide To Becoming A Rugby Fan. I will quickly mention some rules to help you enjoy watching rugby, then give some tips on where and how to watch, and finally follow that with a summary of the world rugby scene to help you choose what to watch.

All of this, by the way, assumes that you already want to be a rugby fan. 'Cause if you need convincing, drop me a line, and and I'll give you the many reasons why rugby is the very best and your family should love it.

Helpful Rules To Know

Rugby has as many rules as american footballl, but it's even easier for the novitiate to get lost because the game is so much more fluid. These five basic concepts (keepin' it at five to keep the game moving) will help you enjoy the match while you learn what's actually happening and what the rules actually are. Don't forget to pay attention to announcers. Although they won't explain the rules in detail, what they have to say will provide a lot of context clues. As long as they're not American announcers. And a cool thing about televised rugby is that the referee is mic'ed! Refereeing is much more organic and responsive in rugby, so fans want to know what the ref is saying to players in the flow of the game. You'll learn a lot from that as well.

1. "Positive" play is the order of the day. You have to play positively. For example, on defense you can't just knock the ball down, you have to try to catch it. You can't just hit a guy, you have to tackle. You can't just fall on the ball, you have to try to pick it up. You're responsible for the safety of the player you're tackling. Cynical play is penalized more harshly, and yes, that means the referee gets to decide what's cynical and what's not.

2. After a tackle, the ball is live. You probably already figured that out. The ball is only dead when it goes into touch (out of bounds) or when there's an infraction.

The tackled player must release the ball, and the tackler must release his victim. At that point, anyone who is on their feet and onside can make a play for the ball. Onside in this case means coming at the ball from your team's side of the tackle and over the body of the tackled player (through the gate). When both teams go after the tackled ball you get a...

3. Ruck, which is the dispute over the ball, usually won by the team possessing it originally. Someone, usually the scrum-half, will grab the ball from the base of the ruck and restart play.

4. Out of bounds, or in touch, goes to the other team. So if I run or kick it out, the other team gets it. Which means that players will often turn down big gains outside to make sure they don't run out. The exception to this rule is on a full penalty. If your team is awarded a penalty, you can kick the ball into touch downfield and get to the line-out (inbounds play) yourself.

5. Onside. Your team must start play on your side of the breakdown (tackle/ruck). If you kick the ball, all your teammates in front of you are offside until you or a teammate who was behind you when you kicked it passes them. Until they're put onside they must retreat from the ball.

The rest, I'll leave up to the reader. As far as I can remember, no one explained onside during a kick to me, which made things difficult for a while. Hopefully these concepts will help, and the reader can figure out points and scrums and lineouts and whatnot.


How To Watch

When it comes to watching rugby in the United States, I have four words for you. Fox Soccer Plus, YouTube.

Fox Soccer Plus is the best way to watch rugby on TV in the U.S. Just be aware that they also occasionally broadcast "rugby league", rugby's poorer and dumber cousin. Even rugby league fans call their form (or code) "league" while calling rugby union plain ol' "rugby". Just be aware that rugby league exists. You'll recognize it by its lack of dispute over the ball, its lack of creativity and three-dimensionality, and the way tackled players wriggle like molested fish after each play. I won't explain why, I'll just let you learn by watching if you choose to. You won't be missing anything.

Anyway, Fox Soccer Plus plays matches from most of the major rugby competitions in the world. You'll just have to put up with their schedule, and pay out to DirectTV.

Your other option is YouTube and other websites where enthusiasts bless those of us who live in countries with little to no rugby coverage. Here is a link to the Facebook page of my favorite guy.

But really, the best way to find games is to search on YouTube, limiting the time the search goes back to a week or a day, and limiting search results to videos lasting over 20 minutes. That should give you mostly full matches. You can search "rugby", but searching team and league names (which I'll give you soon) is more effective.

Given the fact that half of the best rugby matches are being played halfway around the world from Americans, and the other half being played 6-10 hours ahead, you wouldn't be watching much live rugby anyway.

The American fan becomes accustomed to simply waiting a day before watching a match, and becomes expert at avoiding spoilers.

Of course, just watching rugby without any favorite players or teams isn't as fun as being invested in certain clubs and competitions. Maybe your kid will never have a poster of George Ford or Quade Cooper up in his bedroom, but picking sides is a great part of the fun of watching sports. Let me give you a breakdown, tell you who I chose, and maybe help you to pick some sides as well.

Clermont Auvergne fans.

Rugby Competitions & Teams Around The World


Here is a quick overview of the world's major competitions, as well as my favorite teams and maybe even some favorite players. Rugby is like soccer in that several national leagues feature prominently on the world scene, and two leagues are even supra-national.

However, before we get to clubs let's go over international play. This is another area where rugby beats out american football: you get to cheer for countries. Although most USA Eagles fans find a country besides their own to support as well.

The world is divided into southern hemisphere teams, who have a reputation for playing a more dynamic brand of "running rugby", and northern hemisphere teams, which are known to play a more bruising conservative game better suited to playing through rainy winters. The top three teams in the world are usually, but certainly not always, New Zealand (the famed All Blacks), Australia, and South Africa. 

Every four years there is a Rugby World Cup, and this year, for the first time ever, the semi-final was played by four southern hemisphere teams, with Argentina throwing its hat in with the three great powers. Needless to say, the northern hemisphere is quite humiliated and all you'll hear from their commentators right now is how their teams need to play more of the freewheeling style of the southerners.

The Rugby Championship

The main international competition in the south takes place yearly. When only New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa competed, it was called the Tri-Nations. Four years ago Argentina was invited to join, and the competition is now arrogantly known as The Rugby Championship. But no one in the north can complain about the name, given the World Cup semi-final situation.

This year the Walllabies of Australia won the competition, although it was an abbreviated version due to preparations for the World Cup. Way more often than not New Zealand wins it, but once every few years South Africa or Australia will sneak a win in. The Springboks and Wallabies are always two of the top teams in the world, so New Zealand's dominance of The Rugby Championship should give you some idea of their dominance on the world scene. They just won their third World Cup, and are the first country to repeat. 

Which is why, even though I love how they play and I love most of their players, I can't cheer for them. They just lose so seldom. So I, like many, like the All Blacks but pull against them. 

Also, every right-minded individual outside of New Zealand hates Richie McCaw and applauds when he gets a yellow card. Which is almost never.

South Africa plays a kick-oriented, hard-hitting brand of rugby. Australia plays with creative flair on offense and speed on defense. Argentina slows the game down, dominates scrums, and looks to set things up with their set piece plays. New Zealand...well...they just do everything faster and harder, and the ball never dies.

South Africa's JP Pietersen scores against Argentina.

Six Nations

The Six Nations competition is fought out yearly in Europe between the "Home Nations", France, and Italy. Besides England, Scotland, and Wales, a united Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland team is and always has been fielded. Ireland's national team is represented by the four historic provinces, disregarding national lines.

Scotland was recently robbed of a place in the World Cup semifinals, but for the last several years they and Italy have dwelt together at the bottom of the Six Nations. France is New Zealand's bugaboo; they are not consistent but play with such flair and creativity that they can beat anyone at any time. England often underperforms, like their football team, which creates a lot of anxiety. Happily, unlike the football team, they remain relevant, rising as high as number three in the world in recent years. Ireland is the most dynamic of the European countries, defending with their characteristic ball-killing "choke tackles" and attacking with a creativity reminiscent of the All Blacks. But only reminiscent, mind you.

Paul O'Connell blocks an English kick.
Super Rugby and southern hemisphere domestic leagues

In my opinion, and in the opinion of every right-headed rugby fan, this is the premier club competition in the world. In a way, it's a super-club competition, because three countries (five beginning next season) form bigger teams out of three or four of their smaller domestic clubs.

For example, New Zealand is represented in Super Rugby by the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, and Hurricanes. The Crusaders are fed by the Tasman Sharks and Canterbury, both of which play in New Zealand's domestic league, the ITM Cup. South Africa's Currie Cup and Australia's National Rugby Competition are also fully fledged leagues that feed Super Rugby teams. Beginning next season Argentina and Japan will field Super Rugby sides as well (this past World Cup Japan's national team upset South Africa in pool play).

I love watching other competitions, but Super Rugby stands out as the best for two reasons: the first is that the national characteristics of each country's rugby union express themselves through their clubs. Kiwis play like Kiwis, Aussies like Aussies, South Africans like South Africans. Once you begin to pick up on that, the tactics each team decides to utilize become that much more fascinating, as teams play to or away from their perceived strengths. The second is that Super Rugby is the club-level expression of southern hemisphere rugby. The ball stays in play for longer, play is quicker, and sublime flashes of skill more common.

My favorite team here is the Crusaders of New Zealand. They play as methodically as any Kiwi team ever does. I find the way they control games to be absolutely mesmerizing. But the beauty of this competition is that you can have favorites and villains across three (soon 5) countries.

Fijian-born Nemani Nadolo, the Crusaders' huge and highly skilled wing,
leaves a couple of Cheetahs in the dust.
Top 14

Top 14 is the French competition, and it is to rugby what the English Premiership is to soccer. They use so many high-priced foreigners that the quality of French national rugby is being impacted. The forwards in this league are huge, and hit hard. The scrums are monstrous. The combination of powerful forward play with the usual French backline flair can make for some compelling watching. 

Top 14 teams dominate the Champions Cup, which is rugby's UEFA Champions League, where the top teams from several leagues compete for a European trophy. Their hired guns mean that each French team competing at Champions level is veteran. 

My team in the Top 14 is Clermont Auvergne. They're the Atlanta Braves of rugby. They're always really good, always well managed, and always a joy to watch. But something always stops them from going all the way. Their scrum-half, Morgan Parra, is nicknamed The Little General, and his skill set epitomizes the elegance that Clermont bring to the game.

Toulon are the bad guys, the New York Yankees of rugby. They have a huge payroll, all their players were absolute stars in their native countries, and they've basically become a bruising heavyweight rugby machine. Cheer against them always.

Clermont Auvergne.

Premiership

The English league is, among the European leagues, the most fun to watch. They play wet-weather ball, which involves ball retention and kicking for position. Which, as a bruising forward myself, I do not at all mind watching. If you watch English rugby you can expect big hits, tactical kicking, and lots of mud.

I pull for Gloucester in this competition, the ol' cherry-and-whites. They're one of those sympathetic teams that usually do okay, that play up to their ability, and they can beat anybody on a good day, but it's not always a good day. One of their centers, the versatile Billy Twelvetrees, was my favorite player in the league for a while, but his form is lost and his star fallen of late.

I also enjoy watching the Northampton Saints, mostly because their number eight was the brutal American Samu Manoa. Manoa's grandfather was a star of Tongan rugby. Sadly, Toulon (remember the New York Yankees of French rugby?) got him for this season, so now he's part of the evil empire's stable.

Gloucester's electric wing Jonny May scores.

Pro12

This is another cross-country league. Formerly the Celtic League featuring Irish, Welsh, and Scottish teams, it changed to Pro12 when they added two Italian clubs years ago.

Before Toulon's recent big run in European rugby, the Irish clubs did very well in the Champions Cup (then the Heineken Cup). Leinster and Munster have had excellent runs, and won league titles as well, but my heart belongs to Ulster.

I'm an Ulster fan because
1. Ruan Pienaar, the most elegant player I've ever seen play the game,
2. Rory Best, the hardest hooker in Europe,
3. they do so well every year then get jobbed by refs/ill discipline,
4. I love C.S. Lewis so I love northern Ireland,
and
5. I'm Presbyterian, so I love the Scots-Irish (please don't write to lecture me about Ireland's sectarian history).

Ruan Pienaar of Ulster.
By the way, you might notice that my favorite teams all wear red. I know. Weird, right? Proffer your psychological profiles, I welcome them.

European Rugby Champions Cup

The best of the best in the north. What can I say, it's a blast to watch. Different countries, different clubs, bad guys and good guys. Almost as good as Super Rugby.

By the way, as in soccer, the Champions Cup and its little brother the Challenge Cup are played during long breaks in the league seasons.

Conclusion

I hope this has been helpful. Of course, you won't watch all this rugby. You probably won't watch as much rugby as I do. But this will help you settle into a routine. Mine is basically to watch every top southern hemisphere international I can, as well as some northern hemisphere ones, every Ulster match, every Crusaders match, the occasional Gloucester or Premiership match, and some random Super Rugby. In the "off-season" (which in reality is NEVER!!!) I watch what I can of Canterbury in the ITM Cup and South Africa's Western Province in the Currie Cup and I never, ever run out of rugby to watch.

Enjoy being a rugby fan.

Jean DeVilliers of Western Province fields a kick against Natal Sharks.

Comments

  1. Well, this should be helpful. To me baseball is mind numbing. Basketball isn't my thing. Football is fairly decent, but rugby has always been a distant but difficult to entertain interest. I don't have cable but will be looking up YouTube after the kiddo is in bed tonight.

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  2. Thanks for this. I just got interested in rugby last year (for various reasons) and was looking up clubs in my area since I was entertaining the idea to join & get my buttocks whooped (which I might in the near future, hopefully).

    I agree with the overall sentiment of this article. Rugby is unique mixture of constant fluidity combined with the hard hitting of American football, and the tactical framework of football/soccer. I suppose this is why I enjoy watching hockey so much.

    @ josh: I enjoy baseball, but I do understand the "mind numbing" comment. For me, I can fully enjoy a day at the ballpark but when it's me sitting on the couch watching baseball, I'm unable to it. I have to be there experiencing it live or be at a bar enjoying it with friends aided with good beer & good pizza.

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    Replies
    1. Live baseball games ARE awesome. Food is essential. Many's the Florida Gator baseball game I enjoyed with a little jambalaya.

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