OUT ONA LIMB: Rucking and mauling their way into our hearts

I’ve gained a respect for another sport in recent weeks

As the NHL season gets underway, my love for the good ol’ hockey game will once again rise to the fore.

But I have to say that I’ve gained a respect for another sport in recent weeks. I’ve always been familiar with rugby. Being Scottish, my father and older brothers all played it, my dad back in the auld country and two of my brothers down the Island at a private school in Shawnigan Lake.

I never played it but when I became a journalist, I was often assigned to photograph rugby games, including here in Campbell River. I never knew the rules and had little understanding of strategy but I could see that it was a tough game played without the pads so prevalent in North American sports.

But the Rugby World Cup is underway in New Zealand where rugby is like hockey here and where a New Zealand versus Canada game is like Canada versus Norway in hockey.

Still, Canada has a team in the tournament and is seen as part of a second tier of rugby nations. The United States, Romania and a few other countries are in the same grouping. Which isn’t an insult, it’s a recognition that the game has potential here and the international rugby governing body has identified it as a place where the game can be grown.

And I say bring it on. I caught four games of the rugby world cup so far and they’ve been eye-openers.  I watched Canada vs. France, Canada vs. Japan and Canada vs. New Zealand. I missed our one win, that being against Tonga, which was considered a bit of an upset. I also indulged in my tribal roots by taking in the Scotland vs. England game and the seemingly inevitable disappointing loss by the Scots. Still the passion and fury with which the game is played is a sight to behold.

It’s great entertainment and to watch these athletes go at it the way they do, man. Anybody who’s a hockey fan and loves good old hard-nose hockey cannot be anything but a rugby fan. The game appears at times to be little more than a running brawl. Of course, it’s much more than that and after a few games I’m beginning to discern some strategy. It’s not always graceful but it’s compelling.

To watch Canada battle their way, literally foot by foot towards the Japanese touch (or goal) line, all the while getting the crap kicked out of them, was astonishing. A player grabs the ball, tucks it into his middle and runs smack into a line of opponents, turns his back to protect the ball while his teammates get into position behind him. He then hands the ball to another player who grabs it and bashes into a weaker spot in the opponents line to gain a couple of feet towards the touch line. Repeat, repeat. All the while, of course, the other team pounds, kicks, gouges and pummels the ball carrier. It’s like a goal-line stand in football but every few feet. And it doesn’t stop until the ball is torn out of your hands or you cross the touch line for a score. Oh, and you don’t wear any pads, did I mention that before?

It’s wild and crazy and like boxing, although obviously detrimental to your health, you can’t help but respect the courage it takes to submit yourself to such punishment and find a way to survive.

Of course, there are faster plays like lateral passes and runs with the ball and kicking for goals – all related to the strategy being employed by the team, of which, I haven’t entirely caught onto yet. But I’m learning and the world cup is now getting down to the serious business of the final eight. The top teams will battle it out for the title. It’s like the Olympic hockey tournament after the round robin when all the minnows have been eliminated and the top teams brace themselves for the real tournament.

Canada had hoped to finish third in its group but a tie against Japan prevented that. It would have meant more funding from the international governing body and greater exhibition matches to prepare for the next world cup and raise the profile of the sport here in Canada.

That’s the goal for the world rugby body, get countries where the sport already has a following but which could be expanded. And there’s a lot to like. It’s a game built on courage and stamina, strategy and speed.

It’s also a game of great sportsmanship that has long been lost in other popular sports. Players can pound the daylights out of each other then go and have a beer together afterwards.

After the Canada/France game, the winning French players showed their respect for the Canucks by lining up in two lines at the entrance to the dressing rooms and clapped as the Canadian players passed through the lines.

It’s an old game, the father of North American football and it’s well worth checking out on TSN.

You’ll need your PBR because most of the games are played at our night time.