The Manliest Sport (From Inside the Scrum)
In rugby, a score is called a "try" — as in try this game once and you'll carry the injury forever. Tweet
In rugby, there’s mauling practice, where players from both teams wrap around the ball carrier and push with all their might. And the scrum.
And the ruck. This brutal, beautiful, simple contact sport was invented by…schoolboys.
There was blood in the mud, and bile and saliva, and no little bit of sweat. Most certainly sweat.
I’m prone at the bottom of the pile with the ball under me. There is, literally, a ton of writhing, snorting humanity on my back.
No one goes looking for the manliest sport to play. If so—if you were to drawn by the appeal of a game few men would dare to take up—that would be precisely the wrong reason. That’s how you get in over your head. That’s how you get destroyed.
No, rugby has to come to you.
This brutal, beautiful, simple contact sport was invented by…schoolboys.
You might first go to a practice from curiosity; you might even run laps and loosen up with the players, listen to a pep talk from the coach. And maybe you take part in a ball handling drill, and you didn’t drop a pass, even though they were coming at you sideways (because, as you’re learning, in this game you can’t throw downfield), and it dawns on you, this isn’t so hard.
But then contact practice starts, and the manly factor starts kicking up. There’s one-on-one tackling, with a ball carrier coming right at you with a 20-yard headwind. There’s rucking practice, the thing that happens after the tackle, as arriving players step over the tackled player and collide with one another trying to secure the ball.
I also had to learn a new language. For instance, a “try” is what you score when you cross the goal line and touch down the ball in the in-goal area; and a “line out” is what you do when the ball goes “into touch” (out of bounds) by having parallel lines of players jump for a ball thrown from where it went out.
It took no time to get the hang of the names of the positions: They’re largely self-descriptive. The props prop up the hooker who hooks the ball in the scrummage; the locks lock everyone in the scrummage together; the flankers flank the scrummage; the Number 8 is in the back and holds the scrummage together. Meanwhile the “backs”—i.e., the faster players, usually with better haircuts—are inside, outside, wings, and fullback, facilitated by the scrumhalf, who whips the ball out of the scrummage to the backs.
This brutal, beautiful, simple contact sport was invented by…schoolboys. William Webb Ellis, the celebrated-but-apocryphal inventor of the game, would have been 17-years-old when he discovered the joys of running with a soccer ball “in a fine disregard for the rules of football,” which is what it says on his statue at Rugby School in Rugby, England. The teenage thrill of the game remains baked in, as everyone on the field can run the ball, kick the ball, and tackle the crap out of the other team.
But, oh, the memories! For if you stick with rugby, rugby will give you things you will think about well into your post-rugby years, which will be few, since players over-35 still compete in “Old Boys” competitions around the world.
Come with me now on a journey to the bottom of a scrummage.
The 80-minute rugby match had gone on for more than an hour without either team crossing the goal line for a try. But not for want of trying. There was blood in the mud, and bile and saliva, and no little bit of sweat. Most certainly sweat.
How many scrum downs on this slick surface had we survived already? But we dutifully pack down again, uncomplaining, like heavy, burdened farm animals called to duty. We just do what we’re supposed to do, what we were trained to do, and that is to scrum down against Old Red’s front row as if our lives depend on it.
We are bent into our crouches, ready to attack. Steam is rising from our backs, adding an otherworldly dimension to the field. The fetid, stale smell inside the scrum is redolent of gym bags and old socks, with a tincture of last night’s Jägermeister.
I am our team’s Number 8, with just one thing on my mind: Score a try. My scrumhalf will be pissed—he expects me to leave the ball for him to pick up—but I know I am our best chance.
The referee calls the packs together, and 16 beasts of burden respond with a collective grunt. The props slam shoulders, the hookers swat at the ball the scrumhalf has rolled between the packs; the flankers shove as if their love lives depend on it (they might); and the Number 8, me, pulls everyone together and shoves us forward. It’s not chaos, although it looks like it; it’s more like tightly choreographed modern dance.
The momentum of our push drives Old Red backward, and gives me an opportunity to pick up the ball that has worked its way to my feet. I gather it up and burst in a low scramble for five yards to the goal line where I am met by Old Red’s lanky flyhalf and their formidable flanker. The meat-on-meat collision, with their shoulders on my ribs and legs, feels like a car wreck, but the impact is oddly painless, at least for now. I keep my legs driving through the tackle until I see the chalk of the wet goal line beneath me. I need to push the ball to the ground to get the five points, to win the “try”; if I can’t touch the ball down, it’s a turnover, and that’s unthinkable, we’ve all worked too hard to get us this far…
Now I’m prone at the bottom of the pile of humanity with the ball under me. My teammates collectively drive Old Red’s pack past me and end up on top of me. There is, literally, a ton of writhing, snorting humanity on my back, and I see flashes of muddy metal cleats just inches from my eyes. From somewhere in the muffled near distance, a whistle blows, long and loud. A cheer goes up. Try awarded.
The game is over and we’ve won by three. Soon after, I’m at the bar, next to a guy who just spent 80 minutes trying to destroy me, the blood on his left eyebrow just now coagulating, and he’s handing me a frothy pint and lifting his own to tap mine.
We’ll be seeing each other again in a few short weeks, back on the battlefield of rugby, but for now, it’s time for a beverage and a song.