Philly is Ready for Rugby
- Updated: March 3, 2013
The story goes that, during a soccer match in the fall of 1823, young William Webb Ellis caught a ball in mid-air and ran forward with it. In that moment, the sport that shares its name with Ellis’s school, Rugby, was born. Some people, including the speedy group of players known as ‘backs’, will agree with that story as the foundation of the game.
Others, however, will argue that the sport was truly born seconds later, when one of the defenders playing against Rugby School that day picked up young Master Ellis, pile-drived him face first into the turf, kicked him in the stomach and told him to keep his hands off the [expletive] ball.
Somewhere in the middle, the truth lies. Of course, somewhere in the middle also lies rugby, and that’s why I like it.
However the game was truly invented, there is no denying that rugby was birthed from soccer, and years later it mutated into our own form of football when someone decided that only throwing the ball backwards was for squares. Still, somewhere in between lies a sport that has the exciting elements of both soccer and American football, while leaving out parts of the game that, frankly, can be rather tedious.
The first rugby match I ever saw was a highlight show of a match between Canada and New Zealand during the 1991 Rugby World Cup. I knew that I was watching rugby because I had read about it once in a sports book that also had other sports I had never heard of or seen before (such as cricket and Australian Rules Football, both of which I have also picked up and embraced), and while it took me some time to pick up on some things, many elements of the game were instantly recognizable from soccer and football.
The first thing a novice to rugby will notice is that, like soccer, the game rarely stops. And when it does, there’s not much time to think about what’s going on, because restarts happen in an instant. When a player is tackled, he/she has to release it immediately to keep the play going, or they are penalized. No time outs, no huddles, no time wasting. You have to be able to improvise in an instant, because a single mistake or an odd bounce of the pill-shaped ball is either your road to glory or the dog-house. You have to be a shark, always moving, always thinking, because if you stop, you’re dead.
Elements of gridiron football in the sport are just as recognizable. The flurry of backward passes and misdirection plays recall memories of Army-Navy games. Backs breaking free of tacklers and going for long runs are the most exciting plays in the game. And of course, what red-blooded sports fan doesn’t like watching an aforementioned nimble back being knocked silly by a defending forward to thwart a possible scoring chance? Also, rugby scores resemble football scores. Sometimes they even resemble high school basketball scores (New Zealand 145, Japan 17, 1995 Rugby World Cup). But either way, everyone loves scoring.
Now, I was also asked to explain why Philadelphians would embrace rugby. There is a reason why the CRC 7’s are coming back to the region, and it’s not just because PPL Park is the best place to watch a sporting event ever in the history of mankind (a hyperbole, but really it is). It boils down to two things:
1) Philadelphia is a football town. Yes, we’ll sell out baseball games and hockey games, but I’ve been to a Phillies-Nationals game in DC and heard the E-A-G-L-E-S chant. We’ll even cheer for Penn State, and they’re four hours away. The similarity to football is obvious, but the fact that these lads shun pads and knock each other about recall the backyard football games of our youths.
2) Rugby 7’s makes its Olympic debut in three years. Philadelphia loves obscure Olympic sports. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who packed the arena at Drexel in 2008 to watch the Olympic table tennis trials. Or better yet, ask any of the sellout crowd (some of whom sat in bleachers on the ice) at the National Curling Championships in Aston last year. If it’s in the Olympics, and we’ve never seen it live before, we will jump at the chance to see it live.
Whatever the reason for doing so, the region and I are ready to embrace this sport and this tournament again as it makes its return. Much likes the varying opinions on the origins of rugby, there is no one reason for certain why we love it so.
But we’ll be there, in the middle of it all.