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1999 Ugly American Tour - Rugby for Yanks

By Leora Blumberg, Rugby Producer

Before writing the rules, regulations and terms piece for the Rugby World Cup, I received a request from several of the blokes in the office that I scribe a piece specifically for Americans who haven't a clue as to how rugby is played.

Many have the misconception that it's a bunch of large men lumbering around a field with no real plan of action, when in reality this is far from the truth. As a friend of mine said, rugby looks like "kill the man with the ball."

Question: Is rugby a poor European excuse for American football?
Answer: Living in the good old U.S. of A., this question is often put to me, although not normally in such an inflammatory manner.

Some of the basic differences between rugby and American football are that unlike in American football, where there are defensive and offensive squads, basically all the players on a rugby field play the entire game, except for those that are replaced by reserves.

Unlike in American football, where players are constantly coming on and off the field, rugby players need to be prepared to play a full 80 minutes and be able to attack and still defend when necessary. I am hard pushed to imagine, for example, the Denver Broncos offensive linemen lasting more than a continuous five minutes before gasping for air and looking plaintively to the sideline for respite.

Another major difference is that rugby players -- unlike the wimps of American football -- don't wear pads. On the other hand, in rugby it's illegal to knock down any man without the ball.

Probably one of the biggest differences between the two sports is -- and let me say this slowly -- you cannot pass the ball forward in rugby.

The forwards could be described as (offensive and defensive) linemen, where the scrumhalf, who collects the ball, could be regarded as the center. Instead of a quarterback, rugby has the fly-half (the man to whom the scrumhalf often passes), and he often decides when the side should run with the ball or kick to gain territorial possession. The four wingers would serve much the same job as wide receivers and running backs. And if my understanding of American football is correct, a rugby fullback is equivalent to an NFL defensive back.

Question: Is hooker a technical term?
Answer: This question is often accompanied by a grimace of disbelief, but yes, it is a player's position and nothing to do with his off-field occupation. The hooker is the man in the middle of the front row of the scrum. His position receives its name from his responsibility in the scrum, where it is his job to hook the ball with his feet from his opposing number and back heel it to another player.

Question: Where do the names for the positions come from?
Answer: Players are basically divided into the forwards (who are those players in the scrum and the line-outs) and the backs. The name "forwards" comes from the scrum and describes their position. The backs, on the other hand, are the players outside the scrum.

Question: Has no one died or been paralyzed in a game? And if so, why no move to pads or helmets?
Answer: In answer to the first question -- unfortunately people are severely hurt and some even killed in rugby every so often -- most often I have known this to be the case with amateurs who get over-enthusiastic and do something illegal (i.e. a high tackle, which can break the neck). The decision not to move to pads and helmets has obviously been taken by the International Rugby Board (IRB) probably because it would change the spirit of the game.

Question: I've always wondered about the refs & those silly white uniforms with brim hats? And where'd they come up with the signal they give when someone scores a goal? I think that's what many Yanks remember about Aussie rugby.
Answer: Sorry to tell you, but that isn't rugby union or even rugby league that you're thinking about. That's Australian Rules Football, a completely different sport.

Question: What's with the goofy nicknames for countries (Wallabies, All Blacks)?
Answer: Most countries are named after indigenous animals and plants. The All Blacks are so-called because the uniforms are almost completely all black except for the ever-present silver fern on the jersey.

Question: Why are rugby players always diving into the end zone?
Answer: First of all, it's not an end zone. Rugby players are crossing the try-line and the thing is, it's not enough to just cross the line, one also has to ground the ball in order to score a try.

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