If you don’t know what a grubber, a maul, a scrum, or a Garry Owen are, this fall you’ll have six incredible weeks’ worth of one of the toughest sports on earth within which to learn: the seventh Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 9 and runs until October 23.
“The World Cup is a six-week rugby celebration,” says the USA Rugby head coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, who was previously the head coach of Ireland’s World Cup teams in 2003 and 2007. “There’s an esprit de corps. When you’re a part of it, when you have a chance to experience it, it stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Just like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, the international rugby competition is held every four years, and this year, it’s returning to New Zealand for the first time since the inaugural tournament, in 1987, cohosted with Australia. Teams representing twenty nations will play a total of forty-eight matches, with the semifinals and the final set for Auckland’s historic Eden Park.
“In less than a quarter century, the Rugby World Cup is now rivaling some of the biggest events in the world,” says O’Sullivan. “There’s been a tremendous acceleration in our sport during a very short period of time.”
"When you're a part of it, when you have a chance to experience it, it stays with you for the rest of your life."
– Eddie o'sullivan
The winning team claims ownership of the William Webb Ellis Cup, named after a student at the Rugby School, in England, who allegedly invented the sport in 1823. In much the same way that the myth of Abner Doubleday as the creator of baseball in 1839 will live forever, so too does the legend of Mr. Ellis. Regardless, it makes a great story, and in Australia, the trophy is known affectionately as the Bill.
The tournament itself has a simple structure: There are four pools of five countries each. Every team plays four games, and the top two from each pool move on to the knockout stage, where the eight remaining teams fight for the title. Of the six previous World Cup winners, five have been Southern Hemisphere teams—Australia (twice), South Africa (twice), and New Zealand—with only England breaking through for the Northern Hemisphere in 2003. Surprisingly, despite having some of the strongest teams in the world, the only time New Zealand won the tournament was the very first year it was played. “If someone had said back then that New Zealand’s All Blacks wouldn’t win the World Cup again in nearly twenty-five years, I’d have said they were crazy,” says O’Sullivan.
History be damned: Experts still pick New Zealand as one of the clear favorites in 2011, along with Australia, England, and the defending champs, South Africa. Players to keep an eye on include Daniel Carter, the fly-half for New Zealand, widely regarded as the best in the world; Chris Ashton, England’s speedy winger; and the USA Rugby winger Takudzwa Ngwenya, who scored the “Try of the Tournament” in 2007 with a stunning run against South Africa’s Bryan Habana, generally thought to be the fastest player in the game.
O’Sullivan is cautiously optimistic about USA Rugby’s chances. Nicknamed the Eagles, the team has earned the right to play in five of the previous six tournaments, winning one game each in 1987 and 2003. This year they find themselves in a formidable pool, matched up against Australia, Ireland, Italy, and Russia. “We’ll have our hands full,” says O’Sullivan. “Normally we wouldn’t be expected to compete with teams like Australia and Ireland. But in a one-shot tournament situation like this, we’re going to throw the kitchen sink out there. And who knows? We might be able to scare the pants off of them.” The USA captain, Todd Clever, agrees: “We’re not just going to show up,” says the twenty-eight-year-old, who is preparing for his third World Cup. “We want to go and turn some heads. A lot of our guys are young, and while experience might not be on our side, our athletic ability is great.”
Clever, the poster boy for USA Rugby, hails from Northern California. He was the first player from the United States to earn a professional contract to play in the Super 14, now the Super 15 (the best teams from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand). He’s now playing professionally in Japan, where his team won the championship this past season, and he’s looking forward to stepping into the madness of New Zealand as the captain of the USA team. “The place is going to be buzzing. And since I played there for two years, it’s going to be a bit of a homecoming for me, too.”
O’Sullivan describes Clever as “the spiritual leader of the game” and “the face of our team and our country,” a country that, despite making huge strides in participation and development, is still basically in its infancy compared with the rest of the World Cup field. “The truth is, we’ll be competing against fully professional teams, and half of our players are amateurs who have day jobs and families and are just making incredible sacrifices to play this game,” says O’Sullivan. “But that’s part of what I love about USA Rugby—the dedication and commitment to a sport that for the most part is under the radar. And that dedication shows in how we play, too. My team wears their heart on their sleeves, and we always leave everything on the field.”
No matter who snags the Bill, it’s sure to be another remarkable tournament. “The incredible thing about the Rugby World Cup is that there’s always something shocking, something unusual, something memorable that defines each and every Cup,” says O’Sullivan. “Who knows what will happen this time?”
A rugby league playing field, or pitch, is approximately one hundred meters (328 feet) by seventy meters (229.7 feet). A match consists of two forty-minute halves, although, as in soccer, the referee can add additional time due to injuries.
There are fifteen players on each side—eight forwards and seven backs. Forwards are bigger and stronger, while backs tend to be faster and are usually the main scorers.
To move the ball downfield, players can only pass it backward or laterally (never forward) or they can kick it. Blocking is not allowed. A scrum is similar to a tip-off in basketball—with all eight forwards coming together to restart a play and then fighting to move the ball in the right direction.
Scoring: a try, when the ball is grounded into the in-ground area (basically, a touchdown), is worth five points. A conversion kick after a try is worth two points. A successful drop kick or penalty kick scores three points.
A Garry Owen (named after the famous Irish rugby club, Garryowens)—also known as an “up and under”—is when a team kicks the ball very high and very short, giving themselves a chance to run under the ball, put pressure on the other team or even get the ball back themselves.
A grubber is when the ball is intentionally kicked end over end so it takes erratic bounces, which makes it either difficult to grab or gives the kicking team a chance to recover.
A maul happens when the player with the ball is held by an opponent and his teammates connect to him (bind). When players on the other team join in and the ball is not moving forward, the ref then awards a scrum to the team without the ball, giving them the opportunity to pass the ball through the legs of the pile and break free.
Lane Strauss is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He has written for ESPN The Magazine, Cleveland Magazine, and Ohio Magazine. His new book, Extra Innings, can be found at lanestrauss.com.