Saturday, April 03, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - Rugby

I had to laugh at Neil explaining first what a hooker was and then what a scrum was to fellow US blogger Kevin with contributions from Ramana. To illustrate, Neil used a photo of a Rugby League scrum. Now its years since League actually had anything approaching a scrum. Really, League scrums are just an opportunity for the forwards to catch their breath!

Brumbies_Sharks_Scrum This photo shows the Brumbies and Sharks packing down for a scrum in a recent Super 14 Rugby Union round. Now that's a scrum!

Now rules change all the time, and I do not pretend to be up to date, but subject to correction a comment on the arcane world of Rugby football.

In Rugby League, each team has thirteen players broken into six forwards and seven backs. Rugby union adds two more to the forward pack, making fifteen players in all.

The two codes have different rules and historical origins. Union comes from the world of the British public school, the break-away League from the industrial world of North England. Reflecting these different backgrounds, the old class based joke in the days when Union was a strictly amateur sport stated that Union was a thugs' game played by gentlemen, League a gentleman's game played by thugs! 

In both games as in most ball games, the objective is to get the ball to the other end of the field to score by either putting the ball down (a try) or kicking it between the goal posts (a goal). In doing so, you have to meet specific rules.

George_Smith_large_image_33   Traditionally, the forwards are the grunt, the raw power who get the ball for the faster backs. The photo shows the Brumbies' George Smith ( a flanker or breakaway) clearing the ball to the backs.

The scrum is a set piece play. The ball is put into the scrum and then hooked back.

In a Rugby League scrum, there are six players on each side in a three (front row), two (second row), one (lock) combination. Union adds two more, breakaways or flankers. These players have different roles.

The front row consists of two prop forwards who hold up the hooker who hooks for the ball. The two second rows provide power and forward momentum (or, rather, used to in the case of League) to try to push the other side off the ball, while the lock binds the scrum. In Union, the breakaways add further power.

I played both League and Union, but especially Union, and in all forward positions except hooker as well as wing.

At the time I was playing, as the scrum broke up, the front and second row forwards followed the ball forward, the lock moved back and sideways to provide cover defence, while the job of the faster breakaway was to get out into the opposition back line to try to stop the ball carrier. Breakaway was my favourite position!

97896611_10_(Large) Two of the biggest differences between League and Union lie in the treatment of the ball when it goes out of the field of play. In League, there is a scrum. In Union, forwards from both sides line up and the ball is thrown in.

When I played, the forwards were not allowed to lift another player in the line out. This is now allowed, creating some spectacular shots.

The second difference lies in the treatment of the ball when a player is tackled. In League, the tackled player plays the ball, in Union a ruck (a mini-scrum) is formed.

Both games have changed enormously over recent years.

When I played at school, I was 13 stone (83 kilo), 6 feet (182cm) and could run 100 yards in full gear in 11 seconds. This made me taller, heavier and faster than average. No more, I fear. 

In Union in particular, all the players are bigger, heavier and faster than they were. This is true across the board, but is especially noticeable in the forwards. Even at school boy level, I would no longer rank as a bigger player. Further, rule changes designed to make the game faster and a much greater level of professionalism even at school boy level mean that Union is no longer the game as I knew it.

I actually reported on this back in  June 2007 in a A Very Sporting Day - interesting but also odd, when I went to see my old school play football. One was the shock of finding just how small I was compared to the school boy teams.

All this has had some odd but interesting results. 

IMG_0044 To illustrate this, I thought that I would use a photo that might appeal to Neil, showing a Sydney Boys High and a TAS (The Armidale School) team playing in Armidale.

Now both SBH and TAS are members of the NSW Greater Public Schools, so at TAS I played against SBH as well as other GPS schools. As a smaller school, TAS could usually hold its own against SBH, but struggled against bigger Rugby focused Sydney GPS schools with something approaching professional Rugby coaching.

Now track forward. SBH has pulled out of the GPS Rugby competition, while TAS even with something approaching professional coaching now generally plays against lower grade teams, something that would have been inconceivable in my day.

It's partly a matter of size in student numbers.  TAS student numbers have more than doubled, but some Sydney schools have gone up three or four times.

It's partly a matter of interest. When I was at TAS, Rugby was the winter sport. Now there are many more sports. The number of TAS boys playing Rugby has increased at a slower rate than the number of students. This is less true than some of the other Rugby mad Sydney schools.

It's also a matter of changing ethnicity in the student body. SBH as a selective school has been drawing an increasing number of students from Asian backgrounds who are, in general, smaller boned than European Australian students. You can actually see this in the above photo. The predominantly European TAS boys are far bigger.

The problem this created for SBH in a fast contact sport is not just of size of loss in point score, but also risk for the students. Even though the rules have been changed to increase protection, Rugby Union is actually a far more dangerous game now than it was when I played. I saw more injuries at the single school carnival that I went to in June 2007 than I had in my entire Rugby playing career.

This, by the way, is not an attack on Rugby, simply an observation. The harder and more professional the game, the greater the risks to be managed, especially where teams are unequal.      

The ethnicity bias translates across into the senior game in both Union and League.

In Union with its demands for speed and size, the taller and bigger Pacific Islanders are playing an ever increasing role in both Australia and New Zealand. By contrast, In League as in Australian Rules, the generally smaller Aboriginal players are disproportionately represented.

One interesting side-effect of all this is that player swaps between Union and League are now dominated, I think, by the backs. The forward game and those who play it have become just too different.

In finishing this post, I wanted to find a photo for Kevin of the USA Rugby Union team in action or, indeed of the one match I played against a US or Canadian school team. Perhaps another time.


And the last game of Rugby I played? It was winger for the Australian National University in the ACT Molonglo League competition. We were thrashed by HMAS Harmon. Our defence was so weak that I still remember trying to mark their entire back line, chasing the ball as it went across the back line, trying to bluff as much as anything else. Sometimes it worked, I did stop a number, but more often not.  


Anonymous said...


George Smith plays for the Brumbies not the Broncos!

Also, surely the main difference btw the two games is that Union is played by gentlemen and League is played by thugs!


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jamie, correction made. As to the second, I did refer to the old joke, but beyond that I won't buy in!

Rummuser said...

Jim, I just wanted to find out whether hooker had any connection to the American use of the word. Never having played or been interested in Rugby, as it is perceived here to be a game for snobs, I did not know the terms. Neil's and Kevin's repartee got me to research and I am now a bit more knowledgeable about the game. Though the Indian women's team is in the news, the game is still perceived to be a snob's game for men.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. If you look at the history of Rugby you can see where the snob element comes in. Interesting about the Indian women's team. It's not something that I would have expected.