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Rugby Fever

Rugby Fever

I didn’t know much about rugby when I got to London.  I’ve picked up a few tips over the past month because the quadrennial Rugby World Cup is taking place here and it’s causing rugby fever all over the country. The 20 participating teams have played more than 40 matches across England and Wales since September 18.  The tournament wraps up with the final match on October 31th.

Rugby is immensely popular in the UK.  According to Timeout magazine, more than 2.5 million Britons play on recreational Rugby teams.  A lot more certainly enjoy watching it.  There’ve been thousands of fans at the matches, and pubs are overflowing during the games.  Shops and newspapers across England have been exhorting fans to “wear the rose” to show their support for the home team.  The red rose is the official emblem of the English national rugby team.

The U.S. ranked 16th out of the 20 participating teams (our emblem is the eagle, in case you were wondering).  They played four matches – one against every team in their pool – and lost all four.  Of course rugby isn’t as popular in the U.S., although a variation called seven-a-side rugby is the fastest growing sport in America.  Maybe rugby fever will even hit the U.S. one day.

Today I went to a party for the semi-finals match between the South African Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks.  The reigning world-champion All Blacks have dominated the sport for the past five years.  They’re considered the best team ever to play the game.  They’re the favorites to win the tournament.

The party started at Ali’s house in Twickenham, not far from the stadium where the match was taking place.  We had chili and A LOT of proseco while we watched the first half of the game.  Before the kick-off, the All Blacks performed a traditional Maori chant called a haka.  There are hakas for many different occasions, such as welcoming special guests, celebrating accomplishments, and even for funerals.  The rhythmic stomping and clapping of a haka before a match proclaims a team’s strength and intimidates opponents.  Hakas are also seen at sporting events in other South Pacific countries, and apparently even in the U.S.  I discovered that the University of Arizona football team performs a haka before every home game.  Here’s a link to a video that shows the New Zealand All Blacks facing off against Tonga in a battle of the hakas earlier this year.

At halftime we moved the party to a pub near the stadium.  We wanted to stake out a spot before hordes of fans arrived for post-match partying, so we watched the rest of the game there.  The All Blacks won, but it wasn’t a walk in the park.  They were down by five points at half time.  During the break, their coach sent them back onto the field to practice drills in the pouring rain.  That impromptu practice did the trick.  The All Blacks managed to claw their way back to win the match 20 to 18.  That sets up a show-down between New Zealand and Australia in the final game of the tournament.

There were thousands of people in the streets of Richmond as I headed home, but the crowd was surprisingly well-behaved.  One gentleman on the train had lost the concept of personal space after a few drinks.  Other than that I didn’t see any of the rowdiness I was expecting, and my trip home was actually quite sedate.  Even in the grip of rugby fever, the Brits remain civilized.

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