We’re all familiar with the undeniable fact that we and our British cousins are divided by a common language. A heavy sports weekend has, for me, sharpened our cultural distinctions.
Here, we’re in the middle of college and NFL football, the playoffs and World Series in baseball, and the upcoming start of practice in college basketball. But the rest of the English-speaking world, and, increasingly, European countries like Italy and France, are in the middle of the Rugby World Cup.
I took a timeout from the Saints’ fairly easy road game over the weekend to watch the beginning of a World Cup match between New Zealand and Canada, and remembered fondly my attachment for the sport, formed in multiple trips to England, many beers discussing the relative merits of, say, Fiji and Swaziland, club rugby involving one of my best friends, Nick Brown, and the inevitable team drinking party after the match, which, shall we say, requires more all-American skill than the sport itself.
I once had occasion to toast Brown, at his wedding in fact, and thanked him for introducing me to the sport. However, in watching Brown play, I had the idea the object of the game was to run away from the ball and avoid contact with other players at all costs. Brown took umbrage to this description, of course, but I happened to have photographic proof: a picture of a soaking wet Brown dragging his far-too-old body off the rugby pitch after a particularly chastening exercise on a muddy field in Kent.
Throughout the English-speaking world, the sport truly has an international following. So it’s not unusual to see the traditional “Haka,” a pre-game ritual based on a Maori war chant performed by the New Zealand national team, the All-Blacks, on a pub wall in the City of London financial district. And my English friends on Facebook commented this week on Ireland’s win over Italy (they don’t like Italians much) and, of course, they always love to see the French lose. For a recent demonstration of rugby fanaticism, see the wonderful movie Invictus which covered the South African Springboks and their win of the Cup in 1997 in Johannesburg.
Then there’s the post-game show.
I once attended an 8 a.m. game in Canterbury to see Brown sort of play rugby with his club, which was called the Stoats. A stoat is a fairly evil little creature that hangs out in the hedgerows throughout the Kentish countryside surrounding the cathedral town. It was cold, wet, and nasty, the flip side to Thomas Hobbes’ 17th-century description of the average English life as nasty, brutish, and short. Brown had promised me breakfast, which I eagerly awaited on this particular day, and found out when I got there that his idea of a morning repast was my own personal flask of bourbon. I don’t drink bourbon. However, hunger and the coming cold combined (conspired?) to encourage me to choke it down. Things went south from there.
By the time we made it to The Old Locomotive, the pub on a corner downtown directly across from the train station (which will be relevant later), I had consumed all the bourbon, a few odd beers, and a bag of crisps (potato chips). We had been promised food at the pub, but all the team members got to it first and I was left wanting like a character in a Dickens orphanage.
The last clear thing I remember from that adventure was an episode crowning the Man of the Match, who was celebrated not for his prowess on the field, but for spending the night before with a less than attractive female partner. He was hoisted up on a tabletop, stripped naked, covered in beer and tossed out the back door. This was winter, very cold outside, and the only way he could get back to what was left of his clothes (most had burned when thrown on top of a candle) was to circle the block and bang on the locked front door. While he did this, a trainload of tourists unloaded up the street.
Then there are, of course, the rugby songs, which include such hits as “I Don’t Want to Join the Army,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and other unmentionable titles with equally unmentionable lyrics. My musician son Stratton picked up on a couple of these when he was in middle school, leading a whole subgroup of American youngsters in celebrating the finer points of the game.
As for this weekend’s games, the All-Blacks crushed Canada, and the United States Eagles, while playing very well in a competitive sport, were eliminated. Oh well, we can’t be outstanding at everything. And judging by the pickup game I once saw in Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon, the Brits won’t catch up with us in REAL football for the next century or so.
Among us and our cousins, spectator sports provide an outlet and a social opportunity. Casey at the Bat is just a rugby team with a bad run. I hope your team won this weekend and put a smile on your face.
See you on the flip.