As we approach the start of what some claim is the third-largest sporting event in the world behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, it’s time to lay down some very clear markers as to why the tournament sits head and shoulders above other global rivals eyeing top spot. For the uninitiated, here’s 10 blindingly obvious reasons you should be paying close attention to the tournament come kickoff on Sept. 20:
1) The Rugby World Cup is a truly global competition
Unlike the “World” Series that is contested by 30 Major League Baseball teams in North America every year, teams from virtually every continent on the planet attempt to qualify for rugby’s biggest tournament in the World Cup cycle. Indeed, a mind-boggling 93 teams from Asia, Oceania, Africa, Europe and the Americas entered the qualification rounds for the 2019 tournament.
What’s more, previous competitions were hosted by the traditional heavyweights of the game: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France and the United Kingdom. This year’s installment will be the first in Asia and, while Japan is sure to welcome opposition teams with open arms, national head coach Jamie Joseph must be quietly hoping that visiting players will struggle to handle the extra layer of humidity on the pitch, the continued existence of squat toilets in public spaces and large bowls of nattō (fermented soy beans) at breakfast.
2) There’s a position on the field for every body type
Whatever your shape or size, there’s a position for you somewhere on the field.
Are you, er, slightly chunky and have incredible upper body strength but can’t run 100 meters in less than 60 seconds? Then you’re definitely a candidate for the front row, especially if you’re a couple of cans short of a six-pack upstairs. If you possess the same attributes and have absolutely no neck to speak of, you’re almost certainly a hooker — although there’s not quite enough space to really delve into the technical aspects of why this position is actually called what it is.
If you’re tall, athletic, love jumping and carry a fair amount of heft, then you’re a prospect for lock. Apologies if the description for this position appears to be rather ordinary compared to those mentioned above but it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the prosaic personalities involved at the heart of the engine room.
Love chasing a ball around endlessly during a game and are also able to perform a wide range of judo-like moves once a ruck has formed? If so, you’re a certainty for the loose forwards. All three loose forward positions are different, but it mostly boils down to whether you’re bulkier (blindside flanker), faster (openside flanker) or taller (No. 8).
Moving to the backs, if you’re short, weedy and are, without question, the most irritating teammate in the squad, you’re a prime candidate for scrumhalf.
The flyhalf is generally the best kicker in the squad. They’re also arguably the most intelligent and boast the most stylish haircut.
Turning to the centers, these players are generally the most all-round athletes on the field. Ideally, they’re big, strong, fast, tactically aware, highly skilled at attack and defense, and extremely adaptable in fluid play. They’re also the most likely to have nicknames like “Crash Bang” and almost certain to succumb to an injury before the tournament begins.
In the past, the fastest lanky players on a team who could catch but not pass a rugby ball were traditionally dead-cert candidates for the two wing positions on the flanks. In modern times, however, squads have tended to opt for bulkier players who have excellent finishing qualities and can create something out of nothing (think New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu vs. all four teams from the British Isles in 1995). Wingers these days also need to be solid under the high ball, so a pair of safe hands helps immensely, meaning we’ve come full circle.
Last but certainly not least, the fullback is ideally the most organized in the squad. As the last line of defense, they’ll typically clean up after their teammates, and either kick or run every single ball back in the opposite direction once they receive it. They’ll also generally be tasked with turning the lights out in the changing rooms once the game is over and everyone else has gone to the pub.
3) The shape of a rugby ball can create pandemonium
Rumor has it that the rugby ball was invented when a prop accidentally sat on a football, creating the ball’s unique oval shape. You could in theory play a game of rugby with a round-shaped ball, but there’s not much fun to be had in that, and the oval shape of a rugby ball can create some very random situations that can sometimes throw everyone — the commentary team included — a massive curve ball.
4) Each game lasts 80 minutes
This is important if only because viewers can finish watching a match 10 minutes earlier than a soccer game and what seems like a lifetime earlier than a MLB or NFL snoozefest. Most professional baseball and American football games last a little over three hours on average (and that’s not even considering how much time the ball is actually in play). And let’s not even get into the vagaries of a five-day cricket test match.
5) Rugby is always ‘a game of two halves’
This stock phrase seems to have been uttered by virtually every rugby captain and coach in post match interviews since the early 1990s. If you break it down carefully, it simply means one half of a rugby game is very different from the other — which, if you think about it for a second, is always going to be the case.
6) Rugby has a direct impact on beer sales
There’s almost certainly a noticeable uptick in beer sales whenever a game is on. Almost 2 million liters of beer was consumed during the 2015 tournament, of which an estimated 1.3 million liters was consumed at game venues. Domestic administrators of the game are so concerned about beer stocks over the next couple of months that they’ve already warned business operators in cities that host games to secure sufficient supplies in preparation for the estimated 400,000 fans from abroad.
7) Rugby encourages diversity
Some players play with their socks pulled up, others with their socks down.
In all seriousness, though, Rugby Australia stood up to star fullback Israel Folau earlier this year after the 73-cap Wallaby refused to take down a homophobic rant he had posted on Twitter, ripping up a four-year contract after finding Folau guilty of a high-level breach of the players’ code of conduct. If that’s not enough, openly gay Welsh referee Nigel Owens was handed the whistle for the 2015 Rugby World Cup final and was probably one of the tournament’s unsung heroes.
And who can forget the iconic image of a former black freedom fighter turned president handing the 1995 trophy over to the winning white captain from South Africa?
8) Rugby fuels stoicism
There’s a certain amount of admiration given to players who aren’t protected by the same level of padding as, say, those who play American football. Even players such as New Zealand’s Wayne “Buck” Shelford — who lost three teeth and sustained a large tear to his scrotum courtesy of a stray boot in a game against France in 1986 — simply had a quick shower before getting the injury “tidied up” and running back onto the field for the second half as if nothing had happened.
9) Rugby fans aren’t hooligans
There’s most certainly a gulf between the way rugby and soccer fans handle themselves at the stadiums, with authorities in Osaka reportedly gluing down stones on railway tracks in case they were picked up and hurled at riot police by English supporters during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. At Eden Park in Auckland, by comparison, All Black supporters are typically dressed in black and don’t really make any noise whatsoever during the game, making the occasion seem more like a funeral than an international sporting fixture. At Twickenham Stadium in London or Principality Stadium in Cardiff, however, you can expect to hear raucous singing from the home fans. Will Japanese rugby fans get into the same groove? It’s a bit hard to see “Kimigayo” delivered with the same gusto as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” but you can certainly expect to hear some extremely vocal home support.
10) Unlike soccer, diving is actually encouraged in rugby
Rugby certainly doesn’t have the same issues that soccer has in terms of players propelling themselves forward in a massive swan dive, although it’s obviously better if they’re somewhere over the tryline.