A few months ago I attended my first cricket match and learned that cricket is not a game for sissies. Yesterday I discovered rugby is not for sissies, either.
I’ve watched rugby on TV before, and I’ve seen Invictus. But nothing prepared me for the moment after the whistle blew, when I watched a guy catch the ball, run for a few seconds, and get slammed to the turf by a 1500-pound mob of muscle. Without pads or a helmet.
Last night the Blue Bulls of Pretoria (officially called the Vodacom Bulls, but I’ll get to that later) took on the Chiefs of Hamilton, New Zealand, in a Super Rugby match. Super Rugby is a conference comprising 15 professional teams from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The Super Rugby champion is officially the best rugby team in the Southern Hemisphere; the Bulls were the Super Rugby champs last year. There is also a Joburg-based Super Rugby team, the MTN Lions, which is the worst team in Super Rugby.
Photographing rugby is a big part of Joe’s job, but this is the first chance I’ve had to accompany him to a match. I was excited to see how rugby measures up to American football, which was originally inspired by rugby.
It was a perfect autumn day — the kind of weather my dad and I pray for on football Sundays in Baltimore. I said goodbye to Joe, bought a lower deck ticket for R100 ($14), and wandered around to soak in the atmosphere.
I was hoping to get pictures of crazy drunk tailgaters outside the stadium, but I couldn’t find any. There was no blaring heavy metal, no chest-bumping, no pounding of beer cans on foreheads. In other words, nothing like the football pre-game experience I’m accustomed to. I’m told this was a quiet rugby weekend because it’s a holiday and lots of people are out of town, and also because the Bulls are off to a slow start this season with a record of 5-5. And unlike the American football season, which runs for five months including playoffs, rugby season lasts for nine or ten months. It’s hard to maintain hard-core sports-fan hysteria for that long.
I waited for the gates to open and found my way to my seat. I chatted a bit with the friendly couple next to me, but we had trouble understanding one another. Afrikaans is the language of South African rugby. With the exception of the conversations I had myself, I heard almost no English at all. The PA announcer spoke Afrikaans first and then translated into English.
The pre-game show starred the same rugby players I’d been photographing outside on the practice field.
Eight lucky boys’ rugby squads got to go out on the field and compete before the match. No shoes allowed, presumably to protect the turf. This young man is scoring a “try” — the equivalent of an American football touchdown.
Finally it was time for the main event.
Flags are a big deal for South African sports fans. Note that these flags are half blue and half red. Vodacom, the Bulls’ title sponsor, recently changed its official color from blue to red. Not good news for the BLUE Bulls — the team’s branding is a bit schizophrenic now.
A couple of traditional “Blou Bulle” flags. Wikipedia says the team was called the Blue Bulls until 1998, when it became the Bulls. Everyone still calls them the Blue Bulls, but it seems like they should be called the Red Bulls now anyway.
As in my cricket posts, I won’t bore you by trying to explain the rules of the game. But I will say that I spent the first half of the match wincing. I’m used to seeing football players beat the crap out of each other, but those guys wear body armor and get to rest every five seconds. Rugby players are armor-less, and they play through each 40-minute half with few substitutions or timeouts. I can’t understand why there aren’t more broken legs, busted knees, and concussions among rugby players. I guess it’s because they aren’t sissies.
The scrum. When the official lowers his arm, the guy standing in the middle tosses the ball into the scrum, and the players push and shove and kick until the ball pops out and someone runs off with it.
So, rugby players aren’t sissies. But I personally feel they’re lacking in pizazz. Watch this video of Ray Lewis, the greatest American football player of all time (in my biased opinion), and you will understand what I mean.
There was none of this at last night’s match.
A few minutes into the match, I noticed something else was missing: Beer. No one was drinking any. What kind of madness was this? I went to investigate at halftime. Turns out that consuming alcoholic beverages is only allowed in cordoned-off bar areas. What a novel concept! Here is the bar closest to my seat.
The Bulls were trailing 20-13 at halftime, but came back and won the game 43-27. We had to leave early because Joe was having computer problems, so I can’t report on the post-match celebrations. But I’m guessing there was lots of flag-waving and singing of the Blue Bulls fight song, which I really dig (even though I don’t understand the words):
I’m looking forward to my next match. I just need to get Ray-Ray over here to give these guys some dance lessons.