Rugby: REALLY not a Game for Sissies

by | May 1, 2011 | Arts and Culture, Pretoria | 27 comments

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.

My sports photography leaves a lot to be desired, but you get the idea.

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.

Flags for sale outside Loftus Stadium.

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.

A friendly biltong salesman and his plastic Blue Bull.

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 didn’t find drunk tailgaters, but I did find cute little boys playing on the practice fields outside the stadium.

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.

Baby Bulls.

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.

I don’t care how cheap the beer is. You couldn’t pay me to push my way in there. It was like a rugby scrum times a thousand. The uncrowded second floor must be part of the club level.

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.

The view from the top of the stadium. I know I look disheveled and you probably think I just crawled out of that beer scrum. I swear to god I didn’t.


  1. Kathryn McCullough

    How fun! And how did I not know that rugdy inspired our football? Where have I been? Oh, that’s right, Haiti! Seriously, this is a great post, Heather!

    • 2summers

      Thanks Kathy. I didn’t know myself until recently, when I decided to research it.

  2. lisa@notesfromafrica

    Love the photos and descriptions and especially your interpretation of the rules! Will have to show Willie this post when he returns.

    I was also wondering what the “Blue” Bulls are going to do about the Vodacom colour change. Those baby bulls are very cute!

    • 2summers

      Glad you liked it! I still have a lot to learn about the rules but it was a good start.

  3. tony

    Hey…..about rugby and dance lessons, attitude etc, check out ‘haka dance’ by the ‘All Blacks’ rugby team on you tube. awesome, raw and intimidating.
    it is a tribal war dance that the New Zealand team performs before a rugby game and i think it earns them 25 points even before the match starts. i believe you will like it 🙂

  4. tony

    Hey 2summers…..about rugby and dance lessons, attitude etc, check out ‘haka dance’ by the ‘All Blacks’ rugby team on you tube. awesome, raw and intimidating.
    it is a tribal war dance that the New Zealand team performs before a rugby game and i think it earns them 25 points even before the match starts. i believe you will like it 🙂

    • 2summers

      Oh yes, I’ve seen the haka dance on YouTube and I love it. I tried to go to the game between the All Blacks and Springboks at Soccer City last year (it happened right after I moved to SA) but it was sold out.

      I would love to see Ray Lewis do a guest appearance with the All Blacks 🙂

  5. Derek Smith

    The kids play without boots as that the way it’s been since time immemorial – only in high school do you start playing with proper boots. Don’t ask me why, I just don’t know maybe because one outgrow the boots. I actually played rugby in a rugby game twice on that field when I was in High School in age group school-finals (and lost twice!). Loftus is hallowed ground for hardcore Bulls supporters.

    • 2summers

      I guess it’s not surprising that kids play rugby barefoot, given that kids don’t seem to wear shoes much at all in this country. It was one of the first things I noticed when I got here…a 12-year-old kid walking barefoot through a shopping mall? Or out in the street, where he could step on a piece of glass?! Unheard of in the United States — we’re way too overprotective for that 🙂

      That’s cool that you played at Loftus. Must have been quite an experience.

      • Derek Smith

        It was a long time ago but it was special and I stopped playing the game at school and haven’t been to a live game for close on 15 years now. Yes, in Primary School it was quite common to go to school barefoot in summer. Good old South African habit, I dunno if its still allowed.

  6. Derek Smith

    It was a long time ago but it was special playing on the main field. I stopped playing rugby at school and haven’t been to a live game for close on 15 years now. Yes, in Primary School it was quite common to go to school barefoot in summer. Good old South African habit, I dunno if its still allowed.

  7. Fidel

    I can’t help but laugh when I think about meeting a Bulls’ S. African fan with their accent telling me how much they love the Blue Bulls and me asking to repeat, thinking I’m hearing them see how much they love blue balls.

    I like how you share these new experiences with us.

    When I went to Sydney in 2009, I got to attend my first professional match. Luckily, I was with a local who explained the rules of rugby to me so by halftime I had an idea of what was going on, particularly how possession changed hands.

    Last weekend I was at the pub in Tokyo and prior to the Manchester United match, they were playing a live Super Rugby match between a team from SA and another from Australia. I had to wiki ‘super rugby’ because I was not familiar with the league. I wonder how much travel time it takes to get from AUS or NZ to SA. Seems like the home teams would have a very distinct advantage because of that.

    • 2summers

      While writing this post, I kept double-checking my work to make sure I typed “Bulls” and not “Balls.”

      Interesting point about the travel time. I think the teams tend to take extended road trips to one side or the other to reduce traveling time. The Bulls had been in Australia and New Zealand for a few weeks before this most recent match.

  8. amblerangel

    Rugby- the only game I will not let Offspring #1 play- now you know why…

    • 2summers

      I was relieved to see that the little kids were playing “flag” rugby. So no tackling (officially) although I saw a lot of kids on the ground.

  9. eremophila

    I’m astounded this game is able to continue – really! There’s a high incidence of brain injuries and spinal cord damage, from this game- more so than other forms of contact sport. Makes me think of Roman Gladiators……

    • 2summers

      It is quite gladiator-like.

  10. tomorrowslices

    Loved hearing about a rugby match from an American viewpoint – yet another cultural experience!

    • 2summers

      I really enjoy experiencing new sports. I still need to go to a soccer (football) match. Not actually a new sport for me but I know it will be a new experience watching it here.

  11. Majuba

    Interesting to read a visitors perception on the “National Religion” in SA

    For the benefit of overseas readers most boys start playing rugby in school from about the age of 8. Playing barefoot is particular to the old Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape provinces. In Natal we wore rugby boots right from the start. I think the reason for bare feet is to save money and safety. Perhaps a Vaalie could enlighten me.

    Rugby at high school is serious stuff with the top senior schools pulling in crowds of a few thousand when they play a major rival. By this stage the players with talent and aspirations have set their sights on representing their country.

    After school players join clubs and it is an amateur game but any serious players hope to catch the eye of the Provincial selectors and make the Provincial team – e.g Western Province, Eastern Province, KZN Sharks – and compete in the domestic Currie Cup tournament.

    Once here they knock on the door of the southern hemisphere Super 14 League and they go professional if selected for their franchise – The Sharks, Blue Bulls/ Blou Bulle, Stormers, Cheetas etc.

    The final level of achievement is to be the best of the best in your country and make the national squad of 30 players. The SA national team is known as The Springboks and their traditional and arch rivals are The All Blacks from New Zealand.

    Every 4 years a World Cup tournament is held to determine which is the best national rugby team in the world. South Africa have participated 4 times and won it twice. Other winners have been Australia – 2 wins out of 6 attempts, New Zealand – 1 win out of 6 attempts, and England – 1 win out of 6 attempts. The 2011 Rugby World Cup is in progress right now in New Zealand. Semi-finals this weekend (Oct15) followed by the final on Oct 22. It was a bad day on Sunday Oct. 9 when SA were beaten by Australia 11-9 in the quarter finals. The prize at the end of all this effort is to hold aloft a golden trophy called the Webb Ellis Cup – affectionately known as “Bill”. William (Bill) Webb Ellis is credited with creating the game of Rugby when in a schoolboy football (soccer) match at Rugby School in England in 1823 he picked up the round ball, ran with it and dived over the opposition goal line to score a “try” (touchdown). Continuing with handling the ball opposition players then tackled the ball carrier with their hands and so the game evolved The game became known as Rugby Football as opposed to Association Football (soccer). To complicate matters further today there are two codes of rugby. Rugby Union played by a squad of 22 players with a maximum of 15 on the field at any time. Rugby League is played by teams of 13 on the field. The rugby described in this article is Rugby Union. League was originally the professional game and Union was amateur until about 15 years ago.

    How about publishing some pictures of tackles, line-outs, rucks, mauls, goal kicks, drop kicks, and punts to give your US readers a deeper insight into the greatest contact sport on planet earth Heather?

    You may find that if you attend a KZN Sharks match in Durban or a Western Province Stormers match in Cape Town you will be surrounded by English speakers. That is how the language demographics of the country are.

  12. bloues

    Excellent post. And you went to Loftus as well. That’s something. I’m a bit a rugby and Bulls fanatic, as you can see in my blog. (Uysh is the blog’s main administrator, but I write something from time to time.)

    • 2summers

      Cool, I’ll check it out!

  13. chuckv88

    Great post again… like all your others!

  14. Mike79

    One of the first things you notice when you come to South Africa is that most kids go around barefoot. My first memory of arriving in Johannesburg was visiting a fast food restaurant on a Friday night. The place was crammed with barefoot boys donning rugby shirts and shorts. It was winter and the temperature was decidedly cold underfoot. My South African host laughed when I made comment and asked whether they leave their boots outside the door? He said bluntly that boys play rugby in their barefeet in RSA and this was entirely normal. He also told me it was culturally acceptable for children to go barefoot to shopping malls and cinemas etc.

    • 2summers

      I know, it’s hard getting used to that here. I’ve seen kids walking barefoot in the hospital before!


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