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Bloodsport

New Zealand's All Blacks Prove That You Don't Need a Prep School Pedigree to Dominate the Rugby World
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 1)

World-class rugby is a viciously beautiful sport of blood-stained jerseys, dramatic open-field runs, artfully conceived set plays, bruises and occasional broken bones. Played without padding or other protection, it resembles American football in its running and kicking techniques, but its patterns are reminiscent of basketball. (The inventor of basketball, Canadian James Naismith, was an ardent rugger.) Like its descendant, American football, rugby's rhythm is staccato. Scrums of eight forwards a side mass together and fight for possession of a ball with their feet while the seven backs on each side watch.

Without warning, the ball eventually emerges from one end, to be snatched off the turf by a back stationed there for that purpose, and the runs and links and laterals commence. The object is to move the ball downfield without passing it forward, and a player who lands in the end zone with it touches it to the ground to score a try. That earns five points, and a two-point conversion attempt follows. Three-point penalty kicks are like field goals, as are drop-kicks. The field is larger than an American football field--110 by 75 yards compared to 100 by 53 1/3 yards--and the ball is slightly larger and rounder than an American ball. Each half is 40 minutes long, and there are no marching bands during the brief intermission.

The play is often dramatic and beautiful. One carrier can flip the ball to another a moment before getting pulled down, as if running American football's quarterback option. If all goes well, the next carrier will do the same, and so on down the line as play crosses from one side of the field to the other. The rules that govern the game are manifold, calling for frequent scrums and variations known as mauls and rucks. Bad rugby is as slow as bricklaying and as enjoyable to watch. Good rugby is exhilarating for players and fans alike.

For decades, rugby had no true international championship. The five Northern Hemisphere powers would regularly contest the Five Nations tournament to determine a champion among them, who then gained unofficial world title status. It was all very informal. Northern Hemisphere club rugby was--and still is--played as a weekend sport by teams with names like Barbarians and Wasps and Saracens. A crowd of several thousand spectators is considered ample.

The United States had a brief run of success in international rugby, winning the Olympic gold medal in 1920 and 1924; rugby hasn't been an Olympic sport since. Because America is outside the geographic orbit of the major rugby-playing nations, it hasn't been easy for the national side, known as the Eagles, to improve. Since 1977, when they toured England for the first time in 53 years, the Eagles have gone 14-40-2 in international competition. They are considered one of the best of the second tier of national clubs, which includes the likes of Denmark, Japan, Zimbabwe, Canada and Fiji.

Until 1987, an occasional transoceanic tour was all the exposure Northern Hemisphere teams had to their Southern counterparts. That year, following a lengthy debate initiated by Australia and New Zealand, rugby's leading teams gathered for their first World Cup. New Zealand's All Blacks won it, Australia's Wallabies won four years later and South Africa's Springboks upset Lomu and the All Blacks in 1995. As the British press never seems tired of repeating, the Northern teams have been shut out. It would be as if the world's best baseball teams were to gather regularly for a true World Series, and the United States never triumphed.

Even with the World Cup, England will see a top Southern club only every few years, which is why these international tours are so compelling. (The British teams also occasionally combine with Ireland to produce a touring side called the Lions.) To maximize the benefits and the gate receipts of a tour, matches take place on several levels. A full international test is the equivalent of a World Cup match, and the All Blacks have four on the 1997 trip: two against England, one against Wales and one against Ireland. They also have matches against the Welsh club team Llanelli in Swansea, Wales, and against the England and Wales "A" sides, which are a notch below the national selections. And they'll play exhibitions against England Rugby Partnership and the Emerging England youth team.

The early results of the British tour sound like old Soviet election returns. The All Blacks defeat Llanelli, 81-3, and beat up on Wales A, 51-8. At Dublin on November 15, the Irish national side manages little better. Playing without a fatigued Lomu, the All Blacks still overwhelm the Irish, 63-15, for a test victory. The same afternoon, Australia plays England at the national rugby grounds at Twickenham, where Australia's Wallabies had won their World Cup six years before. This time around, the two teams struggle to a 15-15 draw.

A week later, England meets New Zealand for the first rugby match ever played at Old Trafford, home to Manchester United's soccer team. Lomu plays and shows flashes of brilliance, setting up Ian Jones for one of the All Blacks' three tries in a 25-8 victory. Lomu's mere presence changes the geometry of the game. Even when he's off his form, five or six tacklers are often needed to stop his prodigious bulk, and because rugby allows no stopping during play, a concentration of defenders in one place inevitably spreads the rest of the defense too thin. Lomu attacks on one flank to draw a crowd, and the All Blacks cross the ball to the other wing and gain yardage.

That England receives a standing ovation from the crowd of 55,000 for, among other things, scoring its first home try against the All Blacks in 14 years, emphasizes how little is expected of the English squad. Of the 19 international matches between England and New Zealand dating back to 1905, England has won four.Not that other teams can do any better. The following week, the All Blacks beat Wales, 42-7, in a match played before 78,000 at Wembley Stadium in London, a temporary home for the Welsh while Cardiff Arms Park is gutted and rebuilt for the 1999 World Cup. Simultaneously, the English face South Africa at Twickenham. An enterprising spectator could manage to see some of both matches, though it is uncertain why he'd try. The Springboks squash England, 29-11. The idea of a Northern challenge at the '99 World Cup is beginning to seem laughable. London's bookies now favor New Zealand to defeat England at Twickenham by 33 points.


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