A to Z of rugby

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A to Z of rugby

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A is for All Blacks. New Zealand is notable for two things: sheep and having the best, most fearsome rugby team in the world. They won the inaugural world cup in 1987 and have been close in the three since. Rugby has been played in New Zealand since 1870 and the All Blacks first played arch-rivals Australia 100 years ago. New Zealanders are tough as teak, densely muscled and bear-like - and that's just the players' wives (old joke, but all the history was getting boring). The ur-All Black is lock-forward Colin Meads (nicknamed "Pine Tree"), who was generally described as"uncompromising", which means he liked to bite the heads off terrified opponents and spit them between the posts.

B is for backs. These are the princes of the game - the creative space-exploiters and try-scorers. There are seven of them and, not surprisingly, they play at the back, behind the eight forwards. Traditionally, forwards are very fat and drink huge quantities of beer (or, in the case of former England "prop" Colin Smart, aftershave), and backs are willowy, sylph-like and probably studied classics at Peterhouse, Cambridge. But times have changed: in the professional era, which began about 10 years ago, everyone has gone fitness crazy, and backs and forwards all now look the same: fit, bronzed, 17st, with rectangular heads.

C is for code. There are two rugby "codes" - union and league. The game split in 1895 between the exciting, dynamic 15-man amateur game (rugby union), which by then was spreading all over the world - or at least all over the empire - and the dull, repetitive 13-man professional game (rugby league) which was played in parts of Lancashire and eventually spread to some of the less salubrious areas of Sydney. This is the rugby union world cup; there is also a rugby league world cup, which Australia always wins, usually beating Wigan in the final. C is also for cauliflower ears - lumpy, misshapen ears that are an occupational hazard among players who spend a lifetime with their heads between other men's legs in the scrum. Best not mention how unattractive this feature is if you meet a 19st prop in your local.

D is for Dorian West, the reserve hooker with the England squad. What sort of name is Dorian for a rugby player? I just hope, for his sake, that he isn't selected against Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. And if he plays alongside fellow England front-row man Julian White, surely all will be lost. Stick to croquet, guys.

E, of course, is for England, who have become absurdly good. They have walloped everyone in sight this year and are 6-4 to win the cup for the first time. They are coached by Clive Woodward, an ultra- intense former England player who always wears a ridiculous baseball cap. The weight of expectation among the sheepskin- jacket-wearing classes is huge. Expect them to get to the final - and lose to the All Blacks.

F is for France and flair - the two words go together as naturally as "England" and "mechanical". France's superb victory over the All Blacks in the 1999 world cup was the competition's greatest moment, but they went on to lose tamely to Australia in the final. Unpredictable genius does not win world cups. F is also for fruit and fibre, large quantities of which will be consumed along with lager, as many games will be played at what will be breakfast-time in the UK.

G is for Germany, where, thankfully, rugby has never caught on. England v Germany at soccer is bad enough. At the last count, there were only 28 rugby clubs in Germany, which was one of the 68 nations knocked out of the world cup in the qualifying rounds, along with such giants as Andorra, Niue, Paraguay, Switzerland and Vanuata.

H is for the haka, the Maori war dance which the All Blacks use to intimidate their opponents before the match. The haka involves all 15 players standing in a line and jumping up and down while they pay obeisance to the sun god (rather odd as rugby is a winter game and usually played in heavy rain). The haka leader, by tradition a player of Maori descent, instructs his teammates: "Ringa pakia/Uma tiraha/Turi whatia/Hope whai ake/Waewae takahia kia kino" ("Slap the hands against the thighs/Puff out the chest/Bend the knees/Let the hip follow/Stamp the feet as hard as you can!"). Then they all join in: "Ka mate, ka mate/Ka ora ka ora/Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru/ Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra/Upane upane/Upane kaupane/Whiti te ra" ("It is death, it is death/It is life, it is life/This is the hairy man/ Who caused the sun to shine again for me/Up the ladder, up the ladder/Up to the top/The sun shines!"). H is also for hooker, which has two quite distinct meanings. Before heading for the final in Sydney on November 22, make sure you are apprised of the distinction.

I is for Iceland, who don't appear to be fielding a team in this year's world cup. But if they were, they would have just as much chance of winning as Namibia, Romania, the US, Georgia or Uruguay. Or, indeed, Scotland. (Note to sub-editors: please make sure this line is removed in the Scottish edition.)

J is for Japan, another unlikely contender in this year's finals. In 1995 they were edged out 145-17 by the All Blacks. J is also for Jones, of whom there are five in the Welsh squad. Commentators are likely to have trouble keeping up with them.

K is for Kitson. Robert K is the Guardian's rugby correspondent. He thinks England will win the cup for the first time. This may be worrying news for their supporters.

L is for longueurs, of which there are likely to be many. The tournament lasts for seven weeks and there are 48 matches. Don't forget to set the video for Georgia v Uruguay and Namibia v Romania. L is also for lineout, which, though governed by 92 different rules, is still a complete mess.

M is for money, the key factor in the modern game and the explanation for the bloated nature of the competition.

N is for Nigel Starmer-Smith, the former BBC commentator who has switched to ITV to cover the world cup. There was a time when everyone connected to English rugby had a double-barrelled name - the great Barbarians president Mickey Steele-Bodger springs to mind - but, sadly, old "Starmers" is the last of a dying breed, as you can tell from the way he commentates.

O is for outside-half, the playmaker: he gets the ball from the scrum-half and decides what to do with it. The world's most famous outside-half is England's Jonny Wilkinson, decent player and exceptional Hackett clothes model. Wilkinson is rugby's answer to David Beckham: handsome, streetwise, crop-haired, strong- thighed, bulldog-spirited. He can kick, he can run, and best of all he isn't married to a Spice girl.

P is for penalties, the scourge of rugby. There are too many of them and because they are worth a generous three points (compared with five for a try and two for converting it), the scoring system is distorted. A team with a very good kicker - someone like Neil Jenkins, who could land a penalty in Cardiff when playing in Swansea - can beat a much better team which relies on try scoring.

Q is for the Queen, who appears at rugby matches as rarely as she shows up at Wimbledon, though she did attend the final in Cardiff four years ago to hand the trophy to Australia's captain, John Eales. Prince Charles loathed playing the game at Gordonstoun and puts it on a par with modern architecture, but Harry loves it and is sure to turn up to support England down under. Is it entirely coincidental that he is spending three months in Australia?

R is for Rugby school, which is where it all began in 1823, when William Webb Ellis, a precocious schoolboy bored with the antics of the overpaid professionals of Woolwich Arsenal and Tadcaster United, first picked up the ball and made a dash for the goal-line. This was the last attacking move by an England-born back until about 1995. "With a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, he first took the ball in his arms and ran with it," says a commemorative plaque at the school. The World Cup trophy is called the Webb Ellis Cup in his honour. However, some question this version of rugby's history, variously claiming that its origins are Irish (derived from the game of caid), Welsh (criapan - that's the name of the game, not a description of the way the Welsh play it), Roman (harpastum) or Greek (episkyros).

S is for scrum. This is the shortened form of "scrummage", derived from scrimmage, meaning organised scrap. Sixteen men, eight on each side (all the forwards, basically), bend down in an interlocking formation and fight over the ball, which is placed between their legs in the centre of the scrum by the scrum-half (a small, irritating man with thinning hair who shouts a lot). The scrum is essentially a boxing match without the Queensberry rules: it is home to punching, gouging and testicle twisting. It is not a pretty sight. Connoisseurs of the game adore the scrum and claim to see all sorts of fascinating manoeuvres and private battles - but, to be honest, to the man in the street it's a total bore. S is also for Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the gospel hymn that bizarrely has become England's unofficial anthem. It is usually sung to the accompaniment of lewd sexual actions, though the line "I looked over Jordan and what did I see" is not thought to have any special sexual significance.

T is for Tonga, which, despite having a population of only 100,000 dispersed across 169 islands, would have a very strong team if their best players didn't play for other countries. Jonah Lomu, the great All Black winger, was actually Tongan. Tonga have their own haka, called the "sipi tau", which is even more terrifying than the All Black version.

U is for up and under, a desperate tactic that involves hoofing the ball downfield and charging after it. This used to be Ireland's sole method of attack.

V is for the Valleys of South Wales, which once churned out marvellous rugby players but have now become besotted with soccer. The Welsh team have been in freefall since the 1970s and are unlikely to make much impact in Australia. Their coach, Steve Hansen, says he will be satisfied if they reach the quarter-finals (ie beat Canada, Italy and Tonga): how are the mighty fallen.

W is for Wallabies, nickname for two-time world champions Australia. Happily, they've been playing like dingoes this year and have no chance of winning again.

X is for xylophone, a handy word in these A-Zs. The French are always supported by a band from Dax that plays drums and trumpets, but it's unlikely they'll be taking a xylophone.

Y is for yellow fever , which is not a deadly disease but an Australian marketing slogan aimed at ensuring that all the stands are filled with Aussie supporters sporting the national colours. Y is also for Yabba Yabba, a town close to Sydney with a fantastic name.

Z is for Ilia Zedginidze, the captain of Georgia and the only player in the competition whose surname begins with a Z. As the person who has stopped this A-Z ending with the traditional Zzzzz, he is my player of the tournament.
By netchicken: posted on 4-10-2003








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