Into The Fray
Every once in a while you've got to step outside your comfort zone. Or, in this case, try to grapple with a sport with which you have little or no familiarity.
So while the CFL game might have it's roots in rugby, that sure didn't help at all when I confronted the World Cup final match on Sunday between New Zealand's All Blacks and the underdogs from France.
What's with all the markings on the field? What dictates possession? When's a good time to kick, and when's a good time to advance the ball? Why do some wear the tight-fitting protective toques and some don't? And of course, what in the world is legal when it comes to tackling, and what isn't?
Answers to all these questions weren't available on the broadcast, needless to say. To demand that they should be would be like turning on an Olympic gold medal hockey game and expecting the announcers to explain the rules. Not gonna happen.
So you figure it out, bit by bit, as best you can over 80 minutes of competition. It helps to some degree that they mike the officials, so you hear the explanations to the players when a rule has been broken. Of course, in a sport that seemingly has no rules, this is particularly useful.
Knowing that the All Blacks were heavily favoured after thrashing the French earlier in the tournament, it wasn't hard to figure out as the match progressed and the score remained both low and close that a possible upset was brewing. To a North American used to sports in which possession is everything, it was confusing to understand the strategy of gaining possession and then immediately booting the ball, usually out of play.
What was easily communicated, of course, was the raw sense of competition, the intensity, the bone-rattling violence of bodies crashing into one another, the different sizes and shapes that produced different speciality skills on the field. It wasn't too hard to figure out that Piru Weepu wasn't having a very good day for New Zealand, and the commotion over Stephen Donald's entrance into the game as a substitute made me look for more info on the web as to what the big deal was. Didn't know France's Thierry Dusautoir had been voted the best player on the planet until today, but he was a compelling figure even without that information.
There's a gladitorial aspect to rugby at that level that makes hockey look like cricket; players are literally tended to by medics on the field while play goes on and other players try not to stomp on the fallen. If there was a sport seemingly in need of an outlet like fighting to stop "liberties" being taken, it would be rugby, yet no scraps occurred. At least not in this match.
It's a sport made for TV, with the unbridled emotion of the players enhanced by technology, something most possible in sports that don't require a great deal of equipment. Baseball benefits from this as well, but Game 4 of the World Series, a bit of a yawner anyway, was no match for the rugby title game in terms of communicating a desperate sense of competition.
So New Zealand-France turned out to be a helluva match, and great entertainment despite the lack of offence, although I have no idea what purists and experts may have perceived. Maybe that's a good thing. Being unable to understand the officiating calls was an obstacle, and it was disappointing in the final two minutes to see New Zealand able to kill the clock (like the NFL) as opposed to having to play through to the final whistle (like the CFL). But that's nitpicking.
Don't know if a regular league match, or something less than a World Cup final, would have the same pull. But I'd watch again. Can't say I'm hooked, but certainly intrigued.