An American View of Rugby in Kuwait
Kuwait City, Kuwait
I saw my first rugby game last week. As an American, I’m as confused about rugby as most Brits are about football. Watching a live match between the Kuwait and Dubai amateur leagues only left me more confused. Rugby seems like an odd mix of intense competition, raw aggression, and latent homosexuality. It’s a game where brute force conquers agile maneuver, and complex rules give way to simple fun.
Like American football, the game starts when the defending team kicks off to the offense. But then any similarity to the American sport ends. The teams run at each other, there’s a lot of screaming and grunting, and eventually somebody tackles the ball carrier. The play doesn’t end when the ball carrier hits the ground. Instead, everybody piles on top of him and does their best to pry the ball from his hands. As soon as the carrier goes down, there’s a pile of twenty heavy, angry men crawling all over him to get to the ball. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and occasionally a bit of punching as well. Eventually the carrier gives up the ball just to get this pile off of him before he suffocates. Some brave fool grabs the ball and takes off, and the whole process starts all over again.
If the carrier is too stubborn or unconscious to give up the ball, the referee stops the play and sets up the “scrum.” The scrum is probably the strangest bit of sport I’ve ever seen. Well, maybe not as strange as those Afghani polo games with a dead sheep that they had in Rambo III, but it’s pretty damn strange.
When children with Down’s Syndrome play soccer, they form something that looks like a scrum. The referee separates the teams and picks up the ball. The teams line up across from each other, roughly where the former carrier passed out. But they don’t form clean lines like in American football. They wrap their arms around each other’s shoulders and push up against the other team. So you have two groups of players with locked arms jammed against each other and trying to push the other side downfield. The players in the middle of the pack have their shoulders jammed solidly into the opposition’s shoulders. The players on the edge have their shoulders jammed solidly against their teammates’ asses. This is the scrum, and it’s the way every play in rugby begins.
The referee rolls the ball into the scrum, and the whole stumbling mass pushes toward the ball. The players’ arms are all tangled up, so they have to somehow kick the ball out of the scrum and toward their teammates waiting on the wings. When you’re in the middle of this mess, with your arms getting pulled out of their sockets and a dozen players pushing you in every direction, it’s not easy to kick a ball to your teammates. So the scrums go on for a while. Somebody taps the ball to the edge, then the whole scrum moves to cover the ball again. Somebody taps it in a different direction, and the scrum moves down the field. When the ball finally makes it out, there’s always somebody waiting to grab it. The new carrier tucks the ball in his arms and takes off. The scrum disintegrates and a dozen pissed-off Brits charge after him. It’s really hard to outrun a dozen pissed-off Brits (just ask any Italian), so the carrier only gets about five yards before he’s tackled and both teams pile on the poor bastard again. There’s more grunting and grabbing, the ball pops loose, and the whole thing starts up again. Once or twice a game, somebody actually makes it to the far end of the field and kicks the ball through the goal.
And that’s rugby, the most violent of all British sports. It’s not the strangest – that’s cricket. But it’s definitely the most violent. It’s also the most disorganized. Cricket has very clear rules about how to throw the ball, how to swing the bat, how to smack a wicket. They probably have a rule about how to wear those goofy kneepads, too. Tennis, another anglo export, also has clear rules and predictable strategies. But rugby is the most chaotic sport I’ve ever seen. From kickoff to tackle to scrum, it’s really just a bunch of blokes chasing each other around a big field. It’s like a bunch of boys in prep school got tired of playing cricket and went to the opposite extreme. They decided they wanted a simple game, something where they can bash into each other and pile on top of each other and just kick the shit out of each other over a leather ball. I don’t understand it. I’m just happy they didn’t bring their bats.
And I’m going to be a part of it. I’ve been invited to play “beach rugby” at the Hilton resort tomorrow. I don’t know the difference between beach rugby and regular rugby. In California, when you add beach to the name of a sport it means you can’t really play the game, and you spend most of your play time drinking beer and hitting on girls at the beach. By the way, I am the undisputed champion of beach football, beach volleyball, and beach horseshoes. If beach rugby is anything like these other beach sports, I’ll rule the game. If it’s like that other rugby, I might not come home alive.