While I knew of rugby and even knew people who played rugby, my first real introduction to rugby has come during my trip here to the Pacific. New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga are all big rugby countries, and its hard to avoid it when you’re here.
In Tonga, while wandering around Nuku’alofa, I came across a high school rugby match and decided to go in and take some photos.
My descriptions of the game should be taken as someone that really doesn’t know much about rugby, so if I say something wrong, feel free to correct me. I’m also going to use American football terms to describe stuff because I have no clue what the rugby term for it would be. I did no research on rugby prior to writing this…
If you are a rugby fan, you will probably pull your hair out and roll your eyes at some of the things I say and how I describe it. Be forewarned.
If you are a North American who understands American football, you can probably get the gist of rugby in a few minutes of watching it. Likewise, I think anyone familiar with rugby can get American football quickly. (American football evolved from rugby)
The field is pretty much the same. It’s about the same length, it has goal posts and there are 10 zones on the field (like yard lines). I think a rugby field is a bit wider.
The ball is also similar. Its oblong like a football but without laces. The surface feels more like a basketball. It seems much easier to drop kick in rugby (kicking the ball after it bounces). The drop kick was always a rule in American Football, but I’ve never seen anyone able to pull it off given the shape of the ball.
The scoring is also similar. You want to get the ball into the endzone. If you do, you can kick for extra points. A touchdown in rugby is only 5 points and the extra point kick is for 2. You can also kick a field goal for 3 points. Final scores in football and rugby seem very similar.
There is also punting in rugby. Punts can happen at anytime and can be kicked by anyone with the ball. The purpose of the punt is the same as in football…to give the opponent poor field position.
The biggest differences between rugby and football: there are no downs, there is no forward passing, there isn’t any blocking, and very little padding. The entire game is like a last minute play in football where everyone is trying to lateral the ball.
The stadium could have been any high school football stadium in the US…except I think this is where the national team also plays its games. There was what appeared to be a Royal box with the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Tonga not far from where I was sitting.
The teams came out, lined up on the track, joined arms and said something in Tongan and bowed. I assume it was some sort of sportsmanship pledge or something. Everyone clapped.
After that, both teams got onto the field and did what can only be described as a pre-game tradition in the Pacific: the haka.
The blue team from Toloa College (college means the same thing as High School here, like it does in the UK) did a normal tough guy type haka. The green team from Takuilau College started off doing a normal one, but then seemed to end up doing a nursery rhyme and they started touching their toes. Everyone laughed. It was in Tongan, so I couldn’t understand, but I think I got the gist of it.
I was told later that all the schools on the island have different colored uniforms on the basis of what religion runs the school. Green is Mormon and blue is Methodist, so I assume that was what I saw at the game.
The game began with a kickoff, which was not as dramatic compared to a kickoff in American Football. Like in basketball or soccer, the play centers around the ball. It is different than in American Football, because the flow of play is chopped up into downs and everyone is active on every play even if its just blocking or running a route.
The part of rugby that most Americans would recognize is the scrum.
A scrum is sort of the same as a tip off in basketball when a ball needs to be put back into play. The sides sort of press their shoulders against each other and the ball is thrown into the pile on the ground.
Another part of the game I found interesting was how they threw the ball into play from out of bounds. They would throw it like soccer, but they would lift a team mate up into the air to do an alley-oop type pass back to another team mater. Really neat.
The rugby field goal is also unlike Football field goals. You can take it after a penalty and like the kickoff, there is no rushing of the kicker. Likewise, the extra point kick is different. You kick from where the ball entered the endzone. There is a strong incentive to get the ball in the endzone in the middle of the field to set up and easy kick.
The were lots of soliders out in Nuku’alofa that day. I was told it was because there had been fights in the past between the two schools. Somehow, I don’t think it was the entire truth….
The students started dribbling in after the game started and didn’t sit in the stands with the rest of the spectators. The blue students sort of took the prime space at the 50 yard line. They were far more vocal and did most of the cheering.
The green students were lined up vertically from the field. I thought it was really odd. It looked like they were going to rush the other students.
I eventually realized that they were all sitting in the shade of one of the light posts.
The concessions were similar to what you would see at a high school game in the US. People selling food on folding tables – bags of homegrown peanuts and large bottles of orange soda. The peanut vendors were unique, however…
It was an interesting afternoon. After the main match, there was a seven man game between the two schools as well. The seven man teams appeared to have separate rosters. I was surprised they didn’t play first.
….oh, and the blue team won.