A Question For Rugby Fans

To any Rugby union fans who read this blog, I have a series of question for you.  First a little prelude.  In football, there is a Club World Cup (which I just recently wrote about), a tournament in which the top clubs of each confederation play each other.*  Prior to the Club World Cup was the Intercontinental Cup where champion club of Europe played the champion club of South America.

My question is does Rugby union have anything similar?  My knowledge of Rugby union is faulty, so correct me if I am wrong, but there is the Heineken Cup for European clubs and Super Rugby for regional franchises in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  Is there or was there ever a competition in which the Heineken Cup winner played the Super Rugby winner?  If not were there ever plans?  Are there logistical issues?  Do you think it would capture interest or make money?




*  Confederations roughly correspond to each continent, but there are exceptions, which is why Israel, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Cyprus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Georgia all play in Europe rather than Asia, Australia plays in Asia rather than Oceania, and Guyana, Suriname, and the entirety of Central American play in North America rather than South America.

Finally New Zealand

I have a soft spot in my heart for New Zealand; it’s like the kid brother of the English-speaking world.  Also, Lord of the Rings was filmed there.  No matter who they played in football, I always cheered for the All Whites/Football Ferns (especially when the opponent was Italy.)  But football is one thing, and New Zealand is not a particularly successful footballing nation.  In New Zealand, Rugby (Union) is king, and the nation’s heart lies with the All Blacks, who despite being the best in the world year after year, have not won the Rugby World Cup since 1987, where they beat France in the final.

Coincidentally, 1987 was the last time the Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand.  After that New Zealand made all-too-early exits from the tournament, including the loss in the 1995 final memorialized by the rather mediocre movie Invictus.  Twice those early exits came at the hands of France.

This year the stars seemed to align for the All Blacks.  Again, the World Cup was in New Zealand.  Again, New Zealand was the best team in the world by a mile and included the great Dan Carter.  But again it looked something was going terribly wrong.  First, the All Blacks lost the Tri Nation Series to mortal enemies Australia.  The tournament began well enough, but then a host of injuries beset the All Blacks, most worryingly to Dan Carter, who was gone from the tournament after the group stage.  And then, despite an imperious march to the final, the final round opponent was France.  The All Blacks had already beaten France in the group stage, and France probably should not have made it to the final to begin with (certainly the Welsh are justified to think not.)  But they did, and history is not destiny.

France outplayed New Zealand for large portions of the match, but, as in 1987, New Zealand overcame their Gallic opponents, this time 8-7.  New Zealand finally ended over two decades of hurt, disappointment, and charges of choking to become the team with the best record at the Rugby World Cup (tying Australia and South Africa for two World Cup victories apiece, but a better overall record.)  For a small island nation, that is quite an accomplishment.

But can we please stop the talk about ending 24 years of disappointment?  It’s a lazy cliché from lazy sportswriters.  24 years ago, New Zealand won the World Cup, which means that for the next four years New Zealand reigned as World Champions.  Ergo, it has been 20 years of disappointment.  The team that really had 24 years of hurt is France, who lost in 1987 and then continued losing to this day.  Three finals but no tournament victories in 24 years.  Cheer for New Zealand all you want, but spare a thought for the crushed French rugby fan; he may need it today.

This is not to say that New Zealand’s disappointment has not been real.  As any Kiwi can tell you, it has been a long, difficult, and embarrassing two decades, despite the All Blacks dazzling success outside of the World Cup.  The past year and a half has seen a lot of redemption in international sports.  To my mind, this is the third consecutive World Cup  in which a powerful nation with a long history of underachievement finally broke through and won when it counted: Spain at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, India at the Cricket World Cup earlier this year, and now New Zealand.

So onward to 2015 and England and Wales.  And bravo New Zealand.  Here’s hoping you’ll be the first three-time champions.

Favorite News Story of the Day

England’s Rugby Union team’s, whose traditional colors are red and white as I understand it, have ditched tradition to go for an all-black change strip.  An all-black kit is the calling card of rugby superpower New Zealand, hence the name “All Blacks.”  New Zealand is not amused, with even the Prime Minister taking a swipe at England.

The English players are not at all bothered by the claims that they are trying to be like New Zealand.  The players told the press that it wasn’t true, and they had to run so that they could practice their traditional pre-match haka.

Cricket: Huh?

Today marked day four of the first Ashes Test between England and Australia.

If you understand those words but do not understand the context in which I wrote them  . . . well, join the club.  As near as I can figure, my first sentence means that there is an annual international tournament called the Ashes that takes place between the Australian English cricket teams.  The tournament is made of several days-long matches called tests.  Australia and England are currently playing their first test.  Please don’t believe my translation is necessarily correct; I have no idea what I am talking about.

Cricket may very well be the most confusing sport I have ever encountered in my life.  Like football (soccer) and rugby, it originated in England.*  It is played with a bat and a ball.  Some matches can go one for days, and some are limited to ensure that they do not.  I have absolutely no idea how to read a cricket score.  When I hear Sky Sports News or read an article reporting on cricket, the language seems completely foreign.  I can usually pick up the rules of a sport when I see it on television or on the Internet, at least enough to understand what is going on–not with cricket.  Cricket is what you get if James Joyce watched a baseball game once, wrote the rules as he saw them three years afterwards, and gave his rules to non-athletes in another country with no knowledge of baseball to recreate the game.  (Yes, I know cricket is older.)

Years ago, an obnoxious diplomat (I think he worked at the UN) wrote an op-ed in the New York Times trashing Americans for preferring baseball, and implicitly stating that we were not intelligent enough to understand the subtlety of cricket.  Obnoxious diplomats aside, there is nothing wrong with the bat and ball sport that Americans perfected, although I admit to not liking baseball (Go Phillies!).  Although I have very little interest in cricket, I am fascinated by foreign sports with large international tournaments.  I now have some familiarity with Rugby Union and Rugby League, and I even know a little about Gaelic sports, Australian Rules Football, and Netball.  Cricket, however, continues to elude me.  It is not because, as our diplomatic snoot implied, Americans are too stupid to get it, but because the sport is too complex to learn about from a Wikipedia entry and YouTube clips.  The truth is, cricket needs to be taught because of how needlessly complex the sport inherently is.  Usually one is taught the sport at a young age.  Since very few people in this country understand cricket, there is practically no one to teach it.  I think in the United States, cricket will be slightly more popular than polo and slightly less popular than professional lacrosse.  I may be giving a short shrift to polo.

Although football is the most popular sport in Britain, there is no sport more stereotypically English than cricket.  England presents a certain image of itself to the world: (1) the country is full of stodgy, snobby highbrows, and (2) it once ruled the world’s most expansive empire.  Cricket is the purest representation of this image.  If you have ever seen a test match, the uniform is, for both sides, an all white getup: trousers, shirt, and sweater.  (That the shirts are now filled with advertisements is a tragic reminder of the power of money over tradition.)  Even though football began its life in the British public schools (which are the equivalent of American private schools), it easily spread to the working class and poor in Britain and around the world because of how simple and inexpensive the game is.  Cricket is harder to play outside of the confines of the country club–or public school–because of all the required equipment.  The rules of football are, for the most part, simple to grasp; the rules of cricket are not nearly as intuitive.  Furthermore the top cricket nations are almost entirely nations that were a part of the former British empire: England, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and the entire South Asian subcontinent.  There are more countries, but I believe these are the main ones.

Even though I have very little interest in cricket as a sport, there is Cricket World Cup.  Therefore, as with all World Cup sports, men’s and women’s, it is inherently interesting to me on a sociological level.  With the exception of football, I think care less about international sport, than I do about the results of the sport’s World Cup (football excluded).  I think basketball is missing out on a golden opportunity to ditch the Olympics and World Championships and have a quadrennial international tournament of its own.**

Because there is a World Cup, I wanted to know how to play cricket.  What attracts so many people to such a nonsensical sport, at least to an outsider?  Cricket is especially popular in India, one of the few nations (perhaps most notably the United States) that football has been unable to conquer.  To add even more intrigue, cricket has been producing scandal after scandal which throws the integrity of the sport into question (take that, snooty diplomat!).  Given that the epicenter of these controversies is generally Pakistan, international political relationships are touched upon if not directly affected.

So I still don’t understand cricket.  I am not sure if I ever will, although I am going to keep trying, at least for the immediate future.   Meanwhile if anyone knows how to read a cricket score…


*  The fact that these sports originated in England has led to a double standard of sorts.  Whereas in the Olympics (and the United Nations) England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all a part of the United Kingdom.  In football are four all individual countries with their own teams, the so called “Home Nations”–a sore point to some other countries who see this as one nation getting four bites at the apple.  However, this works against the Home Nations.  Rather than one strong side, there are four sides of varying strength.  As a result three of the four Home Nations will never again be competitive in international competition; the remaining country, England, has seen its standard of play slowly declining.  Rugby also maintains that double standard, but to a lesser extent.  Northern Ireland is part of Ireland in international test matches, and the British and Irish Lions tour the world.  Rugby is also far less popular around the world.  Cricket turns the double standard on its head:  in international tests, Wales is part of England, Northern Ireland is part of Ireland, and the tiny English-speaking countries of the Caribbean compete internationally as “The West Indies.”

**  Or perhaps not.  FIBA would expect to control an international competition, and FIBA, despite being the ruling body of international basketball, could never do anything of that scale without the NBA’s approval.  If FIBA tried to stand up to the NBA, the NBA could simply pull out all its players, thereby making a sham of the tournament (and a poorly watched one at that.)  So long as there is only one important basketball league in the world, the NBA will rule the roost.  This will not change any time soon.

Music I listened to while writing this: No music today.  Just podcasts.