Chris Benz and Dave Shireley will be filing dispatches from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, in the odd moments that they are sober. For a rugby glossary and position guide, click here.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand—It's common opinion among American rugby clubs that the only way to truly understand rugby is to step on the pitch and make mistakes. Fucking up in rugby hurts. Rookies learn fast.
However, as a fan, you might not have at your disposal 29 guys willing to rake you with their cleats. This is a shame, but you shouldn't let your misfortune prevent you from enjoying the World Cup.
The second-best way to understand rugby is to go to a rugby bar, order a pint, and ask someone a question. Rugby people are friendly. They will gladly explain the game and will probably end up buying your next drink, too. (Also consider this approach if you're just broke and thirsty.) To find your local rugby bar, check the yellow pages, and call the bars with names beginning "O'" and "Mc." If they don't show rugby, they'll know who does.
In the meantime, if you understand a little about the flow of the game, you'll enjoy rugby even more. Just don't get all self-conscious that you might be missing something. It's no fun.
LIKE WWE WITHOUT THE CHAIRS
The defining feature of rugby union (as opposed to its bastard cousin, rugby league, or its weird evolutionary offshoot, American football) is that a tackle does not stop play. There's no ref judging how many inches the ball traveled or whether a knee touched the grass. In rugby union, the tackler has to pin down the ball carrier, who then gets a second to place the ball on the ground and release it. Both teams surge over the tackled pair, and whichever team emerges with the ball gets to use it. (Meanwhile, the tackled guy curls into a fetal position to minimize the damage from all those cleats.) This scramble over the downed ball is called a ruck. There are rules to the ruck, but you don't need to know them. Just know that the team carrying the ball should keep possession.
Most fans ignore rucks, because rucks lack the grace of a good sidestep. If you do choose to pay attention, however, they're like free-for-all wrestling matches. They're quite interesting.
The ruck anchors the rhythm of the game: Run. Tackle. Form a ruck, slam the other team off the ball, and dig it out. Pass to someone who eventually gets tackled. Repeat.
One round of this cycle is called a phase.
BACKS AND FORWARDS
Once the ruck produces the ball, the half-back/scrum-half chooses whether to pass it to the backs or the forwards. Dave's rugby primer covered the difference between them pretty well, but to remind you, the backs are fast and good-looking, the forwards are large and menacing. A pass to the forwards means a short "crash ball" through the defensive line, gaining maybe a yard. This sucks new players into the ruck, opening space for the backs. When the backs get the ball, they attack space with flashy jukes, trickery, and often neon-colored cleats.
OH SHIT, IT'S A PENALTY
The penalties won't make sense. Ignore them. When the whistle blows, even the players just assume they didn't see it and keep going. When the ref raises his arm, the team facing the ref's armpit gets the ball. There are special rules about who gets the ball after a penalty kick out of bounds. The ref knows. You just go with it.
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH KICKING?
Admittedly, rugby is slightly easier to follow if you understand the sport's weird kicking rules. It started out as a type of soccer, after all. A punt relieves pressure, trading possession for field position. If it bounces out of bounds, the receiving team gets a line-out where the ball crossed the sideline. If the ball flies directly out of bounds, the line-out happens on the closest sideline to where the player kicked it—in other words, the kicker loses possession without gaining any field position anyway, the jackass. This rule doesn't apply behind the 22-meter line. Rugby sounds kind of like Calvinball at first, I know.
Some kicks are attempts to keep possession but break the line. A grubber rolls end over end and functions like a soccer pass. A box kick hops over the line in the hopes that attackers running forward beat back-footed defenders. A Garryowen, or "up and under," hangs in the air long enough for forwards to fix crosshairs on whoever is waiting o catch it. Because of the slippery conditions of New Zealand in spring, Garryowen kicks are becoming popular this World Cup. The rain makes handling the ball harder for attackers and catching balls hard for defenders.
That's more than you need to know. Go practice. Watch all the World Cup games here.
You can't watch a game until 72 hours after it airs, but you weren't up at 3:00 a.m. anyway. Try Wales vs. South Africa, Tonga vs. Canada, or for a very physical match, Ireland vs. Australia. Watch USA vs. Russia, too, unless you hate America.)
I hope this helps. Remember, the real secret to enjoying rugby is not knowledge. It is beer. Beer and company.
Chris Benz is a Deadspin rugby correspondent. He has played rugby for several American clubs and briefly in Calcutta, where he fled the pitch in triple-overtime of the final due to a serious case of food poisoning. His team lost by a drop goal. He doesn't really have a home, but he grew up in Alaska.