Caution: This sports commentary includes musical theater references.
I watched my first rugby game today. You might be aware that I’m conducting an experiment to see if I can fall in love with the NFL, but rugby? — not really on my radar. So last weekend while I was watching NBC Sunday Night Football I noticed a quick promo for the World Rugby Semifinals that NBC would telecast on Saturday, October 24. Surely, I thought, watching this game would give me greater insight into NFL football as rugby was a forerunner to American gridiron football. So — two and a half hours in the La-Z-Boy this afternoon was not being a couch potato, it was serious research. The semifinal match today was between the South Africa Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks, and while it was a close competition throughout, the All Blacks took the win and will advance to the finals next weekend.
Really? They’re ALL blacks?
Recalling controversy in the US about team names that insult indigenous people, I found it amusing that the New Zealand team name is All Blacks, which at first blush seems a wee bit racially insensitive. Now I could research it, but my hunch is “all black” has to do with the colors of their uniforms and has no racial significance at all. But can you imagine an NFL team with that name? In the US, a team might get away with calling themselves the Mostly African Americans, but then that could be pretty much any NFL team. (In case you’re wondering — springboks are medium-sized brown and white antelope-gazelles of southwestern Africa, and I presume they take no offense at being used as the name for the South Africa team).
Wow. Rugby is a blast.
I don’t get why get why rugby isn’t more popular in the US. Since the action doesn’t stop very much on the field, it doesn’t lend itself perfectly to selling commercial time (and I suppose that is the answer to my question). But still — what a fun game to watch. Granted it seemed pretty chaotic out there, but there was so much action, so much physicality, and so little dead time that it was very entertaining. And they aren’t wearing any pads! I’ll be checking out the final match next Saturday, November 1 on NBC.
Some other observations about rugby on TV.
- Great opening number. A delight that I wouldn’t expect at every game: apparently New Zealand always starts with a haka — a choreographed Maori war chant kinda deal. Amazing. But face it boys — you’re doing a choreographed chorus number (maybe the NFL’s Chiefs could open with Everything’s Up To Date In Kansas City). Here’s the haka from 2011 — but it’s the same team that played and won today: the New Zealand All Blacks. I’m not sure how the indigenous New Zealand Maori feel about this, but it seems like an homage to the natives (more than, say, a tomahawk chop at a Washington Redskins game):
- National Anthems. The anthems of the two countries is played, and the teams line up with their arms around each other. And get this — most of the athletes actually appear to be singing along and know the lyrics (hmm … another musical theatre skill set).
- More female-friendly. The game features very aggressive action and strong, enormous men — but the telecast seems a little more inclusive of women in prominent roles. For example, the lead announcer for the game was a woman — Jenny Cavnar. Other female announcers as well. And as far as the most prominent female presence in the NFL — I didn’t notice any cheerleaders at all at the rugby match, and certainly none of the showgirls who are fixtures in NFL teams.
- Helpful hints. While the lead announcer was female, the play-by-play commentators were a couple of men who were never on camera. The game was in London and I anticipated hearing English accents, but not on NBC. One thing I appreciated was that the commentators would often throw in a little instruction “for those of you who are new to rugby.” Thank you.
- Halftime documentary. Instead of copying the NFL’s halftime formula of several loud guys in the endzone discussing the game, host Jenny Cavnar set up a short video featurette about the manufacturing of the Astin-Martin automobile of 007 fame. I didn’t quite get the connection to the rugby game but I’ll be honest — I dozed off.
- Organized chaos. Am still scratching my head over lots of the action in the rugby match, especially the scrums– what’s that all about? I’ve heard that expression of a scrum and I’ve always thought it was the same as a hogpile or a tussle — but it seems to be much more. Has to do with who gets the ball, but I couldn’t figure out just what all that grabbing and shoving was all about.
- Manly gentlemen. Rugby players seem to give off a different vibe than NFL players. The rugby guys are big and powerful like NFL players but they don’t display as much of the cockiness and bravado that oozes from most of the NFL guys. You get the feeling that both those teams will head down to the pub afterwards for a pint (in fact, if the commentators are correct, one of the teams will open their locker room to the other for post-game merriment and hijinks; it has something to do with showing respect for your opponents).
- More action. The most striking difference between telecasts of rugby and NFL football is the percentage of play to non-play during the game. A typical NFL game will have 110 or so separate commercials and relentless sponsorship announcements throughout the show. 60 minutes of NFL play usually requires 3 hours or more of air time, whereas this 80 minute rugby match fit nicely in 2 hours, 45 minutes. There were way, way fewer ads, and they weren’t real big-name sponsors. I imagine ads for the big auto manufacturers and movie producers that love the NFL can be found on Saturdays during college games (and I don’t know if there is a Fantasy Rugby site available that would choose to advertise here). There were a few rugby-themed spots, though, as there are often football-theme ads during NFL broadcasts (one was for Penn Mutual Insurance — a sponsor you’re unlikely to see ponying up the cash to advertise on an NFL game). My favorite sponsor: Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey (I have yet to see an Irish whiskey advertised during an NFL game). There was only one ad that I recognized from the NFL: An American Family Insurance spot featuring JJ Watt.
- Lower tech. The TV production for rugby is a little simpler and more straightforward (and, I’m sure, less expensive) — clear video coverage of the action with plenty of instant replays and a variety of camera angles. But there were noticeably fewer bells and whistles compared to an NFL telecast with its whizzing graphics, stat charts, sound effects, scrolls, and background music. That’s not a criticism, just an observation (and it’s an outcome, I presume, of so much more action in the rugby game and consequently so much less dead time to fill with video wizardry and blather).
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The final game of this Rugby World Championship is next Saturday, November 1 2015. If you’ve not watched a rugby game, I’d encourage you to check it out. If nothing else, don’t miss the Haka. I’m hoping to see better jazz hands next week.
Haka Photo credit: DailyMail.com (Getty Images)