Photo: University of St Andrews Rugby Football Club

An American Perspective on Rugby

Sports Editor Tucker Bickell tentatively embraces a new culture.

Here’s the deal: 

Yes, I am a sports editor, which entails knowing lots of general information about sports both in and outside of our University. I’m an avid fan of baseball, hockey, golf, tennis, American football… You get my point.

However, in studying outside of the States I’ve encountered a number of new sports. After some thought, I decided it might be fun to do a little commentary on popular European sports and the fandoms that are associated with them from the perspective of a bona fide American. And so, with the conclusion of the Six Nations last week, I think it’s only fitting that my first piece should revolve around rugby.

For this piece, I’m going to give my take on rugby in comparison to the closest barometer I have: American football. I understand that the two respective sports go on about their rules and regulations in extremely different ways, but for all intents and purposes I’m going to recognise their similarities and comment on the differences I’ve noticed.

My first introduction to proper rugby was at the Varsity match this past September. From the get go, the greatest difference I noticed in both matches was the way in which general strategy played a role in each play.

As an American football fan, I’m used to strategies being set before the snap – that is the say, generally both the offence and defence have a set formation and process of executing their motives in the play that follows. This doesn’t mean that the strategy doesn’t change on call; sometimes audibles happen on the line if the offence or defence notices that their formation or intended strategy will not properly counter the other team’s perceived strategy. This is part of the beauty of American football: It’s a guessing game based on probable assumptions; the team that normally wins is the one that outsmarts the other one before the play begins.

Rugby, on the other hand, seems to be inherently more-free flowing. Strategy appears to change mid play to respond to the other team’s movements. What replaces the meticulous pre-snap planning in football are spontaneous strategic changes mid-play. I feel that I’m more partial towards American football’s strategy, but perhaps this is only because I have a better initial understanding of the game.

After the Varsity, I didn’t watch rugby again until Six Nations started in February. Gameplay wise, my opinions did not change. The one thing that really struck me here, however, was the sense of national pride that accompanied the game.

I’m not saying that in the United States we have a lack of pride for our country (especially in sporting events), but this was fan action on a level we only ever see in the Olympics. American football has a fan base, but even on the highest level of the sport (the NFL), it is only regional. Rugby goes beyond cities and counties and becomes part of the national identity of a nation during the height of competition. As someone used to major American sports being relatively self-contained, I found that to be the most amazing difference between the two sports.

For the time being, I’m going to stick to American football as my go-to contact sport (perhaps only because I still understand the actual niche of the sport better than I do rugby at the moment). But honestly, rugby has sparked a little bit more interest in me than I had expected. It fits the strategic and excitement quota I desire as a sports fan, in addition to possessing a fandom as exciting as the game itself.

Who knows? Perhaps by fourth year I’ll be commenting on football as an American rugby fanatic. 

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