Rugby — covering games

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It’s rugby season for many colleges, the time when college teams prepare for their national championships. Most sportswriters know very little about this exciting sport that has the grace of soccer, the power of football, and the speed of track.

Here’s another thing most sportswriters do not know: These rugby titles are not fully sanctioned NCAA championships, so do not write them as if they are. They are not NCAA Division I or II. Teams do not play in any sanctioned conference, such as the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast or Big Ten. These games are played by club players. And teams do not have official rankings (Alex Goff ranks teams on his rugby website, but one person’s ratings are hardly worth noting as a national ranking. The Associated Press and other polls rely upon at least a few dozen reporters who regularly cover the beats to make such assessments.)

In addition, these games are club championships, the same titles that your campus’s club hockey team or volleyball team competes to win. Usually, these other titles are run by the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). Rugby’s championships are run by USA Rugby. So make sure you address these points properly in your stories.

There is only one men’s sanctioned varsity team in the country (California-Berkeley) and only four varsity women’s rugby programs in the country. Eastern Illinois is the only Division I program. A sport requires 40 members to earn NCAA championship status. No men’s teams are expected to jump from club status. However, several women’s teams are considering this leap – partly because it helps solve Title IX parity and partly because this is an exciting sport. Check out the NCAA’s emerging sports list to check out other sports seeking championship status.

Most reporters are attracted to the clichéd, stereotypical aspects of the game – the blood, violence, and fact that women play this sport. These angles are worn and overdone. Plus, there is not any more blood, violence or injury in rugby than in sports such as football, soccer and basketball. You can check out the statistics for yourself. (That might even be a good story to pursue.)

Despite the misconceptions, reporters have much to cover in rugby. This is an exciting sport with much more action than football and that runs non-stop like soccer. This sport is also about speed. If you do cover rugby, you need to read some rules, watch a few practices, and speak to as many experts as you can about the sport – that does not always mean the players (most of whom are learning it at the same time you are.) You might want to read Jim Greenwood’s Total Rugby or the book Rugby For Dummies to gain some basic information.

Like with soccer, you will want to takes notes on key plays and scores. Typically, there will not be any official scorer, so take detailed notes. Check uniform numbers and names before games start. If there is no official clock, bring a stopwatch to get a sense of time remaining in each forty-minute half.

To start, reporters might want to just list the scoring plays (that include the pass preceding the score along with the length of this scoring run.)

For example: “Samantha Manto took a pass from Molly Clutter and ran thirty yards down the left sideline to score the decisive try in a 90-0 victory over Tennessee.

That score was only three minutes into the game. Manto scored four more times, and Brittany Brown scored twice, to keep Eastern Illinois undefeated (4-0) on Saturday afternoon.”

Next, reporters might want to stand next to a coach to listen to his instructions. That way you can start viewing the game more like a veteran. You can also note key tackles, especially those near the end zone. Mark down the numbers for players so you can verify the names afterward (even if you have a roster).

In addition, you can check on USA Rugby’s web site to read five myths about NCAA women’s rugby.

Rugby is truly an exciting sport, one that could easily catch on as soccer did a few decades ago.

Frank Graziano, the head coach of the only NCAA Division I women’s rugby program, offers some advice below on watching his sport. Frank has served as assistant national team coach for the Women’s National U-23 program and has been National Event Coordinator and Collegiate Director for USA Rugby. Frank played at Clemson, where he also created the women’s rugby team in 1995.

“To some extent, rugby is just like watching football. For all purposes, it’s football with the free flow of ‘up and down’ like soccer. First, the forward progress is key, just like in football. Going forward – or invading the opposition’s territory – is crucial. And committing or creating turnovers while doing that shortens the field.”

“One team being able to break the defensive line is crucial, like in soccer and football. A soccer game stuck in the middle of the field is not so good, which forces soccer teams to go over the top. It’s the same with rugby. If you can not run through the opposition, then you have to kick down the field and try to gain field position, or maybe recover the ball or pin the opposition back. This is much like punting in football, where teams try to gain field position.”

“The two main set pieces – the scrum and lineout – can create a positive fall back at change of possession. For instance, if I cannot run through the opposition’s defense and choose to kick over the top to gain territory, this is a great strategy, especially if I am dominating the lineouts. (Even though the change of possession is at the lineout 40 yards down the field.) If I stand a better than even chance I can steal the lineout, then I put the opposition under pressure and remove one of their strengths, their midfield running defense.”

“As another example, if I am doing well at the scrum, then every time I ‘knock on,’ I stand a good chance to get the ball back.”

“The next key thing is athletic running ability. It’s football without pads. The team with the best, fastest, most powerful runners always has the advantages. There is no blocking n rugby so running the ball is even more crucial than in football. Good blocking in football can make even an average running back do well. With no blocking, it’s all about the running. The team with an advantage in these areas has control. Skill is very limited. It’s not that complicated a skill game. Passing a rugby ball is a piece of cake.”

Teams consist of fifteen players, whose roles are unique but also overlap. Like in football, certain players push and create spaces for the runners. These players are the front-line players (props, hookers). Unlike in football, any rugby player can receive passes and run with the ball, although the flankers, scrum half, fly half and fullbacks are more likely to run with the ball. The flyhalf is most like a quarterback, a player who runs the offense, telling people where to go and deciding when to kick the ball to set up better field position.

The scrum half is a mix between an option quarterback and a defensive back, a player who needs great hands for passing and quickness for slipping through tight places, like a ruck, scrum, or line of defenders.

Traditionally, players have been numbered according to their positions. No. 1 is typically a loose-head prop, No. 9 is typically a scrumhalf and No. 15 is usually the fullback. The sport even has a position called the Number 8 whose main role is to direct and control rucks from the rear. This player usually make a big impact in the game, but rarely gets the notice. Sometimes, this player might have the most tackles (if you track them), but, more often, than not, this is a person who does all the little things well, especially those that go unnoticed – sort of like a combination of offensive lineman and inside linebacker.

Player numbers might change, though, if the NCAA takes over. Eastern Illinois is among the teams that does not assign jersey numbers to positions, mostly because individuals are assigned one jersey number, according to NCAA regulations. So a reserve Number 8 might have to wear No. 23, otherwise there will be much confusion as to who is actually on the field.

The field is a little larger than a football field, roughly 20 yards wider and 10 yards longer. The field has a mid-field line and two 22-meter lines (although NCAA regulations might change this to 25-yard lines), two 10-meter lines, and a goal line. A player must pass across this goal line AND touch the ball down to record a five-point try. The spot where the two-point conversion, or extra point, is kicked is based upon where the ball is touched down in the try (or goal) zone. Obviously, a spot right in front of the crossbars is the best choice, so ball carriers may keep eluding defenders and running around until they get to a prime location. Of course, players can be tackled and stripped off the ball before reaching this spot, which is one reason why some scores are registered in the far corners. These difficult conversion kicks are almost always off line.

Teams may also kick field goals, three-pointers, from a spot on the field where a penalty has been assigned. Typically, teams prefer to keep going for the five to seven points when this happens near the goal area. But, in tough games, some teams will go for the easier three-point kick instead.

Below are a few more terms that might help you understand the game. Clearly, rugby cannot be fully defined in such a short space, so I would recommend reading the books listed above – and anything else that will help you understand this sport.

KEY TERMS
■ Try – Worth five points. Players literally have to touch the ball down. (Many football terms evolved from rugby.)
■ Conversion kick – This is worth two points. Unlike football, this kick is positioned on angle from where the ball is touched down in the try zone.
■ Scrum – The scrum is a contest for possession of the ball that involves eight players who lock arms and push against the other team’s eight players. The ball is then rolled into the scrum. Each team pushes forward so the scrumhalf can get the ball and put an offensive play in motion. Scrums are a way to restart play after a minor infraction (or penalty).
■ Lineout – This is also a way to restart play – in this case, if the ball or a ball carrier go out of bounds. This works sort of like a jump ball, where one team’s player throws the ball down the middle of a line. Players from both teams, who are sometimes held up like in a cheerleading move, then grab fro the ball. No contact is allowed during lineouts.
■ Tackles – Players must immediately let go of the ball when they hit the ground so that play can continue. If they stay on top of the ball, a penalty is called.

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