MAYNOOTH, Ireland — In our first three days in Ireland, Michael Sullivan and I were barraged by the differences of a foreign land. We were baffled by Gaelic street signs, electrical outlets, several thousand drivers who all seem to be on the wrong side of the yellow lines, and a bunch of other stuff Sully covered. But rugby deserves its own, “Wait, what’s going on here?”
In the 20-plus years that I’ve lived in the good-ol’ United States of America, I have interacted with the sport of rugby three times. The first: reading an article for health class my freshman year of high school about Gareth Thomas, a talented Welsh rugby player who announced in 2009 that he is gay. The second: hearing about my high school classmate Nicole Heavirland make Team USA Women’s Rugby Sevens as a travel reserve at the Olympics this summer. The third: watching Rugby Sevens at the Olympics this summer.
So when we got a free Friday night in Ireland before covering Boston College’s game vs. Georgia Tech and chose to check out American football’s unruly cousin, we learned some things. Here are most of those things, with a couple pro tips to help you out along the way. (Disclaimer: My rugby vocabulary is probably mostly American football terms.)
The rugby experience begins (I have to assume our first experience, with Leinster facing Benetton Treviso at RDS Arena in a season-opener, is precisely the same as everyone else’s) when you get the energy to trek out to the stadium to try and buy tickets on-site five hours before the game. The ticket office is open and there’s a man behind the counter who seems like he could sell you a ticket, but instead he tells you to come back two hours later.
You make your way back to that ticket office a couple hours after he suggested, but it’s still an hour before the game, so it’s fine. But here comes the first pro tip … No. 1, avoiding buying your tickets from a man who initially calls the field a “stage,” unless he assures you that he understands rugby. If he proceeds to tell you how he knows nothing about rugby, this is a large red flag, and you will probably suffer some consequences for it.
For example, our ticket guy suggested we get these seats, since they were almost exactly at midfield.
Whoops. At least he was right about it being good to be high up.
Getting through security after that is a breeze—I had a bag and still nothing—and then you’re free to wander around in and outside the stadium. There is Guinness available everywhere (like the rest of Dublin) and everyone is taking advantage of it.
As you choose which counter you’ll go up to, you’ll pass by waves of two different types of rugby fans: those who come to the game straight after work and get drunk, and those who show up in a jersey and scarf and get drunk. In our case, everyone in the latter group was decked out in the home Leinster blue, with the exception of the two Italian fans who conveniently sat right next to us while the section was still empty.
If you get there as early as we did (another pro tip: do it), you can witness the secret enjoyment of watching warmups. The best part of the warmup (and I learned eventually the game, too) involves a cheerleader-esque routine, in which seven players stand perpendicularly to the sideline, each about two feet apart. An eighth player performs a soccer-esque throw-in to one player who is hoisted 4 to 5 feet in the air by two to three teammates, all while ‘Mr. Brightside’ plays in the background.
That brings me to another point: the music. I didn’t notice it right away, but three songs that played after ‘Mr. Brightside’ and just before the start of the game: ‘Give Me Your Love’ by Sigala feat. John Newman & Nile Rodgers; ‘Let’s Get It Started’ by the Black Eyed Peas; and ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by, well, you know. If that lineup doesn’t get you excited for some sporting action, we clearly are not meant to hang out.
As the game got going, Sully and I got pretty into it, so here are just a few notes I jotted down during the game, edited for grammar and with annotations in brackets:
- Countdown from 16-9, then did 1-8, then bench 17-plus [This was the order they introduced the players on each team. Number seemed to correspond to position.]
- There is no net on the uprights? [That is a fact.]
- The Italian team kinda just chills in the end zone coaching [There are about 60 players listed on each roster, though only about 18 play at a time. (Confession: I never counted either, but there were a lot on both.) While the game is going on, half a dozen of the Italian guys run back and forth in the end zone area, sort of stretching and sort of yelling advice. Not sure this is legal.]
- Are there rules? [I’m 95 percent sure there are real, written-down rules somewhere, but the referee seems to just chill most of the time. However, when he blows his whistle, fans still get angry and yell. Some great things are universal.]
- Ads on uniforms [Also just a fact. Didn’t bother me at all. @NBA.]
- Trainers come on during the game [Fact. There is no timeout, no stoppage in play, a couple trainers just run right out to the injured guy and fix him up. Not a bad spitball for speeding up play in the interest of #MakeBaseballGreatAgain.]
- Drunk != loud [That means “drunk does not equal loud.” I wrote that because aside from a few bad calls and a couple scores, the fans were pretty low-key. No judgment, just surprised.]
My main takeaway from this experience was that I like rugby, but rugby sevens is a lot better. It probably makes a difference that the only sevens action I’ve seen was the Olympics, but still, watching a game unfold in 14 minutes as opposed to 80 is a lot more exciting. Every possession means a lot more in that shorter game, and a couple quick scores can put a match out of reach.
Regardless, I now have experience live-tweeting a rugby game—from an Irish home win, at that—so there’s a huge gain for the résumé. Still waiting on my first rugby fan follower, but I have to assume they’ll be flocking in soon. With fire takes like this, I don’t see how they can’t.
Was following this game pretty well until we just had three consecutive scrums followed by a punt. No idea.
— Alec Greaney (@AlecGreaney) September 2, 2016
Featured Image by Natacha Pisarenko / AP Photo