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Mauls Not Malls

July 21, 2009

A recent New York Times article highlighted the efforts of Glendale, Colorado to reshape its image through rugby.  The town, which is surrounded by Denver, is currently known as the strip-club capital of the metropolitan area.

The decision to place mauls at the center of development and not malls reflects in part the game’s renewed popularity in the United States and the opportunity to capitalize on the location of the sport’s national governing body in another nearby Denver suburb.  So, what is it about this sport that gives Glendale’s city elders hope that it can transform the local culture and economy.

For starters, rugby is an intensely social game.  The games adherents are fanatically loyal and the social aspects of the game the stuff of legend among legions of players and fans alike.  Players, including those in the professional ranks, don’t wear their names on their jerseys, which instead bear numbers denoting their positions not their individual identities.

Unlike American football (or gridiron football as it is know in rugby-playing nations), the players wear little or no padding under their uniforms.  An uniformed observer of the game watching the players tackle one another and contest possession of the ball will often think the players must be quite mad — often in both of the common senses of the word at once.  This is perhaps the most ludicrous assumption of all those attached to the game by Americans.

Rugby, unlike gridiron football, is played by 15 players (both men’s and women’s teams compete).  The players perform both offensive and defensive roles, and usually play two continuous 40-minute halves without stopping only for serious injuries that obstruct the run of play.  Substitutions of players are limited, and players who leave the game for any reason except for treatment of bleeding may not return.

Any player on the field can carry the ball or score.  The various playing positions favor athletes of diverse body types and physical abilities, which means rugby teams often include people of diverse character as well as physique.

The  player carrying the ball down the field cannot pass the ball forward, and must either pass to a teammate following behind or kick ahead the ball ahead to be chased by either himself or another play starting from a position behind him.  No one may run in front of the ball carrier to engage or obstruct a defending player.  When a player is tackled, he must immediately play the ball so that any player on his feet from either his own or the opposing team can pick it up and play it forward.

The laws (not rules) of rugby, make cooperation and support from one’s teammates important.  Controlling possession of the ball requires an intimate knowledge of each others’ movements and the ability to adapt on the run to the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses to create opportunities and capitalize on their mistakes.

Players learn early in their careers, starting at the youth level, to respect the decisions of referees.  Like baseball umpire’s decisions concerning balls and strikes, the rugby referee’s decisions are indisputable within the bounds of the playing field.

At the end of the game, players from both sides routinely line up to thank one another for a well-played contest.  All animosity and antagonism is left on the pitch, and players from both teams often join one another afterwards for a cold beer or a barbecue.

Rugby rewards determination, teamwork, fair play, and diversity.  It’s played at a fast pace and often appears brutal, but gives everyone a chance to contribute and even the opportunity to score.  It makes you wonder why gridiron, not rugby has become the dominate fall and winter sport in the United States.  After all, the United States was once the dominant rugby playing nation in the world (it still holds the Olympic gold medal in the sport, which was last featured in the 1932 games in Los Angeles).

I for one hope Glendale adopts not just the game of rugby, but also the principles it embodies.  If this proves successful, who knows, maybe we’ll see the USA Eagles win the Rugby World Cup in few years’ time?

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