I used to love rugby. Too nervous for handball, too near-sighted for football, as a teenager I spent the time devoted to sports at school on the rugby team of my high school. But I hadn’t been to a good game or seen a really great match for a long time, as I did last Saturday in Dublin, at the invitation of the All Blacks.
I was struck again by this strange characteristic of rugby, that of being the only sport where, like Michael Jackson moonwalking, one advances by retreating.
The beauty of this contrast between the hand that can only go sideways, toward the back, and the foot that can only attack to pull the game forward, came back to me.
And I thought of another contrast, even more essential, between the intelligence of hands, feet, and body–and the incalculable lunacy of a ball that goes wherever it pleases, ruining human plans and, in sum, doing whatever it likes. Oh, the capricious comicalness of a rebound that, in the words of Jean Lacouture, pope of rugbyology, is remniscent of nothing less than « the audacity of free verse ».
Most of all, I rediscovered this diversity of human physique that, counter to the cliché of the rugbyman who’s built like a Sherman tank, actually makes up a team. There are brawny builds and slight ones, the feline suppleness of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw’s energy, Mils Muliaina’s air of a musketeer and that of stocky second line Anthony Boric. There are eels and rams, those who slither and those who pound, the unstoppable Conrad Smith and the discreet Kieran Read who strikes like a thunderbolt before scoring. It takes all kinds to make a world, and it takes as much to make a team. The difference between football and rugby is that the team is, in one instance, the sum of talents acquired on the world market of transfers, and in the other, this microcosm of society depicted in Jean Giraudoux’s texts about rugby in the 30s.
The cohesion of the players and of the game.
The religion of fellowship and fraternity.
Not to selfishly pocket the credit for having scored a last goal when it can be more profitable to harass the adversary together until the very end.
Inventive attacks and returns where everyone sticks together.
Vehement openings and dummy moves that look like a well-rehearsed ballet.
An ace at tripping here, and there a champion of outflanking on the sides, and between the two a complicity that, one easily guesses, was there before the game and will be there afterwards.
Who is the better attacker, the forward, the expert at half-turn contact, or the one from behind that no one (except the forward) saw coming?
Should one force his way or break off and relay to another in a pass so smooth and straightforward one would think it the action of one player–with four legs?
Should one change feet or change bodies outright, letting the next body play?
When Carter passes to Donnelly, you’d swear he has eyes in the back of his head to see him take the ball.
Nonu’s last run, flying over the field before making that pass en cloche Carter would recover.
They say it’s an obscure sport with no rules. No! The rules are strict and diabolically complex, to the extent that part of the All Blacks’ strength comes from the way they play the rules, borderline with an error, but never actually stepping over the line.
They say it’s a sport for brutes, all a question of power and attack. No! A combat sport, yes, one should call it a martial art, because it’s composed of intelligence and strategy. And so it was that this Saturday, the fighting spirit of the Irish in the last fifteen minutes, when they had lost and they knew it, showed the very best of their gallantry. Thus in this manner, it was up to Carter, again, to size up the adversary and, like a judoka, cannibalize his weaknesses to transform them into power.
It’s a violent, savage sport, others insist, because there’s naked violence in the scrum, in the plaquage, or in the way the attacked team opposes the attacker with a wall of heads and chests. But does anyone know that the Haka, this Maori warrior hymn the All Blacks chant before the match, is less a victory chant than an anticipated prayer for the vanquished? Does anyone know that Saturday, the field of Dublin Stadium was the only place on the planet where Northern Irish and fans from the Republic could confront the same adversary, share the same prayer? And what a lesson when, as New Zealander Boric concentrated before the kick to mark the goal before converting the try, and the crowd of supporters observed a long silence–downright religious and uncommonly respectful–for those who are familiar with the hysteria of football!
And then, the «third half-time»….
This dinner after the match, when the players of the two nations gathered.
The toast of the captain of the All Blacks, to the Irish and their « beautiful game ».
That of the Irish to the mysterious and persistant supremacy of the All Blacks.
And these tables where the winners and the vanquished joyfully replayed the match.
I watched O’Driscoll, the Irish captain, his arm injured, clinking glasses with his New Zealand counterpart.
I listened the New Zealander Woodcock and the Irishman Wallace telling each other of their real lives, the ones they would resume again next week, at home, when it would all be over.
And I thought to myself that Zidane’s head-butt, his deep-rooted hatred for Materazzi, their overblown and even more dramatized reconciliation, would be almost impossible here.
Football and rugby are like Corneille and Racine, or the Stones and the Beatles, or a Mac and a PC. They are two different parties. Two religions. And one must choose between the two. For my part, I have made my choice. Today as yesterday, the style, the beauty, the fair-play of rugby.