Rugby World Cup, including US, kicks off Friday
The Rugby World Cup, which takes place every four years, commences in New Zealand Friday. It is being broadcast by NBC/Universal and can also be streamed on the internet at RugbyWorldCup.com
Taking place among eleven cities in the host country, the tournament consists of four âpoolsâ of five teams each, and comprises some of the best rugby teams or "unions" from around the world â including those from the âSix Nationsâ tournament and the âTri Nationsâ group, which features Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Teams vie for the Webb Ellis trophy, as the cup is also known. Itâs named for William Webb Ellis, the 19th century Anglican minister who is believed to have invented the game while a student at the Rugby School in England.
A highly physical game that in many ways loosely resembles American football, rugby uses an oblong, egg-shaped ball, which is a bit larger and more rounded than a typical American football. As in football, one can score points by kicking through uprights situated at the far-lengths of the field through so-called âdrop goals,â and players can also run the ball into the goal, called a âtryâ as opposed to the American football âtouchdown.â
However, there are also significant differences. Rugby uniforms offer little in the way of physical protection, and the game doesnât include anything resembling the number of clock stoppages that American football, with all its âplaysâ and âtime outs,â utilizes. Rugby and football teams each feature âflankers,â âhalf-backs,â âfullbacksâ and âcentres;â but trying to compare rugby and football âfullbacksâ would be like comparing the football âhuddleâ to the rugby âscrum.â They may appear similar, but thatâs where the comparison ends.
In this World Cup setting, all of the nations play four in-pool games â one each against their fellow pool opponents. Point and other systems are used to gauge rank during the tournament, which have been established by the International Rugby Board (IRB). The winner and runner-up of each pool then enter what is called the âknock-outâ stage, which consists of quarter-finals, semi-finals, and a final match. The so-called âBronze Finalâ matches the losers of their semi-finals matches against each other to determine a third-place finisher.
In the six quadrennial tournaments held so far, Australia and South Africa each own two titles, and England and New Zealand have one cup apiece.
The USA team has quietly qualified for every RWC tournament since 1987, and though theyâve had mixed results in past appearances (theyâre 2-15 overall in that time), their present team includes eight former alumni of the University of California at Berkeley and promises to be one of the strongest theyâve yet fielded.
The USA team captain, flanker Todd Clever - who plays professionally for the Suntory Sungoliath of the Japanese Rugby Football Union - is cautiously optimistic about the Americansâ chances within Pool C, which also includes Russia, Ireland, Italy and Australia. âWe want to start off strong, but itâs a huge ask against Ireland. Four short days later weâve got Russia. Thatâs going to be a tough game, but itâs one that weâre picking out to get a victory from - and Italy as well.â Russia, it should be noted, is playing in its very first World Cup.
Tonga, with a current population of 105,000, is the smallest country represented - this being its sixth RWC appearance overall. It is one of numerous Pacific teams, including the host New Zealand All-Blacks, that begin each match with a ritual. The Sipi Tau, a traditional song sung prior to matches, accompanies the Kailao - a war-dance meant to display the teamâs discipline, obedience and skill. Tonga rounds out a complement of three strong Pacific island teams, including Fiji and Samoa.
Of all the nations competing, Namibia may have the most to prove. It has been to three Rugby World Cups (1999, 2003 and 2007) where it finished 19th of 20 teams in 1999, and a rock-bottom 20th in each of the latter two. The team's main goal, it would seem, is to qualify for the next World Cup cycle. They are currently ranked 20th in the world; but nearly thirty âratings pointsâ behind perennial powerhouse New Zealand. And speaking of the host team, if one goes purely by the organization of the pools and world rankings, there is an excellent chance of New Zealand and South Africa facing off in the semi-finals, with that winner potentially meeting Australia in the final â with other strong teams like France and England looking to pounce at the first sign of weakness.