A sight of big men, bruised, tackling each other to the ground with a spherical ball all to fight for is not everyone’s ideal cup of coffee. But for rugby fans, this is the real thrill.
For them, rugby is one game that, as one local coach described it, ‘separates boys from men or girls from women.’
If there is one sport that can divide opinions, rugby is all that sport. Locally, many people regard rugby as a sport of ‘hooligans,’ played by gluttons of pain who take delight in bashing each other. In his explanation of rugby, Henry Blaha once said, “Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by beasts; football is a beastly game played by beasts.”
While local rugby experts agree that indeed rugby is a contact sport, they are, however, adamant that the sport is just like all other sports.
“Rugby is a team sport, with specialised positions just like any other. It has its own rules and regulations, which players and officials are expected to abide by,” said Gaborone Hogs’ Barend Botha.
Botha’s sentiments were echoed by the Botswana women’s national team coach, Shaun Lees, who added that because of rugby’s physical nature, the sport is one of the most well-managed to ensure players’ safety.
“We have two popular rugby formats, the 15 a-side and the 7’s rugby. 15 a-sides are played by 15 players per team while the 7’s rugby is played by seven players a side,” Botha said.
In the bigger 15 a side format, the 15 players who take to the pitch fall into two categories, the eight forwards and the seven backs. Unlike in football where the forwards attack and the backs defend, the opposite is true in rugby.
The forwards are mostly made of big men who can fight for the ball, win it and pass it to the backs who are the equivalent of strikers in football. “The forwards are not the biggest players but are mostly the fastest and are the ones who are expected to score,” Lees said.
Both coaches, however, concede that with the evolution of rugby over the years, the physical size of the forwards has increased and many of them are now very big in stature, a trend which can be traced to the emergence of New Zealand’s legendary winger, Jonah Lomu.
“Lomu was one of the biggest wingers in the game. Besides his big physical presence, he was also a very speedy winger, which is an attribute of a winger,” Botha said.
Another difference between rugby and the other sports is in how to pass the ball. Unlike in football where the ball can be passed both forwards and backwards, rugby players are not allowed to pass balls forward. Any pass forward is deemed off side and players can only pass to players in line with them or behind them. In cases where passes are made forward, these are made by kicking the ball upfront.
With rugby being a contact sport, the two say the rules governing the sport are very strict, more especially when it comes to what constitutes illegal tackles and unsporting behaviour. According to the duo, any tackle above the shoulders is deemed ‘dangerous tackle’ and players committing such tackles are either given yellow cards or red, depending on the gravity of the tackle.
“If you are given a yellow card, you have to spend ten minutes on the sidelines while your team plays with a man short. This is to give a player time to think of his misdeed. However, if you get a second yellow, you get a red card, meaning you are sent off the field,” Lees expanded.
He further added that getting a straight red card is rare in rugby and for a player to get it; he/she should have committed a very grave offence. While both Lees and Botha agree that rugby is a contact sport, they said the sport cannot be described as a ‘hooligans’ sport,’ something which they say can be supported by the least number of severe injuries occurring in games.