This coming weekend sees the 4th round of matches in the annual Six Nations rugby tournament, contested by the main rugby playing nations in Europe. The four British countries are joined by France and, since 2000, Italy (prior to that it was cunningly known as the Five Nations tournament). The format is pretty straightforward; over six weekends in February and March each nation will play the other five. Three games at home and three away, home field advantage for any one particular tie is alternated each year. Winning all five games is known as the Grand Slam.
France and England have been most successful over the decades but, arguably, the most exciting team was the Welsh side of the 1970s. Rugby is the national sport in Wales and they produced a superb crop of players at the time. These days it is all a bit of a mixed bag as to who will come out on top, with the exception of Scotland and Italy who always seem to struggle. Arguably the strongest teams are in the Southern hemisphere (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) but the European tournament is one of the most open and always a thrilling spectacle. You might be lucky enough to find yourself on a plane full of harmonious Welsh fans (few anthems are as stirring as the Welsh one) or find Paris packed with Scottish fans (always a great atmosphere – the Auld Alliance standing firm).
Would you like to experience Britain and Ireland? Check out our Britain and Ireland in Depth educational tour with optional excursion to Paris!
The sport began at the public (fee paying) school of Rugby in the 1820s with the apocryphal tale that during a game of football (soccer) William Webb Ellis, a student at the school, picked up the ball and ran with it. Surely it would have been enough for the referee to have sent him off for handball and then England could have carried on playing only soccer and concentrated fully on the crushing disappointments ahead. Instead, Rugby School became the venue for the drawing up of the first set of rules and the game’s development began apace.
In essence rugby has many similarities with American Football, maybe a little less dance-based celebration when someone runs three yards with a ball (NFL). The most obvious difference is in the kit, rugby players wear very little by way of protection and padding is not used. As for the rules, the main one is that the ball must never be passed forward. The ball can be passed sideways or behind and then teams gain ground by running with it (or kicking to try and gain ground upfield). Tackles must be from the waist down and when a player is tackled and hits the ground the ball is still live but he must release it (shielding it from the opposition with his body). Scoring is pretty straightforward, five points for a try (like a touchdown) with the two points for a conversion kicked from 22 yards – however, the kick has to be in line with where the try was scored, so touching down nearer the posts is best. Penalties can be kicked from anything up to 50 yards (for three points) and a drop goal also scores three (the player drops the ball and kicks as it touches the ground, it has to go between the posts). There are some wonderful bundles around scrums, rucks and mauls which offer the opportunity to indulge in some sneaky gouging, squeezing and the odd scrape of the cleats – rugby has never been for the shy.
If you find yourself in Europe this Spring then you will be around for the climax to the rugby season when International, European and domestic games will be on and you will easily find a chance to watch. Locals will be happy to help with explaining the rules so settle back and enjoy the show.
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