Egg-shaped. Twelve-players teams compete in England and Australia. Ten-players in Asia. The Scots invented the seven-a-side team.

Rugby is like football, everyone plays and in the end South Africa or New Zealand wins.

Right now, rugby union (fifteen-a-side) teams are competing in France for the World Cup. So far, New Zealand and South Africa each have won the trophy three times, Australia twice and England once. Rugby, although it was born in the British Isles, is dominated by teams from the other hemisphere.

This time there is a sensation already, as the Australians were eliminated from the competition in group stage. It's a bit like the Germans' recent defeats at the FIFA World Cup. Although the style of our western neighbours is more similar to the rugby players from South Africa, New Zealand is like Brazil. Poland is far from the world leaders (much more than in football), so rugby tournaments are hardly popular in our country.

Football fans complain, that they don't understand anything about rugby and they get bored during the match. Rugby fans claim that they understand football and that's why they get bored because nothing happens during the match. Without a doubt, rugby cannot be played against the clock like football. The rules of the game require activity on the pitch, hence the increasing popularity of this game around the world.

He took the ball in his hands

Legend has it that on April 7, 1823, a young man and student of Rugby School grabbed the ball in his hands while playing football and ran with it, bored, to the front. This was a violation of the football rules of the time, which allowed catching the ball, but only if you ran backwards, and you could only start the game forward with a kick. Today, William Webb Ellis has his monument in front of the school building and is widely recognised as the father of rugby.

Nowadays, many people doubt this story, considering it a mere legend. Ellis died in 1876, and only a few years after his death this legend began to be questioned. According to some claims, everything was supposed to happen a year later. In 1895, the Old Rugbeien Society conducted its own investigation into the matter, but it did not yield much; rather, arguments were sought in the internal dispute of the rugby players' community at that time, as in the year of this investigation there were serious divisions and finally a split into the rugby league and rugby union.

The 19th century was a time when the rules of sports games as we know them today were developed. It was a natural process - schools in European countries have been eager to compete with each other since the Middle Ages. Most games have their roots in schools. Moreover, the schools adopted the identifying style that is still used today, like club emblems and colours. Club colours influenced the creation of sports uniforms.

Actually, to put it simply, there are two types of games. In some, a person hits a ball or other object with his or her limbs. And these are games like football, handball, basketball, rugby and volleyball. The second type of games are those in which a ball or a shuttlecock is hit with a special object, a stick or a racket. And this is baseball, Polish palant, ice and field hockey, cricket, tennis and table tennis, badminton and lacrosse.

Another element that influenced the development of sports games was the surface used for competition. If it was grass, the game was played with hands more often, and if it was hard, it was played with legs or with sticks and various batting pads. So what was played on shaped the way how it was played. A good example is basketball, which must have a hard surface, or ice hockey.

No European domination

Football and rugby have finally hit the grass. In case of rugby, the remaining question was: how many players should be in one team. At the beginning, two teams of twenty players faced each other. In 1875, the Rugby Football Union, four years after the first international match, reduced the number of players to fifteen. And this is the most popular form of rugby, known as rugby union.

There are other, less popular varieties of rugby. Twelve-a-side teams compete in England and Australia, and Ten-a-side in Asia. The Scots invented rugby sevens (seven-a-side), which has gained popularity in recent years and has been included in the Olympic Games program since 2016.
Andrew Stoddart (1863-1915), captain of Middlesex and the England rugby team. He was also a cricketer and played Australian rules football. Photo Mary Evans Picture Library / Mary Evans Picture Librar / Forum
At the beginning of the 20th century, fifteen-a-side rugby was introduced at the Olympics. But in the end it was considered a failure and the idea was withdrawn. Rugby requires enormous physical effort from players, and teams need about a week to regenerate. Therefore, it is impossible to organise a tournament with many teams in a short period of time - and the Olympics last only 2-3 weeks.

It's different with rugby sevens: the game is fast, matches last several minutes, and the entire tournament can be played in one day. Moreover, this variety is popular among women, which is not without significance in the modern world. Rugby seven has entered the Olympic program and it seems it’s here to stay. All the more so because countries that do not stand out in other disciplines are successful here. Fiji players have won the Games twice, as rugby is the national sport of many countries in the Antipodes. Rugby is a sport where Europe and America have not dominated the rest of the world so much. South African players have been world champions three times. New Zealand won three times. Australia twice. And only once, a team from Europe – England, in 2003.

  The World Cup competition was held for the first time in 1987. Why so late? One of the reasons for this situation was the structure of the sport. For many years it was an amateur sport, and professionalism entered slowly through a side door. Finally, in the 1980s, appropriate changes were made and focus was placed on the development of rugby. The result is that today, next to the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, rugby tournaments are among the most watched television broadcasts worldwide.

Rugby and apartheid

Undoubtedly, one of the obstacles of the development of rugby was apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia (today Namibia), and these countries have always been at the forefront of this sport. Many years ago, the BBC television series "Beloved Country" filmed an episode titled "Black Men Bite". The action takes place in 1993, when "white" teams began to compete with "black" teams for the first time to overcome racial divisions. We watch these events from the perspective of the "white" team, whose leadership initiated these actions.

At one point, the players on the bus hear an announcement about murder of the Black South African communist Chris Hani. Black protests break out in South Africa. Despite the hesitations, the decision is made to continue the competition. It's boiling around the stadiums, it's boiling in the stands and it's boiling on the pitch itself. The game is becoming brutal. There are lynchings against the white population throughout the country.

The film records an unusual telephone conversation during which the coach of the "white" team exchanges information about which of his friends were injured in the riots. The interlocutors assure that in the event of a threat, they are ready to defend themselves in their homes, and on the other hand, they are sure that there’s no point of stopping the games now.

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Just two years later, in 1995, the third World Cup took place in South Africa. It was won by the Springbok team (the name is derived from an antelope, a symbol of South African national team), defeating New Zealand in the final 15:12. The World Cup was presented to South African players by Nelson Mandela wearing his national team shirt.

One Ireland

As in football, the British Isles are represented in rugby by England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. However, there’s a very important difference. There never were separate teams for Ireland and Northern Ireland. There’s always one Irish team, although it has not been without controversy and dramatic situations. Seventy years ago, on February 27, 1954, before a match against Scotland in Belfast, eleven players from the Republic of Ireland protested against the British anthem, "God Save the Queen". As a result, a shortened version of the anthem was played known as "The Salute". Previously, it was customary for the Irish anthem "Amhrán na bhFiann" to be played in Dublin and the British anthem to be played in Belfast. After this controversy, the Irish national team stopped playing in Belfast and returned there only in 2007. The playing of the British anthem also stopped. The anthem of the Republic of Ireland was played in Dublin. In turn, no anthem was performed during matches abroad. Since 1995, while the Irish play abroad, a specially composed anthem, "Ireland's Call", is played, and during matches in Dublin it’s combined with the Irish anthem.

There’s a similar problem with flags. The tricolor flag of the Republic of Ireland is used at meetings in Dublin. During matches abroad, the team uses the flag of the IRFU - the Irish rugby union federation. However, it happened that a team outside the Isles went to the match at the same time with flags of the Republic and Ulster.

Performing anthems in rugby is a special ritual, especially during the so-called home matches. Perhaps the most emotional performances belong to the Scots and Welsh.

Ireland has had a very strong national team in recent years, it is the leader of the world ranking and the biggest European favourite of the World Cup. France, the host of the tournament and a team that has lost in the finals three times, also has hopes for the trophy. Will it turn out like almost always? Will New Zealand or South Africa win again, or will Europe finally show what it’s capable of?

–Grzegorz Sieczkowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–translated by Maciej Sienkiewicz
Main photo: Rugby World Cup, Lyon, France October 2022. New Zealand players during the ritual haka dance. Photo BENOIT TESSIER / Reuters / Forum
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