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(From the New York Press, 11/29/2006)




SULLIVAN: I was recently on Randall's Island investigating a story on a serial mugger when I came upon a disturbing sight. A group of lumpy middle-aged men in striped shirts looked like they were sexually assaulting a little man on the bottom of a pile of humanity.


When the dust cleared I realized that the men were playing the quaint and ancient game of rugby. Rugby is a sport that evolution passed by—see football—but it is kept alive, at least in America, by college students and old frat boys who still want to play a sport that makes them feel like some kind of rough and tumble men. Watching them play this silly sport is sort of like seeing a flock of dodo birds do their flightless fowl thing.


Now outside America, rugby is huge, as is Australian football, but I'll be damned if I can tell the difference between the two, other than the fact that the Aussies wear those embarrassing short shorts while they bounce around the pitch.


In September 2007 there will be a Rugby World Cup, which the International Rugby Board claims that more than 3 billion people will watch. I don't buy that number, but if rugby is big in the world, I still don't care. That number is inflated. Rugby is even more boring than soccer and NASCAR and that is saying something.


HOLLANDER: Three billion? That must take into account the world's prison population. Maybe the sport enjoyed a huge boost in popularity last week after NY Press put out its "Rugby Special"—no doubt an historic first in the annals of New York City print media. 


In interests of full disclosure, I must admit I've never played rugby. Having watched it, however, I'll stick with the bliss of my ignorance. I won't soon forget the summer of 2000 I spent on a semi-secluded beach in the Gulf of Thailand as the lone American amongst packs of Aussies and Brits who tried to explain to me the difference between rugby and Australian Rules football. Thank God there was plenty of weed to dull their droning. Seizing the high ground, I assured one new friend from New Zealand that such a patently racist team name as the "All Blacks" would not go over well in the States. He kindly explained that the name had nothing to do with the racial composition of its players. Oh, I see.


Look, I could connect to their passion for it. I could relate to their rivalries. But, as you say, the sport itself comes off like the under-evolved ancestor of American football. The contest appears to deemphasize any demonstrations of the athletic skill at its higher levels. Speed and dexterity seem nonexistent. Rugby has only the rudiments of sport. By today's standards, it is relatively unimaginative and almost Cro-Magnon in its objectives. It's as if a sub-human species lacking opposable thumbs created a game about moving a ball forward.


So, yes, it's a sport—just not one I can get that into.


SULLIVAN: Well, I have trouble with any contest that has the No. 1 ranked team in the world of rugby as New Zealand. Nothing against the Kiwis, but they have all of 4 million people living in the country. New York City has double the people that live on those South Pacific islands so either they are really good athletes or rugby is—at best—a fringe sport that few play; therefore a small country can rule the rugby roost.


Now speaking of fringe sports, I would rather watch the rousing Irish game of hurling. Hurling is like an insane combination of football and baseball. In the spring, make your way up to Gaelic Park in the Bronx and watch wild Irishmen swing clubs and hit balls as they tackle and maim each other. It is like some ancient game of roller ball.


Rugby, by comparison, just looks so fey, especially when the men butt up and get into a scrum. There is just too much ass contact for extended periods for me to watch a game for very long. I never played the game, but I've watched it enough to know of what I speak. I have also seen Brokeback Mountain. They looked pretty similar to me.


HOLLANDER: Before you make many of us hurl, I will shunt aside your backwoods homophobia and redirect us to the issue at hand. There's plenty to make us uncomfortable about rugby—that it's long been the province of prep school types, that it's simply a pretext to get drunk and hit somebody, etc. What makes me squirm is the word "scrum." It sounds like a contraction for the word "scrotum." Or it's shorthand for combining two words, "scrotum" and "scum." Whatever it is, there's an onomatopoeic quality to "scrum" that feels dirty. I Googled "scrum" and, lo and behold, there's a scrum.com, offering comprehensive news, scores, standings and everything else that's rugby. I felt sick, like I had scrum all over me.


But I'll give credit where credit is due. Nando Parrado played rugby. Who is Nando Parrado? He was part of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed deep in the Andes Mountains October 1972. In order to survive without food and water for 72 days in the lifeless glacier, Parrado and his teammates ate the flesh of their dead friends. Facing his own imminent death, Parrado and another teammate left the plane wreckage clothed merely in layered sweatshirts and trekked on foot for 10 days all the way to find help in Chile. In the process they scaled a 15,000 foot peak that not even the most experienced mountain climbers equipped with all the best gear would attempt to conquer, especially not at that time of year. Parrado did it with sneakers and his bare hands. He survived. And he led a rescue expedition back to the crash site to save his teammates.


In his recent memoir of survival, Miracle in the Andes (Crown), Parrado explained that "rugby was more than a game, it was a sport raised to the level of moral discipline." He believed that "no other sport taught so devoutly the importance of striving, suffering and sacrificing in pursuit of a common goal."


"Most all of all," said Parrado, "the game demanded that teammates develop an unshakeable sense of trust." Where would Nando Parrado be today without rugby?



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