Among the many things I never thought I would do in my life and have done, the latest is watching a game of rugby. Rugby is not a sport I had been brought up with or even heard about up to approximately three years ago. Baseball, basketball, American football and soccer were the common sports when I was young over in the New World. As far as I was concerned, rugby had not crossed the Atlantic nor darkened the door of my luminous existence.
I was first introduced to rugby during my second summer visit to Salies while dining at the Hotel du Parc. A visiting rugby team was staying at the hotel and happened to have a table near mine. They were boisterous, obviously celebrating a victory, and all my mind could produce was the derogatory term “thugs”. Seldom had I seen a collection of such brawny, rugged, bear-like men and I remember feeling both attraction and repulsion. The following day I noticed their uniforms hanging from the balconies of the hotel to dry. To “thugs” I added “uncouth” and dismissed any future interest I might have in the sport. To me, it seemed but a primitive version of American football without the padded uniforms. But rugby is the passion in the South-West of France so it was only natural that I was to get more.
It was after moving into my delightful little artist’s loft that I noticed I had a distant view of the local rugby field and discovered that I could hear the shouts and cheers during a match. No problem. If I had successfully weathered the enormous Bernabeu football stadium a mere three long blocks from my Madrid apartment for over nine years, what could a small town playing field produce that couldn’t be integrated into my daily comings and goings, or just plain ignored? Little did I suspect that rugby was not going to come into my life from the field but rather through friendship?
To make a long story just the right length, the Saturday in question I strolled over to the Café des Thèrmes for my usual cup of coffee with Kiwi-san and was surprised not to find him sitting outside. In spite of the fact that it was a cloudy morning, the temperature was mild and it wasn’t raining so there was nothing to keep him from occupying one of the small tables on the sidewalk. Salomé discovered him sitting in the dingy light of the café.
“Why inside?” I queried, settling myself into the booth.
He pointed to the large television hung on the wall. Of course! I had forgotten! That day was the big rugby game between France and New Zealand in the World Rugby Championship.
“Oh my god, that’s right! I’m surprised you’re even here!”
“It hasn’t started yet; not till 10:30. Time for a coffee and then I’ll race home to catch the Haka,” he said, breaking off a morsel of croissant for Salomé.
Haka, according to Wikipedia, is a traditional ancestral war cry dance or challenge from the Maori people of New Zealand. It has been adopted by the national New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, as a pre-match display. Chance had it that I had already seen a display of the Haka by the Nude Blacks, an amateur rugby team that plays in the nude (yes, totally) in a video that Kiwi-san had sent me of a game against a Spanish female rugby team (the girls played in shorts and tee-shirts which they removed every time they scored –revealing bras and panties- and put back on every time the Nude Blacks scored). The video was short and extremely entertaining (a team of nude rugby players running across a field and being tackled by or tackling a bunch of girls was certainly out of the ordinary) and the added pleasure was that the girls won.
The Haka itself looked like a band of naked gorillas shouting, posturing and gesticulating fiercely so as to frighten the ‘ladies’ grouped in front of them. It actually made me smile as if watching little boys trying to scare off a big bad wolf.
A few minutes later my friend said his good-byes and raced off to his house and the game. I, not being particularly interested, strolled leisurely through town with Salomé.
However, when I got home the large, black screen in the guest bedroom exercised a strange attraction (I almost never turn it on). ‘Maybe I’ll catch the Haka’ I thought as an excuse for mindlessly crossing over and switching on the television. I didn’t get to see the Haka; the game was already seven minutes into play, but what I did see mesmerized me. One of the All Blacks had gotten the ball and had started to run. As if on signal, the rest of the team fanned out behind him in a V-like formation much as a brace of flying ducks. And then they began to move resembling an enormous human wave. As each player with the ball was tackled and downed, the ball would seem to magically fly to the next in line behind him, who in turn would move forward. It was almost as if the ball had a life of its own as it rippled the length of the wave of players, driving each one forward into the brunt of opposing team members. It was a dance of precision so elegant, graceful and beautiful that one completely forgot the violence exerted against each downed player. The silent protagonist was the ball; each member of the team was there only to serve its flight. And then suddenly, the last player upon receiving the prize broke loose and ran and dodged and leapt in such a fashion as to leave the opposing force behind and score what Kiwi-san later told me was called a “try”. I was breathless. The excitement was rising in my throat and tears wet my cheeks. I was practically doing the Haka!
I was hooked or rather ‘haka’ed. There was no way I wasn’t going to watch that game. In order to soothe my anti-violence-intellectual personality that considers rugby a lower form of human expression similar to the rutting of animals, I pulled out the ironing board and the clothes to be ironed and told myself that it would be a good exercise listening to the French while I did my duties, but the truth was I was watching a game of rugby.
In between these displays of elegant teamsmanship, the game seemed to take on the general, rough and tumbling aspect of American football. There were chargings and pushings, pullings and tumblings, and more often than not what we used to call in high school “monkey-piles”, which looked like a general free-for-all with everyone piling on top of the guy with the ball. Then I began noticing something interesting about this so-called “monkey-pile”. My impression had been that the fallen man’s team members piled on to push the opposing team members off, but it seems that it is not only for that, for I began to observe that they were forming a “nest” around the lower half of the fallen player who usually had the ball under his body (from whence the opposite team was trying to extract it). The companions of the fallen player were both keeping the opposite team off him as best they could, and forming a kind of tunnel, a birth canal so to speak, for from this opening, through tiny spasms of movement on the part of the fallen player, the ball was to be born much as an egg emerging from the mother hen. As I watched, not what apparently was going on in the violent pushing’s of the pile, but what was gestating in the barely perceptible contractions of that trembling body as a whole, I saw the small egg-like object emerge so gently and unobtrusively as not to be noticed by any of the players for what seemed like an eternity and was but a few seconds. And then one of them saw it and actually looked surprised that it should be there so completely and innocently free, and in what seemed like an offhand gesture so as not to be noticed, scooped it up and put it once more to flight, that dainty egg. And this continued to happen. Every time they monkey-piled the ball-egg would be slowly, gently, lovingly pushed out and found by a player who immediately looked as if he had never again expected the miracle to be repeated, the liberating of the ball while the tangle pushed and pulled transformed into this strange gestating animal. And once free, the ball would fly again and the game recommence.
So there were two delights: the fanning out and the tangle, the dance and the nesting, the bird in flight and the embryo. One I watched with rapture, the other with apprehension and excitement, unable to believe the poetry that has been woven into this age-old game. And then, of course, there was the added delight that New Zealand won a whopping victory and I finished my ironing and nobody died in the process.