The Collegian
Monday, April 15, 2024

Rugby less popular, not less important, than NFL

Was there a really important game in American football recently? Huh, I just can't seem to remember whether there was or not ... oh, wait ... I remember now: The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts for their first Super Bowl win in franchise history.

Wow. That's pretty exciting.

Now, I'm definitely a big fan of "Who Dat" nation, don't get me wrong - I'm a believer in "Breesus." But there was also a little-known (yet equally important) match across the pond. What was it? The Six Nations Championship, an annual international rugby union competition that is one of the rugby world's most exciting, intense and important tournaments.

What is rugby union, you may ask? Well, it is essentially American football, minus all the protective gear (think no helmets, shoulder pads, etc). This hard-hitting, fast-paced (and often, confusing) sport is a clash of titans - 15 per team to be exact. Big, burly men run all over a green space, tossing and kicking what looks to the average American to be an over-inflated football.

It's quite possibly one of the most exciting, bone-crushing acts of athleticism the world has ever seen. The zeal fans exude at rugby matches rivals that of the craziest American football supporters, such as the Washington Redskins' "Hoggettes."

I studied abroad in Ireland this past fall and fell in love with the international counterpart to my beloved Amurrican football: It pained me every Saturday when everyone on campus was tailgating and watching good ol' college football. I joined the ladies' rugby squad in Galway and loved trying a new sport. But what really sparked my interest in following rugby was the Irish National Rugby Union team and its amazing climb from underdog to No. 1 in the world, quite like the Saints' rise from being one of the worst teams in the NFL.

Ireland and New Orleans share similar backgrounds. They both have been overly stereotyped, with constant references to Guinness and greenery with sheep and rainbows in Ireland, and Mardi Gras with king cakes and Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Both localities have had their fair shares of devastation and destruction with everything from famine to Hurricane Katrina. Despite these images that popular culture automatically thinks of for the two places, members of these communities are loyal to their teams, even when no one else is.

Founded in 1967, the Saints took more than a decade before they managed to finish a season with a .500 record; it took them two decades before they scored a winning season, and most recently, more than four decades before reaching (and winning) the Super Bowl. Sports analysts often chided Saints fans for their continuous support of a losing program. In 1980, the Saints lost their first 14 games, prompting a local sportscaster to encourage Saints fans to wear paper bags over their heads at home games. Yet fans still poured into the Superdome, season after season, to see the Saints come marching in, despite losing efforts.

Although the Saints have accomplished a lot during their relatively short franchise history, compared with the history of Ireland's rugby, Ireland has overcome many obstacles to reach glory.

Though Irish rugby history dates back to the late 1800s, there have been several disturbances in Ireland's journey to legitimacy as an international player in the rugby world. Tensions were high during the 1972 Five Nations Championship (predecessor to the Six Nations) and during the 1973 Five Nations Championship when players from Ireland's opponents (Scotland, Wales and England) received threatening letters, purportedly from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Scotland and Wales refused to play in 1972, but England played despite terror threats.

A low point in Ireland's rugby history has been redeemed through its recent success in international play. Just as the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 proved to be successful for New Orleans, Ireland has enjoyed equal success on the international stage.

Ireland won the 2009 Six Nations Championship and Grand Slam (a similar Super Bowl-esque series of matches) in March 2009. It was the first time the team had won the championship since 1985 and it was the first time it had won the Grand Slam since 1948. Its resilient play on the road also garnered another accomplishment, as Ireland became only the second team ever to win a Six Nations Grand Slam after playing more away games than home ones. After completing the fall season with victories and one draw, Ireland headed into the 2010 Six Nations Championship as an unbeaten team.

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Here is where the championship road of the Saints and Ireland split: While the Saints celebrated a Super Bowl victory, Ireland's 12-match winning streak ended with a loss to France on Feb. 13. France halted Ireland's hopes for back-to-back Grand Slams.

I think Ireland will bounce back from this blow, perhaps even taking a page out of the Saints' playbook to try for another championship. No one can deny the determination of the fightin' Irish, whether it be their hopes of another international championship or first in line for a pint of Guinness. And America has seen how the loyal and determined "Who Dat" nation helped propel the joke of the NFL to instant superstars. Defying stereotypes and silencing critics, Ireland and New Orleans will continue to bring championship trophies home.

Contact Collegian reporter Amelia Vogler at

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