Growing up on a steady feed of Test cricket, it was difficult for me to fathom why George Orwell thought sport was "war minus the shooting". There was nothing war-like about gangly, and some pot-bellied, men standing motionless inside an oval, patient as they wait for something to happen. Back then, Test matches even had a "rest" day and most matches ended in a stalemate. The football we watched was played at a leisurely pace; there were still no telecast of the Premier League or La Liga. Tennis got as bad as John McEnroe throwing a tantrum or racket.
On Friday night, however, I watched my first game of rugby and Orwell's words seemed a lot more comprehensible. Yes, I had never watched rugby before, till I drove down to the Emirates Sevens on the Dubai-Al Ain road for a rugby league friendly between the visiting English amateur side Saddleworth Rangers and our own UAE Falcons. Back home in India, I had once been to a charity game between our celluloid stars and other celebrities, but that should not count. It was not the rugby that the world plays and I hardly remember anything anyway.
Friday night will remain a lot more vivid; first for the difficult dusty, muggy conditions and then for the bone-crushing masochism on the field; and, of course, for finally understanding the import of Orwell's words. Rugby, indeed, seems like war with men arrayed like infantries of yore. Some teams even indulge in pre-game rituals that are described by laymen as war dances. Once the game starts, men bolt towards each other, storming ahead like a Hunnic cavalry charge. The one with the ball narrows his shoulders, like a cat of prey, as he dashes through enemy territory. Men from the other side, run at him, their arms outstretched, as if holding an invisible club or worse.
You can hear the bone-crushing thuds from far as they grapple to the ground, the lone attackers head being rubbed into the ground. Generally, the players maul and clobber each other, reveling "in a state of Armageddon", as someone pointed out. Oscar Wilde thought a rugby match was "a good occasion for keeping 30 bullies far from the centre of the city". PG Wodehouse was surprised that rugby allowed things "which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench".
Prudes may wince at the sadism of it all, but brutalizing is what makes the sport so wide-reaching in appeal. I have not been witness to the other code, but to take the words of an expert, former Wales international Adrian Hadley, "league is much, much more physical than union, and that's before they start breaking the rules". My friends claim league is faster and more exciting, with the ball always in motion; in union, it is usually stuck under a pile of bodies. In league, most of the points come from tries; in union, they come from penalties. The biggest difference, as many opine, is that rugby league is "a gentleman's game played by thugs", and union "a thug's game played by gentlemen".
I will have to wait till I watch a union game to make my own assessments. But did I enjoy watching league rugby? Of course I did. Contact sport seem to hold an intrinsic appeal for humans. It is the animal in us, they say. That is why thousands packed the coliseums to watch the gladiators and blood sports. But would I take the field against 250llb hulks? I could dare, but, to borrow former New Zealand coach Graham Lowe's phrase, "I would not last 30 seconds".