Word From the Scrum—Everything You Wanted to Know about Rugby But Were Afraid To Ask


Word From the Scrum—Everything You Wanted to Know about Rugby But Were Afraid To Ask

Word From the Scrum—Everything You Wanted to Know about Rugby But Were Afraid To Ask

In heated barstool debates over which is the toughest sport, rugby inevitably comes up as a top contender. American football’s forefather is deserved of its rugged rep. Popular rugger slogans like “donate blood—play rugby” and “a game where there are no players and spectators, only perps and witnesses,” aren’t just marketing smoke. Rugby is nonstop rucking, mauling, scrumming and tackling. We went mano-a-mano with former Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back turned Irish Canadian Rugby Club winger, Leonard Jean-Pierre.

Do you prefer scoring tries or knocking guys down?
Right now it’s completely equal for me—I like hitting as much as I like scoring. In football you have what is called a “de-cleater,” and in College they give you a star
on your helmet if you knock a guy completely off his feet and basically blow him up.
If I take someone right off their feet and drive them back, to me that’s as rewarding as a try.

Is learning to take a hit just as important as learning to dole one out?
Absolutely. When you are taking a hit in rugby there is a lot to think about. In football when you see a hit coming you typically secure the ball and try to get as many extra yards as you can, but at the point of contact in rugby there are many choices you can make: you can stay on your feet and go for a maul, you can go to deck and set up for a ruck, or you can offload the ball as contact is being initiated.

What’s the most agonizing drill your coach makes you run in practice?
They probably do this in soccer too, it might be a European training technique: it’s called a beep test. There’s a metronome type device that lets out a beep intermittently. Your job is to run back and forth from one line to another while keeping up with the beeps as they get faster and faster. It’s like wind sprints but you have to make it to the line before the next beep goes off. If you lose pace with the beeps you’re eliminated. It’s a great way to find out who has the best endurance on the team.

It’s been said that soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligans' game played by gentlemen, how so?
Yeah, you know what, rugby is played by gentlemen. One of the things that is still hard for me to do is control my emotions during a game. When you play football, expressing yourself is an expectation, everybody is screaming, yelling, jumping and dancing. I was so used to people celebrating scores and trash talking. Then you play a rugby game and you score a try and everybody runs back quietly, takes their positions, and the game continues. There is not a lot of outward expression during a game, it’s a very disciplined, courteous, and respectful game.

It’s rugby tradition to get together with the opposing team for a beer after a game. Is that how things go down in Canada?
Yeah, and you don’t do that in football. In football you try to destroy them, you don’t talk to them before a game, you get away from them as fast as you can afterwards, and you probably say a lot of things about their families in-between. I’ve had football coaches who fined you if you socialized with your opponents. In rugby it’s the polar opposite, you get together for a drink and get to know you opponents.

Do you like to ruck in the muck?
No, I like when weather is not a factor so that the best team wins. When it gets muddy you’re probably going to have a forwards game all in tight with no big wide passes and that means less action for the backs.

Since there is no huddle in rugby how do you know what the game plan is?
The game plan is dictated before the game in rugby. Sometimes your captain will change it mid-stride but typically once the game plan is set it doesn’t change until the half.

Why do you think Rugby didn’t catch the same way football did in North America?
I look at the U.S. and every thing that they could do to be anti-European they did. They took cricket and put the bat upright, changed the rules a little and got baseball, they started driving on the other side of the road, and they turned rugby into football. Anything that could be done to get away from European sports they did and they’re certainly not going to bring them back or start adopting them. They have their own game, so if it’s not theirs then they don’t want anything to do with it, and it rubs off in Canada.

How come so many rugby players’ ears look like cauliflowers?
When they get into a scrum, their heads are rubbing together and driving against each other and it’s just the impact of that, and some of these guys have been playing for twenty years and their ears have become solid rocks. There are all kinds of rugby specific things that go on in there which is why some guys start wearing helmets, and I don’t blame them.

You’ve played both, settle it for us: Rugby vs. Football?
It’s so hard to say which is tougher because rugby can be tougher aerobically and football can be tougher physically, it’s game to game. A wide-open rugby game with lots of running and lots of contact can be tougher than any football game, but no rugby game could match a football game against a tough defensive team with great guys on the line just pounding at you.

But in Rugby the same blokes play offense and defense.
It’s hard to say that one is tougher than the other. Football evolved from rugby so in a lot of ways they are the same. If you look at football there are three facets to the game offense, defense, and special teams. To say you don’t have to tackle if you’re on offense isn’t true because the majority of guys on offense play on special teams especially in the CFL where roster size is limited because of the budgets. So it’s not like offensive guys like myself don’t have to tackle, I spent most of my CFL career tackling.

But isn’t there’s a lot more running in Rugby?
There are some rugby games where the ball doesn’t get out to the backs that much so you feel there isn’t a lot of activity but in most games it’s a pretty balanced attack so you are running quite a bit, probably more than in football. In football, at the pro level, you have a huddle, then commercials, and all kind of stoppages in-between, whereas there is a continuity to a rugby game that requires a higher level of fitness than some positions in football do. You have a lot of people in football like lineman who don’t do a lot of aerobic activity. They block and then recover, it’s really a power position. That doesn’t exist in rugby.

The All Blacks are probably the only team casual rugby fans are familiar with, are they the Yankees of the Rugby world?
England does well too, they won the last Rugby World Cup but the All Blacks have such a big reputation. When I talk to most people about rugby the All Blacks are the only team they know. England is up there too and France is also a strong team but the All Blacks have been good so long they’re synonymous with rugby.

An abbreviated version of this story first ran in the Toronto Sun

Copyright © Mike Dojc, 2006

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