Tuesday, March 9

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Rugby

I engaged in a minor experiment on Saturday. I wanted to see if it were possible to enjoy a sport despite knowing nothing about it. Nothing of the positions, nothing of the jargon and, least of all, nothing of the rules. I went to a rugby match. I didn't even know the name of the other team. I had to look it up afterward. They were the Nondies.

Rugby is kind of a big deal in Kenya. Maybe not so much as soccer, but there is an awful lot more local love for the sport. Kenyan preference for soccer lies mostly in England, but asked who their favorite rugby team is, they may actually say Quins or Impala or Nakuru. Kenya has even found some success on the international stage in rugby. Mid-way through the IRB Sevens World Series, Kenya has put up more than creditable performances against England and New Zealand and currently stand above Argentina, South Africa, Wales and Canada in the aggregate rankings.

When Demetra and I arrived at the Nakuru Athletic Club, it would have been an understatement to say I was dismayed. It was half-time, and the men I saw sitting in circles on the field, sucking down water, were not the solid bricks I was expecting. More like boys who never got through the awkward stages of puberty. There were big bellies and pooched-out bottoms. There was even a gawky white kid who could have been Will Foster's younger, small brother. I felt pretty good about my chances of taking any two of them in a fight. Except sumo wrestling. They'd have a distinct advantage there.

It was up to the crowds to carry my interest then. They were noticeably better heeled than those at the soccer matches. They had more designer clothes, they had softer bodies, they had cigarettes, and they had more alcohol. At least half of the people had a Tusker in hand, and a more than minor percentage brought in vodka, passing shots poured in caps between friends. Their favorite call, after questioning the referees' calls, singing something about “mnyore” and calling the white guys “cavemen,” was saying, “This is very natural terrain. It was formed by volcanic activity.” Might have lost something in the translation.

Forty-five minutes later the final whistle was blown. The guys on the field tottered and waddled off as best they could. The real rugby players ran on. These guys were big, but they were not fat. I doubt any of them weighed less than two-hundred pounds, but they were solid. Maybe not freight trains, but I would give them even odds on meeting a Subaru Outback headlong on the freeway.

So, is it possible to enjoy a sport without knowing the difference between a scrum and offsides? Most assuredly. There were lightning shovel passes along the Nakuru line before a burst and broken tackle through the Nondies and on to the endzone, or whatever, that would make me blink and ask if that had really just happened. There were stops and steals that could only be called beautiful. There was an artistry to the kicks made on the run and lifts on inbounds, or whatever, passes made from the sideline, or whatever. Sure, I may not have understood why they sometimes punted the ball straight through the uprights or from the ground on the far right side or with a single man rushing them from five meters out, but then we could make fun of just how ignorant we were.

There's another match Saturday after this coming, and a two-day tournament at the beginning of April. Should be fun.

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