Scottish Rugby Reflections

This past weekend I went to my first Rugby match and watched Scotland narrowly defeat Ireland 12-8. This match was the third out of five games that Scotland is meant to play as part of the Six Nations Tournament (which includes England, Wales, France, and Italy as well). Last year Scotland earned the Wooden Spoon: the shameful prize awarded to the team that loses all five matches. Yet this year has been different. Although Scotland lost to England in the opening week by a significant margin, they pulled out an impressive victory against Italy the week after. So with this past weekend’s victory that puts Scotland up 2-1 in the tournament and tied for 2nd place with Wales. And this was actually the first time that Scotland has won back-to-back games since 2001. Needless to say, Scotland is quite the underdog, and this made yesterday all the more exciting.

Prior to coming to the UK in September 2011 I had very little knowledge about the sport. Because of my love of American Football, finding an appreciation for Rugby has been natural due to some similarities between the two. I still don’t understand all of the rules and penalties, but I think I understand about 90% of the game. In some ways, Rugby can be more exciting than American Football because of the overall pace of the game and the fact that the players don’t wear any padding. Though in my opinion, nothing beats the strategic genius of American Football.

Yet there’s something about this past weekend’s experience that is completely lacking from American Football that shined brightly in Edinburgh: love of country. Sure, American Football, like all American sports, often begin with a national anthem, and on the whole Americans are very patriotic, but the players aren’t playing for their country. They are playing for the city where their team is located, and often times, players aren’t even loyal to these cities. Free agency has completely destroyed loyalty. This is all very disillusioning for a sports fan in America, especially one who grew up in Las Vegas where there are no professional teams to cheer for. The particular plight of the Las Vegas sports fan is that whatever team s/he roots for, in whatever sport, they have no corporate connection with a city to reinforce their own loyalty. So if certain players that you love on your favorite team leave for more money, you’re left wondering how Team X can legitimately be my team anymore. This is especially why the whole point of professional sports is the community and not the players. I’ve experienced this particularly as a Basketball fan since I am technically a Houston Rockets fan. They’ve been my favorite team for a long, long time. Yet the players who run around on the court this season are completely different from a few years back. And this isn’t because players have gotten older and retired. It isn’t a generational issue. It’s a money issue, a trading issue, and a lack-of-loyalty issue. This makes me wonder how the team I support is still the Rockets. The only continuity is with the city, Houston. But I’ve never lived in Houston, and I don’t have any friends who are Rockets fans. If there is no continuity, to what am I loyal?

My disillusionment with professional sports in America was deepened this past weekend with the Rugby match. In America we don’t have many opportunities for international sports. The main sports – American Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey – are all played on the continent in very structured leagues. (North) American teams play (North) American teams. A few times each decade Americans get into the international-sport-spirit with the Olympics and the World Cup, but hardly any other time. And to be honest, we’re much more concerned with our sports and our professional leagues. We are a strongly commercialized and consumer-driven culture. And this is prominent in our sports culture. What I’ve described is obviously completely different elsewhere in the world. In Europe there is a strong sense of national pride with these international matches and I felt it strongly on Sunday. Indeed, the international matches are given way more significance to the average European than club matches, which is especially apparent since the Rugby players who comprise the international teams are chosen from out of various professional clubs. Yet the club matches and international matches run concurrently. This would never happen with American sports. So everything about the Rugby match was very unique to me.

When we first arrived in the stadium a song that was recorded by the Scottish Rugby Team was playing on the big TV screens. You can genuinely feel the love of country in the song, and what made it all the more endearing was the fact that the players themselves were singing. Check out the video:

Just prior to the match the Scottish and Irish players linked arms and sang their national anthems. The Scottish anthem was highly emotional; the first stanza was sang with accompanying bagpipes and for the second stanza all instruments cut out and the whole stadium sang acapella. Here is a rough video of the second stanza that my friend recorded on his phone:

At this point I can already feel the passion and the love for Scotland. The fervor was so contagious. And I cheered on the team with the rest of the Scots around me. It was an incredibly exciting game, though Scotland probably should have lost (time of possession was ridiculously lop-sided in favor of Ireland). Up by four points with 3 minutes left in the game it really felt like Ireland was gonna pull out the victory with a last-minute Try (think Touchdown if you’re American; you earn 5 points with the chance to convert for 2 extra by kicking). Yet Scotland’s defense held them from scoring and the stadium was electric.

My experience with all of this was cemented further on the train ride from Edinburgh to St Andrews. The carriages were considerably over-crowded and there was a mixed group of Scotland and Ireland supporters standing all around me. One such Irish supporter – who was quite drunk – spoke with a rather obvious London accent. Everything seemed fine and cordial initially, despite the spattering of green and blue jerseys in the train, until one Scottish guy challenged the Irishman. Many words were exchanged, loads of explitives, and the gist of the dispute was over whether or not this Irish supporter was truly Irish. It got very heated and the exchange got increasingly more vulgar and hostile. I kept thinking why does it matter if he’s Irish or not? And, since I was wearing a Scottish Jersey, I thought that if they heard my accent they would know that I’m the real poser (especially since I don’t fully understand the game). But as I thought about the confrontation later that night (which partly made me giggle because of how over-the-top and ridiculous it was) I realized that this went deeper than one person being a “poser.” The Scottish guy obviously didn’t have a problem with any of the other Irish supporters, since he didn’t confront them at any point. So the offense wasn’t simply that this guy was supporting Ireland, or even that he should be supporting someone else (such as England). Rather the point of the altercation ran much deeper. From the Scottish guy’s perspective (though this was never stated), this Irish supporter was just a posh Londoner who came to a Scotland match just to root for the opposing team. This was a microcosm of the larger feud between England and Scotland. The nerve that was struck was the same one that desires the independence of Scotland from the UK (for those that are unaware, this is a big issue at the moment). As an American outsider who knows very little about the political situation of the UK and the potential implications of Scotland’s independence, this past weekend felt like a unique window into the heart of many Scots. I think independence is most likely a bad idea, but I could sense from the confrontation on the train that Scottish pride runs deep. And the line between sports and politics is actually much thinner on this side of the pond. The same underdog spirit battling on the Rugby pitch this past weekend fills many Scots in the political arena as well. It is this webbing of politics, love of country and sports, that really struck me on Sunday. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it in all of my years as a sports fan in America.