If You're Still Baffled By Invictus, A Rugby Primer From Our Expert

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Yesterday Hair Balls went to see Invictus with a friend who does not understand even the concept of a "first down" in American football. Since the movie revolves around -- in addition to Nelson Mandela and post-apartheid politics -- South Africa's victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, we were curious to see how she might take to the sport.

Her confusion took no longer than the first scene of the first game (which depicted a scrum) to boil over, leading her to wonder, loudly, "What the hell are they doing?"

We assumed the basics would be covered as the movie went along, but, aside from the mention that all passes must be thrown backward, no real explanation came as players packed into man-mash-ups on the field, randomly kicked balls through uprights and threw each other into the air.

Hair Balls played some rugby in college. Here's a little primer, based on what you might like to know for the movie.

The Basics
There are 15 people on each team. Play is continuous, and players switch between offense and defense as possession bounces back and forth, just like in soccer. They also run with the ball and tackle each other, like in football, and the goal is to carry the ball into the end zone for a score, also like football. And again, no forward passes (though you can kick the ball forward whenever you feel like it). The ball is shaped like a football, but it's bigger. No blocking is allowed.

The Scrum
The scrum serves the same purpose as a face-off in hockey, or a tip-off in basketball. The fattest eight people on each team huddle together -- three in front, four in the middle, and one in back. Then they push against the fattest eight people from the opposing side. Someone throws the ball into the middle of this. Each team then tries to kick it backward to their side.

When one team knocks, kicks, throws or takes the ball out of bounds, the other team gets to throw it back in -- kind of like in basketball. Except in rugby, teams form opposing lines right near the sideline, about a yard apart, and the thrower must throw the ball between those two lines. During the fight to catch the ball, players are allowed to lift each other into the air. They usually do. The thrower calls out coded plays that signal who to throw into the air and when.

If you're running with the ball, and I tackle you, you've got to let it go on the ground. Either team can now pick it up. But if someone just bends down to grab it, he's likely to get killed. So a few big guys from each team usually rush to form a mini-scrum over the ball. When one side pushes the other back far enough to expose the ball (enough so that a bird can shit on it, as the saying goes), a little man called the scrum half -- kind of like the quarterback -- quickly grabs it and passes it out to one of his teammates.

In football, when a player takes the ball into the end zone for a score, he doesn't have to touch it down to the ground. In rugby he does. Strangely, this is where the word "touchdown" came from in the first place. A try is worth five points.

After scoring a try, a team gets to attempt a free kick. If it goes through the uprights, that's worth two points. Teams can also try a free kick after a penalty. That's worth three points. And, as the movie demonstrates, it is also possible to randomly try to drop-kick the ball through the uprights whenever you damn well please. That's worth three points too.

Can be for lots of things -- not releasing the ball after getting tackled; tackling too high; throwing a punch; touching the ball during a ruck before a bird can shit on it. Penalties play a big role in the final game of Invictus, because, true to history, the only scoring comes from kicks. In the movie, the refs don't explain which penalties are being called. But that's why the teams keep getting those free kicks.

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