I was pretty surprised to find the Rugby World Cup semifinal between New Zealand and South Africa available on broadcast TV in the US today. It's pretty rare to find matches of any variant of football other than the US game on a non-cable US broadcast, and most of those will be soccer. I've kept an eye on the Rugby World Cup as it plays out across the pond this year, but haven't watched it much since there's so much else going on in October.
Olympic rugby matches for the first time since 1924. It's the seven-a-side game, rather than the fifteen-a-side rugby union matches played in the World Cup, but clearly NBC feels it's close enough. They've also showed some rugby sevens matches occasionally in the past. Obviously they want to drum up some interest before next year's Olympics. I wish them luck with it, but I'm guessing the US audience is too preoccupied with our own version of football to pay a lot of attention.
Also no surprise that South Africa (known as the Springboks) and New Zealand (known as the All Blacks) were playing the semifinal match. Both sides have long history in international rugby. I'm no expert, but I read An Oval World: A Global History of Rugby by Tony Collins earlier this year, so I have some idea of what this matchup means. Not to mention that I've met more than a few South Africans and New Zealanders in my time, and you learn pretty quickly that any mention of the All Blacks or Springboks in that company is grounds for...let's call it "spirited conversation."
Watching the match, I was a little surprised that NBC wasn't doing more explanation of the game for the US audience. I know enough to follow the action, though I know I'm missing a lot of the subtleties. But I expect I'm in the minority among US viewers, and most have very little if any idea of what's going on. If you're looking to introduce an audience to a game, you should really dedicate some broadcast time to getting them up to speed. The announcers occasionally made an attempt to explain things, but it didn't happen often. Worse, they didn't do a very good job of explaining the real basics, such as why there's no blocking and how rucks/mauls/scrums work. A bit of a rugby primer would have been a good idea, even if it feels a bit repetitive to experienced rugby fans.
As an American, I have no real preference for either side. I always like to cheer for someone, though, and I picked the All Blacks for this one. Any time you see a New Zealand international match, you get to watch them do the haka pre-game, and that's always worth watching. (Confused? See for yourself.) Besides, I've always liked wearing black.
The match itself was certainly entertaining, from my perspective with very limited knowledge of the game. New Zealand had the ball more often, and it was in South Africa's half more often than not. The Springboks played solid defense most of the time, and took advantage when they had possession to get four first-half goals from penalties. The All Blacks got the only try in the first half, plus a drop goal (meaning kicked from play, not off a penalty dead ball, which certainly surprised me) and were down by two at the half. Early in the second half, New Zealand took the lead with their second try and added a penalty goal, but kept South Africa in the game by giving up two penalty goals. Despite those penalties, the All Blacks held on for a two point win.
Looking at the TV listings for next week, it looks like NBC is going to show the World Cup final next Saturday. It'll be New Zealand and either Australia or Argentina. I'm sure I can find a way to fit that into my viewing schedule!