Why every improviser should be watching the rugby world cup

Why every improviser should be watching the rugby world cup

This Saturday is the final of the Rugby World Cup 2019. The burly steak-fed South Africa face the burly sausage-and-mash-fed England. England’s first time out of the pool stages for twelve years comes to a head in a grudge match against a springboks team out to prove a point. Does Eddie Jones have more tricks up his sleeve? Can Maro Itoje retain his ruthless form? Will Cheslin Kolbe be back? The chances are, if you are an improviser, you are only dimly aware of the Rugby World Cup and these names mean nothing. Maybe, like many improvisers, you were last picked at sports and still shudder at the idea of gum guards and muddy, cold games lessons dominated by the sporty kids. Why would you return to that in your adult life? 

But I have to tell you, you are missing out. You are missing out on the controversy over safety, tackling laws and inconsistent refereeing. You are missing out on Scotland nearly going to court over a match cancelled because of a hurricane. You are missing out on Japan’s extraordinary run and final defeat (revenge for Brighton 2007 anyone?). You missed out on the sheer beauty of Uruguay and the ongoing question of whether the All Blacks are even human. Do they bleed like normal mortals? You are missing out on dazzling footwork, meaty tackles, grinding phase play and everyone’s favourite innovation of the professional era, impossible-seeming pop-passes from contact. 

If your eyes started to glaze over during that last paragraph, I totally understand. To someone who does not watch a sport, it is easy to dismiss all of them. It’s just a bunch of men running around a field chasing a piece of leather. Or two players hitting a ball back and forth? And what even is cricket*? Who cares which sports team scored the most sports points in the sporting sport? With the dominance of nerd culture, it has become an easy and tempting thing to dismiss anything associated with the mainstream jock culture of our youth. Sport, runs this logic, is a nasty, brutish thing which sadly fills up far too much time on our TV screens. Especially rugby, with its arcane complexities and incomprehensible-to-the-outsider laws.

Now I love sports. Quite a few of them. Never got into football, but I will binge watch tennis, cricket and rugby (I know, posh-boy sports, though I am not one really) all day and all night. The Six Nations is my favourite time of year.

What improv and team sports have in common is this: they are both models of collective activity in a pressurised environment. Sure, rugby has its stars, but it also has it’s workhorses. Its tackle-and-clear-out, back-of-the-maul players. They rarely score points, but they do the work that means others can. No try is scored alone, and it is a wonderfully enjoyable thing to track back through a play and ask the question where, really, that try was scored. On this pass, or where this tackle was missed? Scores are allocated to the player who put the ball over the line, but so many of them are team efforts. Ten, fifteen runs at the defensive line draw the defenders in before the last man can pop over and put the points on the board. Often no one person deserves a score. They all do.

Rugby, like improv, models easy wordless cooperation (Ishin-denshin in Japanese, as the adverts during the games keep telling us). A singular devotion to a cause and the attachment of emotion to whether or not it is achieved. Sure, it is just points on a board, but the myth doesn’t matter, only whether or not you believe.

Watching a great game of rugby (and the England/New Zealand semi-final is one of the best I can remember) always feels like I am somehow learning about teamwork in a different, complementary way to when I am improvising. I am seeing a different way to wordlessly support and be there for each other and learning what that should look and feel like.

But let’s go one bigger than that; in watching a game, I feel a part of something much bigger than myself. Bigger than being part of an improv team, or a company, part of a collective global community that care whether Willi Heinz’s hamstring gets better, or whether we are returning to the Ford-Farrell axis for the final. 

However we choose to define the groups, and whatever size they may be, humans are group-ish. We like to form and re-form groups and gain value, satisfaction and identity from the groups that we are part of. Even when I am watching by myself, I will merrily chant ‘heave’ when the scrum gets going, and make strangled little noises when an attack is five yards out. I feel connected with the 72 000 people at Yokohama stadium, and with the players on the pitch. I will probably never meet any of them**, but it feels good to identify with them. 

Watching a sport long term deepens your understanding of it. Like a wizened old improviser nodding at an impressive move from the back of the theatre, you start to see things that others don’t. You appreciate the little touches, tiny adjustments that raise the good to extraordinary. 

So sure, I would love every improviser to become a fan. I would love hundreds more people to enthuse with about this sport I love, but in the end, if it ain’t for you, it ain’t for you. But don’t judge and roll your eyes. The content of the obsession may be different, but the way in which it is structured is exactly the same. 

Oh, and my prediction? England 14 South Africa 10. Or the other way round. 

*Cricket, by the way, is the sport most closely similar to improv. Sure, it is a team game, but it’s composed of many tiny individual bowler/batsman interactions, or scenes. And during each of these, every other man on the field has to stay alert.

**It hurts me to this day that some ten years ago, the Maydays did an improv session with the England rugby team.

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