Monday, December 7, 2009

Why I'm suddeny a rugby - and cricket - fan

The movie I'm most looking forward to seeing this month opens up Friday. It's getting Oscar buzz, primarily because of the participants and the theme. Hopefully, the actual product lives up to the hype.

Invictus stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, while Matt Damon portrays a rugby superstar. Clint Eastwood directed the film. The movie tells the story of South Africa's victory in the 1995 rugby World Cup (um, spoiler alert).

I've previously heard stories of that particular championship from Louise's family, especially her brothers and stepfather, avid sportsmen. Even Louise remembers the event, a remarkable achievement for a woman who rarely participates in any sport and never watches them on television. She does enjoy attending an occasional Yankees game, but that's primarily because of the Cracker Jacks. And she had a good time at a Knicks game we attended, although that was because she had a pair of binoculars and two hours free for celebrity watching. Even South Africa's favorite sports such as cricket, soccer and rugby hold little interest to her. But she remembers that 1995 World Cup.

The unexpected title brought the country together just after apartheid had ended and Mandela became president. It's sort of like if the 1980 Miracle on Ice team had won gold around the time of the Civil War.

I'm looking forward to it even though I still only have a vague understanding of the rules of rugby. I've watched it in this country and in South Africa. My brother-in-law was a star player himself. My old editor played in college and continued to roll around on the - pitch? - well into his adult years. I know rugby players like to drink. I know they take a hell of a beating, and that I never could have made it as a player, even in my younger days. But understanding strategy and rules and nuances and history and what the players in short-shorts are doing in the odd-looking groupings? No.

When we travel to Cape Town in January, I'd love to watch the movie with a South African audience, an experience that would probably be similar - though a hundred times more uplifting - to the time we watched Blood Diamond in Cape Town in 2007. South Africans are not afraid to express their happiness in a public setting. When our plane landed - successfully - on our previous trip, the passengers erupted in applause. If they knew something I didn't about the airline, I wanted to know before the return trip to America.

"Are they surprised we made it alive?" I asked Louise.

"No, they're just so happy to be back in their homeland and they cheer when they're happy."

So I can imagine the applause in the theater when the South Africans win the World Cup.

Pretty much all of South Africa's favorite sports are...foreign to me, as I fulfill my role as the American who hasn't yet learned enough about another culture. But I have tried. Jesus, I've tried.

During our six-week stay in Cape Town three years ago, I must have watched a dozen hours of televised cricket, which many people might think is about as interesting as listening to crickets for 12 hours. With the help of Louise's family, I started picking up some of the basics of the game and actually got caught up in some of the more exciting moments, even if I occasionally had to be told when an exciting moment was taking place. Once I started to understand a little bit about the game, I found myself actively rooting for the home team. I almost instinctively began disliking the squads from India, Pakistan and England, though I'd previously had little reason to feel anything about those countries' sporting teams.

Louise went to school with one of South Africa's star players, providing a celebrity gossip angle to the proceedings, something I require with my sports, like other American fans (see Woods, Tiger).

Thanks to one of Louise's brothers, I even attended a match, complete with an alcohol-and-food-laden suite. Unfortunately, my stomach's continuing struggle with adapting to the country's food meant I spent half the day wondering if I'd make it back to my in-laws' home alive, and the other half wishing for death. But even in that physical condition, I appreciated the athleticism of the players and the intensity of the event, the types of things fans of any sport understand, no matter the country.

By the end of our time in Cape Town I'd become a cricket fan, although not a knowledgeable one. I look forward to watching more of it, on television and in person, this January.

And I'm looking forward to Invictus this Friday. I'm certainly not the world's biggest rugby fan, but I am a fan of the story the history, and, most importantly, the country.

Now, all I need is for someone to tell me what is going on in this video.

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