Back when I was a kid, we lived in the country and weren’t able to get cable television. So, I grew up on CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and later, FOX. Even today, my parents still have no choice but DirecTV/Dish Network. I didn’t get to watch MTV, Nickelodeon, and countless hours of uncensored sex and violence on HBO and “Skin”aMax. I was stuck with our four/five channels and whatever my aunt taped off her satellite cable channels for me.
However, when I was about a freshman or sophomore in high school, a new service came to our area that sent a TV signal over land-based towers via microwaves. Since we lived in the great plains of central Illinois with barely even a tree to block the signal, we were able to get this service to expand our TV stations from five to probably about 14. I finally felt like a “town kid” with all these new television landscapes to explore.
Unfortunately (and yet, also fortunately), it was like Dollar General cable. Instead of HBO, we had Starz when it was just starting out. Instead of MTV, we had the Canadian equivalent, MuchMusic. And instead of ESPN, we had SportsChannel out of Chicago. If you’ve never heard of it, it was basically The Ocho from the movie Dodgeball. Although they did show some soccer and NHL hockey, back when hockey was still kind of a niche sport, they also featured all kinds of even more niche sports like racquetball, jai alai, lacrosse, Australian rules football, and Union League rugby.
As a guy who played football in high school, I was intrigued by rugby, the rougher, tougher foreign cousin to American football. SportsChannel had a fairly consistent schedule, and rugby was shown on Saturday nights starting at 11:00. If I didn’t have plans that night or after I came home from being out with friends, I’d usually make a PB&J or warm up some Pop Tarts, and sit down and watch some rugby before I’d go to bed. Not every Saturday, but often enough that it became a nice little ritual for me throughout high school.
In 1991, SportsChannel showed the Rugby World Cup matches as they occurred. So instead of my normal Saturday night ritual, I got matches scattered throughout the day and into the early morning hours on the weekends. I even set the VCR to record a few matches that were being replayed in the middle of the night. I wasn’t following closely, as I didn’t have internet access back then to know who had won or lost anything; it was just kind of exciting to get more rugby than usual.
My favorite team at the time were the New Zealand All Blacks. To be honest, much of the appeal of the All Blacks was that they were one of the best teams in the sport, and they also performed a ceremonial haka at the beginning of each match.
As a kid who grew up in a very white, very isolated part of the country, I’d never seen anything like this before and it absolutely blew me away. I had no idea that the haka was a ritual performance with a lot of meaning for New Zealanders; I just thought it was a cool thing this rugby team did to intimidate their opponents.
By the time I was in college, the microwave “country cable” service had gone under, so my parents were back to five channels once again until DirecTV came along in the late-90s. Because I had no way of watching rugby anymore, it just became this quirky thing I was interested in at one time.
In the ensuing years, I would sometimes make a point to watch a playoff or championship series for baseball, hockey, and football, but eventually, I lost interest in watching any kind of sports. I think the last time I watched the Super Bowl was sometime around 2004, maybe 2005. I just do not care about sports anymore. I have a lot of other things I’d rather spend four hours on a Sunday afternoon doing than sitting in front of a TV watching a game. I have no animosity towards those who choose to spend their time being a sports fan; it’s just not my thing at this point in my life and I don’t think that will ever really change.
Oddly enough, though, I keep coming back to rugby.
When Google became a normal part of our lives in the early-2000s, they offered a special game tracker feature where you could follow your favorite sports teams through Google Reader (RIP). So I’d get an update every day in my RSS feed that would tell me the latest scores from Cubs, Bears’, Celtics’, or Penguins’ games, but they also offered sports that were more popular internationally, like soccer and rugby. I followed the All Blacks to keep an eye on them, but because I had no way to watch them play, it was pretty underwhelming. I eventually stopped checking and then, well, Google killed Reader, so my interest in rugby died off once again.
Four years ago, when the last Rugby World Cup was played, I got interested again and started searching for a way to view the matches. I figured for sure by now the technology had advanced that there was no reason I couldn’t pay some kind of fee to be able to watch the matches, even though I lived in America. Much to my dismay, everything was region-locked. So unless I wanted to get a VPN on top of the streaming rugby service, there was no easy way for me to watch. Plus, all the services I found at the time only offered livestreams, which isn’t really convenient when most of the matches were played at odd hours here in America because of the time difference.
Finally, though, this year, watching the Rugby World Cup is easy. PeacockTV, the NBC streaming network, is offering live and recorded matches that you can replay anytime. So, for the first time in 30+ years, I’m able to watch rugby again. And thanks to the RWC app, I’m even able to keep up with the latest scores, rankings, and more so that I actually know what’s going on in the Cup for the first time ever.
And, man, I am absolutely loving it!
I’ve learned so much about this sport in the last few days (the World Cup kicked off on September 8 in France). When I was a kid watching, I had no way of looking anything up; I just had to learn through inference of what was happening on the screen. So I’d figured out that a try was worth five points and the conversion was worth two, but beyond that, everything else was just this bizarre series of events that I had no idea why anything was happening.
But now, being able to watch and hear the commentators throw out technical terms that I can Google has been a huge help. I’ve learned the difference between a scrum, a ruck, and a maul, and why they will sometimes kick the ball instead of running it. I understand how lineouts work and have even started being able to spot the occasional penalty (but not all; the penalties are the most mysterious thing for me right now).
It’s been really nice to reconnect to something I loved when I was younger without feeling like it’s being pushed on me. So much of my past is now being repackaged, rebranded, rebooted, remade, and resold that it’s nice to come back to something organically. No one cares that I’m watching the Rugby World Cup except me. No one is telling me I should watch rugby again. It’s also kind of nice to have this weird little thing that only I’m into. No one else in my life – real or online – probably knows the Rugby World Cup is even happening, so it almost feels like it’s being played for me and me alone. We should all find our own little islands of happiness from time to time.
Will this revitalized interest in rugby stick? Will I follow along after the Cup is over? I have no idea. I’m not even sure if I’ll have regular access to rugby until the next Cup in 2027. So we’ll see what happens. But right now, I’m enjoying it while I can, and can’t wait to watch the next match.