This fall you may be busy watching the MLB divisional series, or the start of football season, but if you’re looking for something different, something that gets your adrenaline flowing, check out the rugby World Cup.
It’s going to be brutal, unforgiving, occasionally violent, and above all intensely competitive. Rugby at the very highest level is a game that takes our rawest, most aggressive instincts, combines them with the ruthless intelligence of a chess master and turns them into an acceptable form of violence in the name of sports and entertainment. Yes, rugby is great theater. So it’s easy to see why the film industry is attracted to such an uncompromising, gladiatorial sport.
Well, a little attracted, anyway. A quick Wikipedia search finds only 17 films made with rugby as a theme. Most likely because of its smaller worldwide audience. (The worldwide audience for the rugby union World Cup can be measured in the low millions—though there is some debate as to what exactly those figures are—but it’s still dwarfed by the viewing figures for soccer’s World Cup, the Olympics, the Super Bowl, The World Series, and the Indy 500.)
You could binge watch all of them, but to save you some time and get you hyped for the World Cup, here are the best and worst rugby movies:
Like all the best sports films, Invictus wasn’t really about sports, or in this case, rugby, at all. The story was about Nelson Mandela and the inspirational role he played in South Africa’s journey out of apartheid. Mandela’s incredible achievement in uniting his rainbow nation under a single flag, and in making rugby—for so long an icon of white supremacy—a rallying point for the entirety of his newly united nation, was the real story of the movie.
The rugby tie-in? The film centers on South Africa’s 1995 World Cup victory, but is about much more than that. If I can get all “Film Snob” on you: Their victory in extra time and against the odds was no more than a token for the wider South African struggle to overcome and to come to terms with over half a century of inhuman repression – as personified of course by Mandela. Invictus is a film no self-respecting rugby fan should miss.
After Invictus, the movie choices are less easy to be enthusiastic about. But I’ll try…
Where’s George?/Hope of His Side (1935)
Up for a rugby comedy? With two names? This knockabout mid-thirties romp is best known for the fact that its release coincided with the death of the King George V. This led to it having to be renamed, because the studio was afraid Where’s George? might be seen as in poor taste. (This is obviously pre-Benny Hill.) So the film was renamed Hope of His Side. (You can tell they had to come up with it in a hurry.)
The film used actual players from Featherstone and Huddersfield—neither of which is still in the English top flight —along with around 200 unemployed miners as extras. And that’s about all that’s remarkable about the movie.
This Sporting Life (1963)
A grittier treatment of rugby comes from this Richard Harris vehicle. This Sporting Life is a pretty grim tale of a violent man’s exploitation by his local rugby team. The premise being: Rugby is a violent game in which the most violent men will prosper. Not exactly the best reflection of the game. The film is a completely miserable affair from start to finish, but it is a product of this era of British film.
Up n’ Under (1998)
Another rugby comedy, Up n’ Under is a film adaptation of a stage play about a middle aged man’s determination to reclaim some sort of identity by putting together a team to play in a local sevens competition. Despite a cast boasting the comic talents of Neil Morrissey, Brian Glover and Tony Slattery, the film didn’t do well.
Rugby Films From Down Under
It’s no surprise that the best of the rest when it comes to rugby movies hail from the Southern Hemisphere. Just as their teams dominate the betting when it comes to major trophies, Australian and New Zealanders come up on top cinematically as well.
Old Scores is about a touch judge in a fictional New Zealand v Wales international who admits on his deathbed to having falsely disallowed a match-changing try, and the plot unfolds as the match is replayed by bringing the original participants back to face each other. It’s certainly not a classic, but you can imagine the humor when screenwriters start trotting out familiar stereotypes.
The Final Winter (2007)
The sort of hard bitten plot for which rugby is the perfect backdrop, The Final Winter is about one man’s identity crisis wrapped in a metaphor of the way rugby league has had to undergo its own—sometimes difficult—transition to the status of professional sport.
For the record this is not an exhaustive list. There are other rugby films out there, but for those of you who like your sports adrenaline-charged and action packed, this should give you a few to watch to get you primed and pumped for the rugby World Cup. The competition kicks off on Friday, September 18th.