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The Rugby World Cup is about to open in France. Here’s what to know about the sport and its history

The Rugby World Cup gets underway in France on Friday and will feature 20 countries from five continents scrapping it out for a golden trophy named after an Englishman who supposedly invented the sport when he picked up the ball during a soccer game and ran with it.

This World Cup is a special milestone for rugby and marks the 200th anniversary of William Webb Ellis’ rebellious act in 1823 that gave birth to a new, oval-ball game — if you believe the legend.

Here’s what to know about rugby, or rugby union to give it its proper name, and its big event.

RUGBY’S REACH

While the first Rugby World Cup was held only in 1987 and doesn’t have the reach or interest of a soccer World Cup or an Olympics, more than 850 million people watched the last tournament in Japan, according to the game’s governing body. That’s about eight times more than a Super Bowl audience, although the World Cup is a bruising seven-week, 48-game tournament.

Many might also be surprised to learn that Clint Eastwood made a movie about the Rugby World Cup featuring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, a homage to the 1995 tournament in South Africa and that country’s against-the-odds victory in front of new fan Nelson Mandela just a year after emerging from apartheid. It was called “Invictus.”

Rugby spread from the “home countries” of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales more than 130 years ago and is vastly popular and the No. 1 sport in former British colonies such as New Zealand, South Africa and across the Pacific Islands, but is also growing in Latin America and Asia. France has always been among the best, Italy plays in Europe’s top competition and Eastern European teams like Romania and Georgia have rich rugby histories, as does Japan.

NO US EAGLES

This Rugby World Cup will feature three teams from soccer-mad Latin America for the first time in Argentina, Uruguay and debutant Chile, but disappointingly none from North America, also a first. Regular participants the United States and Canada both failed to qualify and the World Cup will play out without the American Eagles for the first time since 1995.

That’s a blow for rugby’s global ambitions, with the U.S. set to host the men’s World Cup in 2031. The U.S. has the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2033.

AMATEUR DAYS

The first three World Cups in 1987, 1991 and 1995 were all played while rugby was still effectively an amateur game, and players had “day jobs” that gave them time off to go to a World Cup. Some of the best were a truck driver, a lumberjack and a piano mover, while England once had a Royal Air Force pilot on its team.

The game officially went professional only after the 1995 World Cup and the top teams are made up of highly paid stars featuring in leagues across the world. But the World Cup also gives a precious opportunity for exposure to semi-professional teams from some of the minnows of the sport, like Romania and Chile this year. That helps rugby retain some of its old spirit of playing for the love of your country rather than the money.

THE RULES

In short, they’re complicated and leave even diehard rugby followers sometimes scratching their heads, or yelling at the TV, over the interpretation by a referee. Rugby changes its rules regularly in an attempt to keep a fairly hectic game manageable and safe. This Rugby World Cup will be played under the tightest restrictions ever on high tackles and contact to the head, adjustments made amid much closer scrutiny on player safety and a lawsuit taken up by former rugby players suffering from brain injuries that has many similarities to the one in the NFL.

Even with new tackle laws, rugby is still ultra-physical and it’s best just to enjoy the combination of big hits and silken skill that rugby at its best offers. Rugby is, after all, one of the games that inspired American football.

Oh, and don’t be shocked if you hear the word “hooker” a lot — it’s one of the player positions.

WHO’S GONNA WIN?

For the first time ever, Ireland is the top-ranked team in the world heading into the Rugby World Cup and the favorite for many. Ireland also offers an interesting quirk in that rugby is one of the sports where the country plays as a united Ireland, with players on the team from the Irish republic and also from Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain.

Host nation France is also tipped to possibly end its World Cup misery of losing three finals. South Africa’s Springboks are the defending champion and the joint most successful team at Rugby World Cups alongside New Zealand’s All Blacks with three titles each.

Watch out for New Zealand’s haka before every one of its games, a traditional Maori war challenge by the players that’s one of the best sights in rugby. The All Blacks will do a feet-stamping haka before kickoff in the tournament’s opening game against France in front of an expected 81,000 in Paris on Friday night.

Game on.

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AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby

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