No Room for Sheepishness Here


Published: April 17, 2008

Mid-game entertainment is a fairly common theme that runs through most of our sports. Whether you’re singing “Sweet Caroline” during the seventh inning stretch, waving desperately at those idiots with the tee shirt cannon in an attempt to score some free swag or watching 10-year-old hockey players scrimmage uncomfortably on the rink at a New York Rangers game, anyone who regularly goes to sporting events is familiar with the kind of shenanigans which are supposed to entertain us during breaks.

Well, as it turns out, our cutesy little distractions have absolutely nothing on New Zealand. The small Pacific nation is celebrated for its rugby teams, and those teams need a form of halftime entertainment more consistent with their sport. The answer: sheep tackling. During halftime, sheep are released on the field and are then chased by hundreds of frantic little children who desire nothing more than to pin the sheep to the ground.

The halftime practice is apparently somewhat legendary in New Zealand but, naturally, has numerous detractors. The sheep come away from the game unharmed, largely because of their ability to outmaneuver children, but members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) feel that sheep tackling teaches kids the wrong lessons, namely that it is perfectly fine to bully animals. The SPCA has won the argument without much of a fight, in that while the rugby teams are unwilling to accept the practice as cruel, they have largely stopped sheep tackling at halftime anyway.

If the only issue at hand was the ethics of tackling sheep; however, this wouldn’t make much of a “Strange but True Sports” article. The other important purpose of sheep tackling is that many of New Zealand’s rugby players claim that they have used sheep tackling as a training method. That’s so much more inventive than those little weighted sleds that football players use to train as linemen or the tackling dummies we use for the same relative purpose. A tackling dummy can never fight back, but a sheep could probably do some damage if it wasn’t immobilized properly. The lack of creativity we have shown in choosing our training methods is shameful.

Sheep, though, seem like a strange choice for such an exercise. After all, sheep are rather small in comparison to rugby players. Sure they’re nimble and can escape with some facility, but the reality of rugby is that you’re going to have players from other teams chasing you and trying to tackle you in the same manner you’re hoping to tackle the sheep.

New Zealand still needs halftime entertainment, and rugby players still need an aggressive training regimen; for that reason, I propose bear tackling.  It would be difficult to claim cruelty to animals and keep a straight face if the animal in question was a bear and the objective was still the same. I’m not talking about trained bears, of course; that would take a lot of the power out of the display, but rather this exhibition would take place in the woods.

The good news is that the sport would be much more evenly matched. New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, are absolutely and unequivocally insane, and I’d give them pretty decent odds against a brown bear. The bad news is that if they’re successful in tackling bears, England might as well just stay home next time. But we’re not concerned about how England feels; we’re concerned for the little sheep, and bear tackling alleviates that concern perfectly.