I watched two games of rugby on Saturday the 8th of October. One was a crucial World Cup quarter-final, between two old international enemies aiming for the biggest prize in Rugby Union, playing at the pinnacle of their careers. The other involved two club sides, playing at a football ground, battling it out for the ultimate achievement in their respective sport, Rugby League’s Super League trophy. One game was played at a significantly higher level of quality than the other. And it wasn’t England vs.France. The rugby on show during Leeds and St Helens’ Grand Final was far superior in every department, skill level, intensity and even commitment to the cause. All this, despite the traditional nasty greeting from Manchester’s weather. Ok, so this was a one-off comparison, with England’s display hardly representative of Rugby Union as a whole, Christ they were dreadful, but it does beg the question why is Rugby Union a vastly more popular sport? Aside from a corridor of Northern England between Hull and Liverpool, Rugby League is largely ignored by the rest of the country. Yet is it a better game? I hear so many complaints over the quality of Union played in this day and age, but the same people refuse to consider League as a genuine alternative. Yet people continue to commit to Rugby Union on both a grassroots and national scale. Club setups at junior level continue to grow, whilst the media regards Rugby Union as the most popular alternative to football, highlighted by the amount of newspaper and TV coverage the sport receives. Whereas Rugby League features often among the other sports commonly forgotten about in this country, the basketball or the hockey, appearing on the pages people flick over immediately. England’s last meaningful home Rugby Union international against Scotland attracted 82.120, whereas the last England Rugby League international was attended by just 14,174. That’s a ridiculous difference. Why is Rugby Union’s popularity infinitely greater, when the two games share the same basics? So I’m going make direct comparisons between both sports to see if Rugby League is in fact, the better game.
As I mentioned earlier, the sets of skills on display in the Grand Final were far higher than their Union counterparts, how many looping passes did England throw onto the wing, removing any pace on the ball, and therefore momentum? Ability then, seems an appropriate place to start. To discount Union players as having a lack of ability would be a ridiculous notion, but there are noticeable differences in many of rugby’s fundamentals. Take passing for example. The looping passes have already been noted, whereas League in contrast sees a high percentage of tries scored by wingers who fly into the corner, given ample space by the timing and quality of the assist. Offloads are a key cog of Rugby League with many try scoring plays set up by a forward bursting down the middle before turning the ball inside to supporting runners. This is the reason Chris Ashton goes looking for passes infield with such great success in Union. Sonny Bill Williams is the perfect example. He has lit up the Union scene, with his initial bursts and out-the-back of the hand flicks, and rightly so, the man possesses a fantastic talent. But this happens weekly in League. It is an expected part of a players’ game. Although the tackling laws differ between the codes regarding use of the shoulder, it makes for a more brutal collision in League. And whilst purists will argue it’s the technique that counts, let’s be honest, who goes on YouTube to search for tackling technique. Type in Sam Burgess on Fui Fui Moi Moi and you’ll get my drift. Kicking wise, it appears ironic to criticise the amount of kicking in a Union game given that League players have to put boot-to-ball every 6 tackles, but it is the quality that counts. Countless times I’ve started watching a game of Union, only to leave part-way through to find a wall to watch where paint is drying. This is due to the number of mindless, unnecessary times a player hoofs it aimlessly up in the air for no real purpose. William Webb Ellis didn’t go to all that effort to bend down and pick up the ball only to see it kicked straight back at him. Otherwise we’d still be playing football. Yes, the ball is kicked every 6 tackles in League, but it is for a purpose, can set up tries, and keep the opposition constantly pinned back in their own half. Plus it’s in the rules. Not sold yet? Well, admittedly these are merely three blots on the copybook of rugby skills, but still pretty crucial elements of the sport, in passing, tackling and kicking.
Is Rugby League more entertaining? Well, statistically wise you’d have to suggest so. Far more tries are scored in League, for example in the Aviva Premiership last season, 507 tries were scored compared to the 1682 scored in League, down perhaps to the valuation of the penalty at two points and the drop goal at one, thus reducing the incentive to just accumulate small amounts of points on attacking visits to the opponents’ half as is often done in Union. The restarting of the game is so much better it’s almost untrue. No line-outs and the fact scrums exist only by name make for a fast-flowing, spectator-friendly sport. The Union scrum is such a mess nobody has a clue what to do with it. Regularly eating up around 10 minutes of game time, any hair loss I have suffered is probably caused by pulling it out watching the amount of collapses at scrum time. It’s just a joke. Line-outs aren’t quite in the same category, but they still don’t offer the efficiency of the Rugby League tap-on-the-sideline. The same applies to rucks and mauls. Crucial to the game of Union, but such an eyesore to the fans when applied badly. Take England in the World Cup, their play at the breakdown was painful, so slow, so hap-hazard and often penalised. Not needed. The roll-the-ball through your legs technique gets the game up-and-running quickly, allowing Rugby League to be played at a fast pace consistently. Whilst I’m aware the condemnations of Union that I’ve just made define it as a sport, the rucks, mauls, scrums and line-outs, but this just highlights even further its inferiority to its brother. Everyone watches rugby to see slick interplay, electrifying tries and enormous tackles and unfortunately, in my opinion, these four cornerstones of the game only serve to hinder the above purposes.
So what stands between Rugby League and the popularity Union receives? Well, it has to be said, the way the sport is structured plays a huge part in the lack of interest it receives at national level. Comparing the two leagues, the Aviva Premiership contains 12 teams, most of which are capable of beating each other with the exceptions being the recently relegated/promoted sides who loose the cream of their players when swapping divisions. Even this has begun to change recently; Exeter stayed up last year and have started well again this season, whilst newly promoted Worcester are more than holding their own early doors. Although Leicester have tended to dominate, there is still a feeling the Premiership is genuinely competitive. Regrettably the same cannot be said for Rugby League. The franchise system was a poor move, removing the excitement of relegation and thus creating a pointless bottom end to the table, in which teams having nothing to play for. The play-off system contains 8 of the 14 teams, a joke in itself, and this system’s flaws have been exposed to the max this season by the Leeds Rhinos, who won the competition from 5th, a position that wouldn’t have even made the Union play-offs. Whilst they did produce a superb end to their season, they have been decidedly poor all year and failed to beat a top 4 team until the final day of the regular round. Not exactly what you would call deserving winners. There has been 4 winners of Super League ever and as it stands, there are only 5 competitive teams, rendering the regular season a bit of a joke. As for the international scene, well the less said the better. The Union World Cup has been all over the press, the England team couldn’t breathe without having it classed as a ‘scandal,’ but when the League boys had their go in 2008, coverage was, to put it politely, limited. Probably down to quality of the tournament, in Rugby League, there are only three competitive nations, and that’s being kind to England. Because they have no chance either. They are only classified with New Zealand and Australia because they also thrash any other League-playing nation. The depth of the playing field for boss Steve McNamara is awful; he has resorted to picking overseas players, and why not? It worked for the cricket teams. He must turn green with envy when he sees what Martin Johnson has to work with. Even if he does it badly. A few key injuries and the England side turns from underdogs to absolute no-hopers. Hardly inspiring for any new supporters who want to follow both club and country. There lies another problem. Club vs. Country. It’s an argument we hear so often during football, but it’s potentially far worse in Rugby League. The attendance for the England vs. Exiles at Headingley was lower than a normal Headingley crowd for a Leeds Rhinos match. Those who did attend appeared to forget to leave their club loyalties behind for a night, with a small minority booing England full-back Sam Tompkins. Whilst Tompkins is the ultimate wind-up merchant when playing for Wigan, there is no excuse for that sort of behaviour. As soon as a player pulls on the England shirt, he is one of us. End of. Whilst Twickenham may have become the favoured place of wining and dining for the prawn sandwich brigade, at least everyone in stadium gets behind the national team. Rugby League cannot hope to compete among other elite sports in this country with this sort of disunity in the national game.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this argument? Well, to be honest, it isn’t the playing part of Rugby League that is hindering further development of the sport, but more the structures behind it. My general consensus is that League players offer a more rounded skill set than those in Union, from 1-13 every man has delivers similar base skills, whereas this is not seen in Union. There is no arguing over the fact that League is played at a much higher intensity, at a furious pace, thus increasing entertainment levels for supporters. But to compete with Union, and indeed other sports in this country, the Super League has to be improved. Cut the size of the tournament. Restructure the playoffs. Make the whole division competitive. But first and foremost, create an international scene worth watching. Without that, Rugby League doesn’t stand a chance. And unfortunately the problem is unlikely to be solved in the near future.