Rugby League vs. Rugby Union – The big debate

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.

11 thoughts on “Rugby League vs. Rugby Union – The big debate

  1. Fantastic post. I agree with your conclusion that it is overwhelmingly important to create a competitive international scene. However, looking at the progress made in the last decade (2000-2003) was probably the nadir of international rugby league) you’d have to say that things are moving in the right direction. The formation of the RLEF is starting to pay dividends with the spread of the game, and the structure of European/Pacific Cups feeding into the Four Nations has created meaningful internationals that are being played among a greater number of countries.

    Yes, Wales might (will) get flogged in the Four Nations, but if you get a chance check out the boisterous crowd and the passion on display for last year’s France v Wales match, which determined place number four for the 4N. Probably the best bit of international league I have seen in years.

    The old cliche (ripped off from that dodgy movie) says “build it and they will come”. Well, league is slowly starting to build it, and over the next decade they will reap the dividends. RL might never be as big an international sport as RU, but things are improving.

    • Thanks.
      Regarding the competition structure, you make a good point that things are being developed and other nations are improving on a consistent basis. Indeed Wales seem to be making real waves at the moment, both in Union and in League. However, I am concerned with the quality of the England side, especially in comparison to the era you mentioned, 2000-03. Back in 2004, when they made the Tri-Nations final, the squad contained players of genuine quality all over the park, the Sculthorpe’s, Farrell’s and Radlinski’s of this world. Does the same talent appear to be there now? In my opinion, England are severely lacking the quality needed, something that could hinder their own progress in the international game.

  2. i like the article and agree with a lot of it, but as far as the international scene being used to promote the sport i’d say there’s a few aspects that need to be resolved in order to achieve this. The standard of british rugby league holds nothing to that of australia and the nrl and i think this goes all the way to grassroots. The fact that eight of the england squad come from rhinos and originally 4 from saints is no coincidence i’d say. They are both renowned for their youth systems and the majority of those players are with their hometown clubs. Surely there needs to be more focus on spreading rugby league at amateur level and forcing clubs into some kind of investment in their youth systems, despite my dislike of the current system this could easily become a factor of the franchise system. This way we will produce far more high quality players and increase competition in super league, only improving the national team. Success is crucial if we wish to use the international stage as a publicity stunt, that much is obvious from all the tri/four nations finals held in Britain with those in which GB/England have competed recieving much higher attendances, meaning we have to be competing with the aussies from the very bottom in my opinion.

  3. Based on highly anecdotal evidence here, but I think you need to think again on your view on Leagues strength being rooted in its fluidity of play, and a weakness of Union, from a spectator point of view. Scrums and lineouts might break up the play, but they are key facets of the game, they offer something different, a different set of skills and different test. Look for instance at American Football, the most broken fragmented excuse for a flowing ball sport every conceived, yet home to huge audiences. The amount of actual constant running time is minimal compared to League, so why is the audience so small?

    League suffers most I feel through repetition. Okay, lets say all that running and tackling does create a higher intensity of play, however, it is difficult to escape from the fact that much of a game of League is based around the repetition of 5 tackles and a kick. Without wanting to be too critical, the game basically boils down to that, and it’s lack of variety in its core structure does little to win over new audiences. While many cite scrum resets as a problem, many spectators enjoy the competition that comes from a scrum that works well, a lineout stolen, a turnover won on the ground. Both Union and Gridiron asks much more of its audience than the 5 tackle kick model, and in terms of pure numbers, be it in stadiums or on television, this level of engagement would appear to be something audiences want.

    The problem is not with the structure or branding of the game, the problem is the game itself.

  4. you say this, yet why is the sport so popular in the m62 corridor as its always referred to? Within that area only two union clubs have ever been vaguely successful, although Leeds, founded just twenty years ago, now linger eighth in the championship and many would put Sale’s current positioning down to other teams losing players to the world cup. The support of these clubs also trail in the wake of their league counterparts. Using leeds as the example, while one team averaged 5,000 fans per game at their peak, the other rarely falls below 10000. There is really only one reason for such a difference in popularity, the quality of rugby being played. Sharing everything from training facilities to money due to their joint ownership this can be the only reason.

    • Every sport has it’s heartland, it is after all the national sport of Papua New Guinea, but your argument is flawed, you cant honestly be making the case for the quality of the sport in relation to how many fans league teams have in the north of England compared to union teams in the same area. I might as well say there are more popular top flight union teams in London than there are league outfits, so union clearly has the higher quality product – the argument holds no weight.

      You were talking about the spread of the game, how it reaches new audiences, not how the game copes in its heartland. I was not making a quality of rugby argument, pointless when you have league and union fans discussing it (we never give any ground on the subject). I was suggesting why union is more popular generally than league, not in the heartland areas, and the point stands, league suffers from the nature of the product, rather than the quality of it. For those who love the 5 tackle kick model, that’s great, and I would not try to convince them otherwise, but for those new to the sport, that repetition is a turn off, and a reason for it lacking a wider global audience.

  5. fair point, although looking back i didn’t really make my point too clear. What i was really trying to say is that even with the chance to choose between two equal teams rugby league came out on top. You’re right that this probably has a lot to do with the fact Leeds is part of the heartland of rl but when Tykes reached the top division Rhinos had won nothing in roughly thirty years. With such links between the clubs I’m quite sure many rhinos fans have watched the ru team, especially as unlike football ticket prices are very reasonable there is nothing to prevent people watching both. You say i can’t use the fact that the north is the hotbead of league as an excuse, yet isn’t this exactly the same in union? there is perhaps a little bit more widespread geography of teams but it still does have most success in the south, with the three northern teams either struggling or being relegated last year in much the same way as harlequins and crusaders struggling. The failure of the crusaders concept wasn’t down to the spectacle being provided, but the actual running of the club. First came a change in location due to money then administration. On the pitch they actually were reasonably successful having reached the play offs last year and although attendances might not be those of leeds and wigan etc they weren’t that bad to suggest a failure to capture the minds of a nation in love with its rival.

    • Well, the Crusaders example is not a great one to cite, a new club established outside of the heartland that went bust within a few years. Say what you will about administration but if the fans were turning up in large enough numbers the club would never have left Bridgend and would have been able to manage the problems it did have in Wrexham. Basically, not enough fans says something about the product. That not to say it is all to do with the product, but its playing its part – brush with playoffs or not.

      But going back to the core issue of audience, and why union carriers a larger following, the concentration in this discussion on heartland areas remains problematic, and I must say, there is a bit an Anglocentricism creeping in here. England is not the only place where union or league are played. In terms of understanding the wide spread uptake of union, it is important to understand the global place of union and league respectively. Union has a stronger track record historically of establishing the sport in new countries, doing the same for the womens branch of the game, whilst has ha huge success in rebranding the 7s circuit into a major international profile tool – the IRB knows how to do brand awareness. While League has begun this branching out effort with European tournaments, it is well behind Union’s efforts. This has a wider effect globablly and locally, with the Union brand being much more familiar to a wider audience, that will have a knock on effect in terms of media coverage, and just the basic discussions of people in the pub or in the bus.

      Let’s put the product debate to one side and say that in terms of audience, Union has the historical jump on League in terms of planting the game outside of the heartland (which is essential to understand – if a game does not spread beyond such areas, its growth and subsequent popularity will be severly limited), and, through tools like the 7s circuit and far more competitive World Cup than that which League can currently offer, it has far more marketing tools at its disposal to sell its product.

      This is the challenge that league faces – it is behind the game in terms of populairty, and frankly, is doing less than union to promote itself, as things stand, it will never catch up. To break free of the heartland areas, something fundamental about the game needs to change, to tap into that new audience. Saw what you will about the quality of union, it still brings with it a much wider audience (when you look beyond the North of England – which you have to do to deal with the questions you posed in the original posting).

  6. i think you have just hit the nail on the head there with the idea of expanding out of the heartlands. While league continues to expand into union heartlands it has no hope of expansion working. Referring back to the crusaders point, it was never going to work immediately in a country where union is the number one sport. As if it’s not hard enough settling into a country where football is top and rugby has no place in general, attempting to compete again its very similar (in essence) rival in its own backyard was never going to work, not immediately anyway. Given time, who knows what could have happened, i was merely making the point that bankruptcy does little to attract more fans and perhaps the rfl should have done more to ensure their continuing existance.

    Look at Catalans though, finally their crowds seem to be picking up yet on the field their success has varied over the last few years. Within two seasons of finishing third they finished bottom and were a formidable force again this season. The point I’m trying to make is that it takes time for things to settle and if the rfl wish for expansion to work they have to allow time, perhaps even give extra time to those in need of it.

    The geography of its expansion certainly should be something looked at. The apparent rise of the game in Eastern Europe looks promising, why? because it’s not invading union’s turf. This is the crucial point, when expanding in England i think they should apply the same principals. Gradually moving the borders outwards may not see overnight success, but could eventually lead to teams throughout the country. For example is there any strong sport in Cumbria? Carlisle have a football team in league one and other than a few minnows in Barrow, Whitehaven and Workington that’s about it. The recent invention of the Cumbrian team has been pitted against England and France, has anyone thought about the idea of them playing in SL, perhaps not permanently but until the game attracts enough fans and then players to have one of those minnows playing in their place. Obviously this is just something off the top of my head but i’m sure the rfl could work something out or offer support in order for it to work. This could happen in many areas of the country, all it takes is someone to work out what kind of response their could be rather than just dreaming of instant success in their rivals backyard.

    Alternatively, they could bring back the League v Union concept. You play a game in each or perhaps in alternate years if the teams insist it’s too much strain to do both and the advantages go both ways. League fans watch union and union fans watch league and hopefully gain a liking of the other. Perhaps this is too much to hope for if it becomes too big a rivalry but i’m sure it would win some fans over and for those like myself who have a love of both codes it is just a brilliant spectacle.

  7. What a poor biased article.

    Crowds grow, TV ratings grow for Rugby Overall.

    Why? Its because some people enjoy it. Simple. Others find league boring because they have removed set pieces and all they do is 5 tackles and a Kick. No tactics at all.

    Its all inherent bias in the end. Dont try and pass off your article as fact. It isnt.

    Just look at Each of the games Respective World Cups. One was a Mickey mouse tournament, the other was not.

    Anyways. League would be better placed by removing the ‘Rugby’ from its name.. and also for its fans to stop spouting endless BS about their game being played by the more superior athletes. Its Rubbish. Thats why it wont grow. Too much alienation.

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