The hype machine is in full swing for the 2016 Six Nations, but union fans have a choice…
There’s a scene in the Matrix where Laurence Fishburne’s enigmatic Morpheus offers Keanu Reeves a choice:
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill— you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes…”
Coming from the West of England, a union stronghold, I had no interest in rugby league. I guess I didn’t really regard it as a serious sport. However, back in 2013, I was offered the ‘red pill’ of free tickets to a league match. I experienced the Wonderland of the greatest game, and having followed the 13-man code down the rabbit hole, I now know the truth!
Today, as a born-again Rugby League convert, having left lineouts, scrums and mauls behind me, it’s interesting to look at the attitudes from followers of both codes towards the other. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy union but it’s only fairly recently that I’ve admitted to myself (and subsequently, my smug league mates), that league is better. Here’s a light-hearted view from a union fan down under:
Although the video isn’t explicit in its derision of league, it picks up on the head and feed (uncontested scrum) and implies, when looking at the differences in the players’ positions, that league is the less cerebral code – particularly given the summary of the rules!
In England, apart from the obvious north-south divide, there’s contempt from followers of union at what they view as an inferior ‘northern’ version of the game, and indignation from those who follow league at the media exposure and money generated by what they feel is a slower, increasingly nonsensical code.
Both codes have evolved into what are essentially different sports outright. Both are borne out of William Webb-Ellis’s exploits of 1823. Both involve the ‘try at goal’ and players in both codes are divided into forwards and backs. However, despite these similarities, after more than 100 years of division, although both are still ‘rugby’, union and league have become, and will continue to be, very very different games.
The scrum is an integral part of union, and as the code passed from amateur to professional, so its forwards evolved into monstrous exponents of their specialised positions. As thrilling as it can be to watch almost two metric tons of humanity crunch together, the requirements of the scrum in modern union can make for a very attritional game. A good scrum can force the opposing pack to be penalised, and then the fly half can bag three points from the tee.
Unfortunately, this has increasingly become the norm for most of the top-level union sides, and can lead to pretty tedious games. After all, Webb-Ellis’s ‘fine disregard for the rules of the game’ involved running with the ball – there’s no mention of forcing errors at the breakdown, or exploiting the laws to secure kick after kick at the sticks. In some cases, all of the points scored are from the tee.
League, on the other hand, dispensed with contested scrums allowing their equivalent props, and indeed all of their forwards to be faster. For example, compare two hookers – union’s hefty Dylan Hartley with league’s lightning quick Paul Aiton. The role of hooker in league is more creative, with the ‘rake’ in the 13 man code acting almost as a third halfback. In fact, the use of a ‘dummy’ half after the play-the-ball means that it’s not just halfbacks and hookers who are the creators in league.
When you watch Union at the top level (particularly England), there’s relentless huff and puff from the forwards, the scrum half waits at the ruck for the ball to be recycled, and more often than not, it’s handed to another ‘big lad’ who’ll burrow into a heap of bodies hoping to force an error. Thrilling, it ain’t.
Contrast this with league where the ruck is combined with the tackle count. Defenders must release the tackled player quickly, to keep momentum going and are penalised for holding too long.
After six tackles possession must change hands. Gone are the endless phases of union with league players looking to offload in the tackle and keep the ball alive, making the most of their set of six. Leeds prop Adam Cuthbertson set a record for the number of offloads in a Super League season. Cross code megastar Sonny Bill Williams is another exponent of this skill.
Another facet of union that bemuses many ‘treizistes’, is the decision made by so many teams to kick rather than run the ball out. After all – there’s no tackle count in union, so returning possession seems foolish. Utter bewilderment greets the oft-witnessed ‘kick-tennis’, where opposing full backs will simply hoof the ball back and forth between each-other.
League, meanwhile, invites kicking only when it’s necessary to change possession, generally after the preceding five drives, or for the brave, to gain another set of six tackles by nailing a forty-twenty. This involves a player kicking from within his own 40 metre line, to within his opponents 20 metre line. Importantly, the ball must bounce before going into touch. If it goes out on the full, the opponent will have possession. When used judiciously, the 40-20 can be a game changer. A Kevin Sinfield 40-20 saw Leeds past St Helens (they scored from the resulting sets) and booked the Rhinos a place in the 2015 Grand Final. The rule adds another element of intrigue to an already high-octane sport.
All of these components make for a vastly more entertaining game than union, but still the media attention, corporate sponsorship, TV exposure and most importantly of all, the respect of the sporting public go to the fifteen-man code.
This brings me back to the Matrix once again. Machines have enslaved the minds of humanity, creating a false plane of existence. Similarly, union and its moneyed, public school infrastructure holds many of the nation’s rugby fans in its thrall. But once the pyrotechnics and razzmatazz have died down, TV adverts been forgotten and Twitter hashtags slid down the newsfeed, we’re left with modern rugby union. And it’s boring.
Free your minds. League isn’t just for the industrial northern towns and cities nestled along the M62 corridor. It’s for everyone! As you watch this year’s Six Nations and witness Owen Farrell botch an attempted crossfield kick, or the English pack subject viewers to phase after phase of tedium, ask yourself if there is another way. There is! Take the Rugby League pill and join us in Wonderland!