Rugby League XWHY Magazine

Rugby League: The Poor Relation

XWHY’s Michael Thomas has a sporting epiphany in the form of the Rugby League World Cup. Why has the world kept this from him for so long..?

If I was forced into a game of word association with “Rugby”, there are several that would come to mind before I even considered League –  Union, haka, scrum, line-out… cauliflower…

However, over the last week or so I’ve become aware of the fact that there is a Rugby World Cup going on at this very moment and, interestingly, it’s happening right here in England.

The short story of how we came to a situation where we have two different codes for the same sport is that in the late 19th Century, when the game was being formalised, clubs in the North of England took a different view to those playing in the South. Based upon compensating players for missed days at work due to competing.

The byproduct being the two codes, with Union being played predominantly in the South and League in the North. The difference, in practice, though, is, arguably, negligible. We are hardly talking American Football and Football Football. That said, asking a rugby union player if he plays league is met with such disdain and incredulity that any bystander might be forgiven for thinking you had just asked if you could have sexual relations with his mother. Predictably, the League boys have a similar reaction.

Rugby is a sport split by both rules and geography; we have created two completely different propositions. Rugby union has always been seen as the preserve of the middle classes, the thugs sport played by gentleman. It is, perhaps, because of this perception that it has never managed to woo our collective hearts enough to become the nation’s favourite pastime. In my first 11 years on this planet, there was only one sport that mattered and only one sport I wanted to play. It was not Rugby.

In football I had all the skill, flair and big tackles I needed. This was the era of the premiership, where stars such as Cantona, Shearer and Le Tissier graced our screens on Match of the Day every Saturday. It was fast and it was exciting.

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Until I found myself accidentally engrossed in the BBC coverage of the Rugby League World Cup, I had thought that Rugby could never match Football for artistry, speed and exhilaration.

As a Southerner, rugby has always been union and although a great sport in itself, it would never compare to my first love. There were too many rules, too many set plays and too many people on the pitch. Had I been more astute, then maybe I would have started paying attention to League over 10 years ago, when Jason Robinson (a former Rugby League star) was putting in world class performances and feats of running that were simply mind boggling.

Having made the switch from league to union, he rapidly became one of the most devastating attackers and finishers in the game, a type of wing talent that England hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. Every time he touched the ball, the excitement in the grounds became palpable. The question on everyone’s minds: are we about to see him sprint the length of the pitch, leaving the defence grasping at thin air, or perhaps just jinx through the middle for an unbelievable score?

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I hadn’t even noticed it, but I had become disillusioned with rugby, there are only so many times you can watch Chris Ashton chase the ball around like a dog let loose in the park, only to run in to a wall of muscle and knock the ball on. In watching the Rugby League World Cup, I have had feelings of excitement and anticipation stirred up for the first time since Robinson. There may be only a few different rules between the codes, but the game, as it turns out, is incredibly different.

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The first thing I notice are the tattoos. Although tattoos have had an incredible surge in popularity in the last few years, in rugby history, they have been confined to New zealanders and islanders. In England, it has been perhaps something more associated with the working classes rather than middle class rugby players. But there they were, bright ones, big ones and even neck ones. Just like modern day premiership football, every other player was inked up .

Next, were the lines of running. Battering ram directness is coupled with sideways stepping to amazing effect. You never know what the man with the ball is going to do next, but whatever they do, it is at pace and with aggression and it is wonderful to watch.

The last magical ingredient are the tricks and the flicks, things that make you go “ooohh”. Whether they come off or not these are the moments that can swing the balance of power in an instant. Attack into defence, nothing into something.

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I’ve watched Sam Tompkins, Range Chase and Ryan Hall dazzle at the World Cup and every time thought, why aren’t these guys playing union and making a name for themselves? There is no way they are getting paid as much as their union counterparts or being lavished with attention and lucrative endorsement deals in the same way.

It’s only today that I believe I have stumbled across the answer. All the things that I have found myself salivating over, whilst watching Rugby League are exactly the things that Union coaches frown upon. Everything is so structured and rigid and there is too much at stake for players to be throwing out back of the hand offloads or 10 metre no look passes.

Inevitably, in Union, they would have these practices either drilled out of them or labelled as a luxury. As Rugby Union will not be getting a drastic overhaul in the next few years, perhaps it’s time for me to make the code switch. From union to league, from orcs to wizards. A choice so blindingly obvious it makes me wonder why it has taken me so long to choose the blazing battles that are League games over the, at times painful, wars of attrition seen in Union. Join me in the Rugby revolution for the next two weeks at least, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Next up: England Face New Zealand in the semi-final, Saturday 23rd November, k/o 1.00pm (On the BBC ). Final to be played Saturday 30th November.

Click here for details.

WORDS: Michael Thomas

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