Debate: In defence of rugby: League vs. Union


League: Harry Aaronson

17-year-old rugby league player writes in defence of his sport

There are many stereo-types of rugby league players: Northerners, thugs and soft. Whilst some of these stereo-types may be true, others are definitely false and when you look at the game that is rugby league, you cannot help but think that it is the best sport in the world.

Many people who are interested in rugby union will be aware that one of rugby league’s biggest stars, Sam Burgess, has just joined Bath Rugby Union after several successful seasons in rugby league. The fact that he played a whole game with a broken cheekbone that he suffered in the first minute is astonishing and he is a prime example of the tough natured athletes that rugby league players have to be. Having played both union and league at decent levels, I know that union is still a very tough sport with some of the best athletes in the world and the sacrifices that the players make are incredible. But the fitness required of every player, prop to wing, stands out in league. You find that props are making 50+ tackles a game and then running over 60+ metres; all in an 80 minute spell. This epitomises why league is so great, in my opinion.

Props are making 50+ tackles a game in an 80 minute spell

People who have seen both sports will notice that rugby league is much quicker, with fewer rules and everyone on the pitch has the same aim: run hard and whack some poor bloke on the other team! On the other hand, union is a much more tactical game where players are required to learn how to ruck, scrum and maul as well as knowing the basics of rugby. In these technical moments of play, rugby union players are much more skilful but I think league players have more desire to make the big runs and the big hits.

The main reason rugby league is the better sport is the speed of the game. In union, the game is slowed down completely for rucks and scrum resets. In league there is constantly fast flowing rugby, where sometimes the game can last 20+ minutes without the ball going out of play. There is also more willingness among rugby league teams to chance their arm and throw the ball about along the line in order to score a try. However in union, teams are happier to take a kick at the posts and this is why most league fans believe union is boring. A prime example of this was the 2013 Six Nations, in which a total of 37 tries were scored in a total of 15 games. In the rugby league Four Nations in 2014, a total of 52 tries were scored in a total of 7 games – remarkably more than in its union counterpart. In any code of rugby, tries are the most entertaining time of a game and therefore rugby league is superior to rugby union in that it has the most entertainment factor between the sports.

The main reason rugby league is the better sport is the speed of the game

(Picture credit//BBC Sport)
(Picture credit//BBC Sport)

I must point out that rugby union has a much bigger following that league and that this is not down to how interesting the game is to watch. All but two professional rugby union teams are in the South of England and all but one rugby league teams are in the North, and hence the money is ploughed into union as it is a game where more wealthy people go to watch rugby. You can look at the stadia for both sports as well. Saracens sometimes have 80,000 people when they play at Twickenham; the most that a league game can get is 22,000 at the DW stadium in Wigan. If rugby league in the UK wants to develop as a sport, it needs to bring in fans from all sides of the country.

If rugby league in the UK wants to develop as a sport, it needs to bring in fans from all sides of the country.

Overall, I think rugby in general is a brilliant sport and both codes could learn from each other. Rugby league has my vote for the reasons I have mentioned, but I am part of the minority. I’m sure if more people were aware of the game then it would have a much bigger following because it would capture the hearts and minds of many more spectators.

Union: Ben Sanders

Brasenose student and OxStu Sports Editor defends union

There’s an analogy that is regularly drawn when comparing rugby union and rugby league. “Rugby league is like checkers,” the saying goes, “and rugby union is like chess.” That sums up the main reason why league is inferior to union.

Don’t get me wrong. Checkers is a fine game, and rugby league isn’t bad either. I can see why some people are fanatically devoted to rugby league. But to be this sort of person, you have to really enjoy experiencing the same thing. Over, over, and over again.

One of the often-cited advantages of rugby league is its simplicity but, in reality, this is its biggest flaw. Here’s a description of a typical passage of play. A player runs forward, and gets tackled. They give the ball to someone else in a completely unexciting way. That player runs forward and they, too, get dumped to the floor. Before giving it to someone else in a completely unexciting way.

Sometimes, a player will punt the ball really high into the air, in the hope that something different will happen. But that hope for variety is somewhat naïve given that, if the ball goes out of play or gets knocked on, we’ll be “treated” to an uncontested scrum. An uncontested scrum is essentially a miniature ceasefire; a chance for the players to rest before, you guessed it, giving the ball to someone else in a completely unexciting way.

An uncontested scrum is essentially a miniature ceasefire

Of course, it isn’t necessarily debilitating if a sport is very repetitive. Tennis can basically be summarised as two people hitting a ball at each other, wiping themselves down with a towel, smacking their shoes and/or themselves with a racquet and then beginning to hit a ball at each other again.

(Picture credit//pixabay)
(Picture credit//pixabay)

But the core difference between tennis and both versions of rugby is that the core gameplay of tennis is, itself, thrilling. That’s not to say that either format of rugby is boring. The core gameplay of both – powerful running, dextrous handling, accurate kicking, intelligent utilisation of space and dummying – is compelling. But these core features aren’t compelling enough – to me, anyway – to support the sport all by themselves. Rugby needs the variety provided by the sideshows of contested scrums, rucks, mauls and line-outs in order that it doesn’t become tedious and monochrome, which too often happens in rugby league matches.

Moreover, these extra features of rugby union have the knock-on effect – and no, I’m not ashamed of that pun – of necessitating greater variety in the playing personnel, which makes the core gameplay itself more diverse. In union, there’s room for tall players, short players, bulky players and bony players. In league, there’s a pretty fixed template; good at running and fit. Naturally, that makes every passage of the game even more repetitive.

These extra features of rugby union have the knock-on effect

If all that isn’t sufficient to convince, then here’s a final reason why we should prefer union to league. Word has it that, when Americans watch rugby league, they can understand what’s happening very easily because it’s actually very similar to American football. The influence of the NFL, the USA’s league for that sport, is already growing quite rapidly here in the UK. Each year, it seems that increasing numbers of British people watch and discuss the Superbowl. The NFL is even planning to set up a London-based franchise, within 10 years, which would play at Tottenham Hotspur FC’s forthcoming new stadium.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with American football, of course. But, if an NFL explosion happens here in the UK within the next 15 years – which isn’t implausible – then the existence of rugby league, because it’s so similar, would be threatened. Union, on the other hand, would be protected by the Americans’ incomprehension of its peculiarities.

Union would be protected by the Americans’ incomprehension of its peculiarities

Ultimately, therefore, the simplicity of rugby league doesn’t just make it more boring. It also leaves the sport unable to contest opposing forces. But, of course, we should hardly find rugby league’s inability to contest surprising.


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