With the ARLC recommending that the shoulder charge be banned this week for the 2013 NRL season, the league versus rugby debate seems to have been (unfortunately) reignited on comment threads. Again. This blog was always intended to be primarily a music blog but I am so honest-to-god sick of seeing the rugby-head (league is an inferior imitation) mentality on display that I couldn't not write something.
So here we go, a bunch of myths that rugby-heads try to perpetuate about rugby league, and why they are wrong (or in some cases, entirely hypocritical).
I should preface all of this by saying that I am a league fan. I am also a hockey player and umpire. I occasionally watch rugby, but not very often, and not as much as I used to (some of the reasons why may be evident below). I don't think union sucks. I just prefer league, and other sports.
1. "League is just 5 tackles then kick it"
Wrong. Ever seen Ben Barba or Greg Inglis on a kick-return? Nothing predictable about that. Even in 'regular play' teams will have specific plans for the tackle count, typically working it either straight up the middle, or to one side and then the other. By the 4th tackle, the backs will be involved and then all sorts of options come into play. Sometimes there's a kick on the fifth. Sometimes there isn't. Some of league's most memorable tries have been scored when teams didn't kick it on the last and were deep inside their own territory.
League's structure provides a lot of opportunity for backline moves too. In rugby, this would typically only happen from a set-piece. In league, it's a possibility every time a team is inside the opposition's half. Watching the Storm or Bulldogs backlines in action, running second man plays or whatever else, is pretty impressive stuff.
2. "League is a joke as an international sport"
True, but hypocritical and pointless. Rugby union is only slightly better, really. In league there are only three teams with a serious crack at the World Cup - NZ, Australia and England. In rugby union there's also a clear top tier (NZ, Australia, South Africa), but there's also a pretty reasonable second tier from Europe (plus Argentina). But this is a silly point for league-haters to make for several reasons.
Firstly, both are completely crap as so-called 'international' sports - comparable to ice hockey, arguably behind cricket, and certainly nothing compared to genuine global sports like football, basketball and field hockey.
Secondly, it's a mistake to assume that international competition is the pinnacle of league, or any sport. Many would say State of Origin is, for league. However, international competition fits into the league calendar around the NRL (and Super League) club season. The club season is what the fans primarily get excited about. And there's a good reason why - the NRL is a well-organised, well-structured competition. It's competitive - on a given day, any team can beat any other team (and upsets do happen) - this is thanks partly to the salary cap and partly because the current NRL is well aware of the dangers of over-expansion, thanks to the disaster of the mid-1990's (anyone remember the South Queensland Crushers?!). Super Rugby doesn't seem to have figured this out yet.
Anyway, in league, test matches are something of a cherry on top of the season. There's nothing that says sport has to revolve around international matches - basketball and the NBA are a good example here. The AFL is an even more extreme case - Collingwood's average home crowd in the AFL was 56,000 in 2012, and I doubt any of those fans care that the sport is almost unknown outside of Australia.
3. "Union provides for a more diverse range of players"
This is true, but pointless. Between locks, props, loose forward, halves and outside backs, union does have a broader range of player sizes. You can generally figure out who the halves are on a league team; beyond that it can get hard. But so what? This is elite level sport. Most soccer players have a similar build. So do most hockey players. It's nothing to do with body shape and all about skills, attitude and athletic ability.
I'd also suggest league's structure creates more scope for the smaller players to use their speed and agility. Someone like Robbie Farah can cause absolute havoc out of dummy half against a tired opposition forward pack.
4. "League players (and fans) are dumb and/or thugs"
This is wrong, and a stupid thing to say. The suggestion here is "your sport sucks or is somehow less worthy because the average IQ of the players and fans is lower". Take this to its logical conclusion, and the pinnacle of sport would involve some sort of battle between Einstein and Stephen Hawking, watched by the members of MENSA.
Like any sport, some league players are smart and others are not so smart. But they're on a sports field, not working at NASA, right? They are there to be good at the game, not to be rocket scientists.
At least league players have got a bit of personality too. James Maloney has made some great quips on Twitter, as have others. I'm sure the NZRU would be pretty quick to squash any similar banter if it came from contracted union players.
Anyway, the same point also applies to allegations of thuggery. Yes, league has players like Steve Matai who keep the judiciary productively employed. But it's pretty farcical for rugbyheads to throw stones of this nature when they live in glass houses - look at the sort of silly, dangerous acts we've seen this season from Dean Greyling, Adam Thomson, Rob Simmons and others.
As to the fans, it's no different. Some league fans are smart and others are not so smart. I know passionate league fans who are CEO's, teachers, builders, and accountants. The fan base is as diverse as any other sport. Let's not forget also that a lot of NZers are both rugby and league fans - so there can't be that much difference in a small place like New Zealand.
I will also add that I have heard far more creative, clever and downright hilarious sledging (of the opposition, referee, and occasionally the home team) at Mt. Smart than I've ever heard at Eden Park. I've witnessed the odd person do something a bit dumb, or who was a bit too wasted, but I've never seen any fights. I'd probably liken the camaraderie between league fans to a bit like what you get at a metal concert. People are passionate, and not afraid to show it - but you rarely see them getting stuck into each other. Maybe they drink Lion Red instead of Steinlager. So what?
5. "League is simple. Union is far more complex"
True - if we're talking just about the rules.
But is that actually a bad thing, having simple rules? I know from playing and umpiring sport myself that confusion over rules or interpretations is probably the single most frustrating thing there is for players and fans. About the only thing worse is when the referee makes an absolute howler of a decision. Clear rules mean that players know exactly how far they can push it, what they can and can't do - this is totally crucial at the elite level where the best players are experts at pushing it to the absolute limit. There's nothing good about a penalty being awarded for reasons that neither players nor fans can understand.
And the trouble with union's complex rules - and rule interpretations - is that this does happen, and it influences the outcome of games. Scrums in union can be a total lottery and the ruck situation is not always much better. Confusion over which team collapsed the scrum can (and does) lead to one side getting a points-scoring opportunity that they should not have had.
As for the gameplay itself, I appreciate that there is considerable depth to rugby, and I've already explained above why league also has a lot more depth to it than than non-fans might realise at first glance.
6. "League is very stop start. Union is always a flowing game"
False. Yes, league has regular tackles and play-the-balls. These are no more disruptive to the flow of the game than a ruck in a union match. There are far fewer stoppages in a league match - no lineouts, de-powered scrums (which are, admittedly, a bit of a joke), and less injury stoppages (given the interchange rules). Consequently, the actual time the ball is in play is quite a lot higher. About the only time there is a break in play of more than 20-30 seconds is when a try is scored, or there is a referral to the video referee. Aside from that - it's all on.
Finally, I would add that I don't really care too much that rugbyheads perpetuate these myths. What bugs me is that they are either wrong or irrelevant. If you're going to start slagging off other sports - especially rival codes - at least say something sensible.