Thursday, 26 July 2007

Would you like chips with that?

There was an article in Sportingo last week, obviously penned by an aficionado of Rugby League, suggesting that League was poised to become the UK’s second most popular sport based on the fact that the England Rugby Union national team had underperformed since winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

This does, of course, ignore the fact that professional club rugby in England has gone from strength to strength over the past few years and the fact that Rugby League barely has an international scene but, setting the details aside, what is it with these League fans that they constantly have to perpetuate some sort of war with Rugby Union?

Whether it’s disputing attendance figures at games, or ridiculing TV viewing figures, or pouring scorn on the numbers of fans reported to have celebrated the 2003 Rugby World Cup win, or delighting in the defeat of their own national team, or even blaming an entire sport for the actions of the Vichy government during World War II, fans of Rugby League do, it appears, have a real bee in their bonnet about Rugby Union.

I realise that generalisations are dangerous, and I’m sure that there must be plenty of League followers out there who adopt a “live and let live” approach and, frankly, couldn’t care less about the Union code (which, by and large, is my attitude to League). But go to any Rugby League web forum and you will find that there as many posts which are attacking Union as there are those that are pro-League.

Now, historically, I can appreciate that Rugby Union did itself no favours. In the early 1890s there was certainly an economic North-South divide with rugby in Yorkshire and Lancashire being a working man’s game, whilst clubs in the South of England were largely middle class. With the England team of the era being dominated by players from the north who were finding it increasingly difficult to take time off from work to play the game, it all came to a head when the RFU refused to allow “broken time” payments, leading to 22 clubs breaking away from the RFU to form the “Northern Rugby Football Union” (later to become the Rugby Football League) in 1895.

That, during the next 100 years, the RFU behaved appallingly, banning anyone connected with Rugby League from playing or being associated with Union (even by the 1990s, having a trial with a Rugby League club was strictly forbidden), is not in doubt. Nor is it disputed that the Vichy government in war-time France banned Rugby League and seized its assets.

However, for historical events like these to form the basis for a hatred of an entire sport is not only irrational but is also seriously unhealthy if these people want to see their own sport grow and develop. To categorise Rugby Union as a sport only played by public school toffs is as wide of the mark as saying that League is only for the flat cap and whippet brigade and the fact that many English Rugby League fans actually want the England Rugby Union team to fail is just incredibly sad.

Since Union turned professional in 1995, Rugby League supporters have, if anything, become even more defensive. Any League player crossing codes is either “past his best” or “wouldn’t have made the grade in League” and then, on the rare occasion that he is successful in Union (and, of the English players, I can only mean Jason Robinson), it only goes to prove how inferior Union is as a challenge. And when, last November in Sportingo, Donna Gee suggested that the two sports should seek compromise and find a way in which to merge, the reaction from League fans was nothing short of apoplectic.

Like those League fans, I have no desire at all to see a merger. I believe that Rugby Union has gone far enough in trying to dumb itself down and make itself TV friendly and is in danger of stripping out the ingredients that provide its unique character. But my objections have nothing to do with the hatred, insecurity and paranoia that appear to grip these people.

Both Rugby Union and Rugby League can survive, thrive and even co-exist. For League, however, it’s unlikely to happen unless and until its supporters can learn to ignore Union and get on with growing and developing their own sport.

Here endeth the lesson… :)


John Birch said...

To be honest it can cut both ways. I remember being at a meeting a year or so ago where the rules for a junior rugby age nad were being discussed and someone let slip the idea that the next logical step up from 12-a-side would be 13, with maybe one more in the scum.

"Blasphemer" was the reply as delegate leapt for their crucifixes and stakes, "for 'tis it not written that 13 is the devil's number and that all who shall play upon the field in such are forever damned! Repent, ye sinner!"

Okay, that isn't exactly what was said and to be quite honest in the end we did resolve to play 13-a-side, but I was quite amused at the time by the sharp intakes of breath, at least.

Total Flanker said...

Hi John

I'd agree that there are probably still some anti-League sentiments amongst Union's blazer brigade and also some sensitivities in Union to the game becoming too much like League (I certainly wouldn't want the numbers playing reduced from 15 for instance, or lose the lineout, or have the scrum rendered meaningless, or lose the battle for possession in the loose - the list goes on!)

However I'd argue that most people invloved in Rugby Union don't give two hoots about what's happening in Rugby League - we're not interested in how many people attend their games, we don't spend our time telling their supporters how dull we find "five tackles and a kick" or how daft their scrums are and we don't hope that the GB Rugby League team will get stuffed by the Aussies. We don't even complain that much when the latest Rugby League import to Union finds it impossible to adapt (due to his obviously superior technique and skill, obviously) :)