With the Rugby League World Cup coming to a close, it has felt slightly overshadowed by the rugby union autumn internationals. That is partly down to the abysmal displays from the home nation teams while their counterparts are getting results in the union internationals – but it also comes down to the ‘social-demographic’ factor that underlines these two sports.
As a Northern lad, I have been brought up with rugby league, playing it in school and having local teams like Huddersfield Giants being shown down the pub. This to me is real rugby, whereas union is for the ‘posh grammar school kids’. Since starting university, I have really noticed the difference in the sports as the Rugby Union Men’s 1s university team all show up in a three-piece suit while the rugby league players are happy rocking up to the game in a full Sports Direct tracksuit. Another difference is the popularity with a lot more students wanting to play union, while league seems just like a new sport that they want to try.
Union is also favoured on a national level. The England Rugby League national team didn’t form properly until 1975, when they made their World Cup debut while the rugby union national team dates back to 1871. The Six Nations is a popular annual rugby union competition where home nations teams (plus France and Italy) compete against each other. In comparison to the league’s version of Four Nations, you can really see where the national pride lies.
The past month I have woken up early, excited to watch the World Cup games. That excitement has been matched with disappointment of the quality of the home nations’ performances. Yes, England may have made it to the semi-finals of the competition (at time of writing) but there have been a lot of negatives from their performances that does question the quality of the competition. England’s 36-6 quarterfinal win over Papua New Guinea saw a 56% completion rate and an error count of 20. This, compared to the resilient performance over Australia by 30-6 for the England Rugby Union National team, makes you wonder why you would rather watch union.
It really has been embarrassing watching Wales and Scotland, both losing by ridiculous margins such as 72-6 against Fiji and 74-6 against New Zealand respectively. A sport clearly second graded in these two countries shows through international competitions. How can rugby league ever be truly celebrated in our country when the rest of Britain couldn’t care less about the sport?
The segregation of these two sports is also prominent in the southern hemisphere between Australia and New Zealand. Rugby League is the national sport in Australia, while rugby union is preferred in New Zealand. The National Rugby League is the best domestic rugby league in the world, quality better than that of Super League, and only features one New Zealand team. That is why Australia are dominant in the rugby league internationals and the All Blacks in the union internationals.
Whether you play or watch union or league is all down to location and this hugely affects the competitions, as shown this month. I love rugby league but the international competitions are always disappointing to watch because of this. Let’s hope in the future there is more integration of rugby league throughout the country that improves the quality on the international stage. But for now, I’ll continue to show my pride in the Northern sport and cheer on England!