Rugby’s league problem

The idea for this article began with a classic hot take – every sports fan’s favourite activity. It is tradition among my sports watching mates that any given pub session involves the discussion of at least one hot take, as broad or as specific as we like. Should a player have been an All Australian? Is Steve Smith the GOAT? Just how many rocks has Michael Cheika got in his head?

One day, scrolling twitter, I saw a story circulating about Rugby Australia pursuing young league talent Kalyn Ponga.

I went to YouTube, as all low-effort sports opinion holders do, to look for some highlights, and holy shit this kid was good. So naturally, I messaged a group chat my hot take:

Without league, Australia would be comfortably the best rugby playing nation on earth.

Honestly, not exactly ground-breaking, and – I was going to write ‘perhaps’, but honestly, it is openly so – rugby-centric.

Thinking about it more, I realised I had made rugby the victim. I did some further reflection, and that is utterly unfair. It doesn’t pain me at all to say that league was clearly on the right side of history.

In the late 1890s, claims of ‘shamateurism’ were running rampant in English Rugby Union. To cut a long story short, the Rugby Union issued suspensions to 22 clubs, the vast majority of whom were northern, for compensating their working-class players for missing their jobs to play games, and in many cases, for compensating missed work after football related injuries.

1908 nrl.jpg
NSW Rugby League kicks off in 1908

Then, all these clubs met in a pub, and decided to resign on mass from England’s Rugby Union.  They formed a rebel competition, which while originally playing traditional rugby rules, slowly introduced its own changes, and by 1910 or so was playing the 13-a-side ruckless rugby league familiar to us all today.

Concurrently, the same was taking place in New South Wales. Of course, other stories were unfolding across the league playing world, especially in Queensland, but for the sake of brevity, I will keep this yarn to our oldest state.

The same issues of player payment were making their rounds in the Australian game, and despite the Sydney elite standing by Rugby, the people were loving the new ‘Northern Union’ game. Most importantly, players were unsuccessfully pushing to be paid, or at least to have their income insured, to play Rugby.

Things came to a head when Alex Burdon, a wallaby who had toured England and played against New Zealand, broke his arm badly playing rugby for NSW.

Despite all he had given them, the Rugby Union refused to compensate him for lost work, let alone pay him for the game, in the name of preserving amateurism.

Popular opinion shifted, and fairly so. Looking back, if I were an ordinary worker in Redfern or Glebe in 1910, I would almost certainly have sided with league.

Even now, rugby snobbery is a plague on the game. I concede it is not as bad in Australia as England, and even better in the ACT compared to Sydney, but I write this article as a call to rugby and league fans alike, we have more in common than you’d think.

Thinking about the relationship of our great games now, I’m reminded of a story my father told me about the board of my old rugby-obsessed school. He recounted the passions of an unnamed parent that the school spent FAR too much on rugby, and that the football (soccer) club was wilting away ignored.

In telling me the story in our kitchen, dad astutely observed that while all football club could seem to think about was the rugby club, he was unsure whether the rugby club even knew the school had a football club.

In the same way, I see rugby friends sneer upon league, a game that in contrast seems purely interested in loving and enjoying its own world. I can’t recall the last ‘rugby vs. league banter’ I overhead where the first ‘my code is better’ zinger came from a league watcher.

Really, why perpetuate this division with anything, let alone a low-effort joke at the expense of rugby league, which usually elicits at best a puff of air from someone’s nose and at worst an eyeroll.

I do understand there is a tinge of regret in it all for rugby fans. I remember asking Pat Langtry, former 1st XV coach at St Edmunds and Australian Schoolboys, who the best rugby player he’d ever coached was. Expecting Gregan or some other classic rugby name, I didn’t quite know how to react when he said ‘Ricky Stuart.’

ricky stuart.jpg
Ricky Stuart

‘That guy would’ve captained the Wallabies, but we lost him’.

Mr. Langtry, I see your point. Yes, rugby lost him. But we still got him, Australia still got him, sport still got him. It betrays an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality in rugby, and as benevolent as a rivalry between rugby and league may seem, it does damage too.

As usual, it’s time to tell a yarn, but this time, its about league, not about rugby, cricket, or a book, it’s about league.

When I was very small, my uncle Steve took me to a game of rugby league at Belmore to watch his beloved Canterbury Bulldogs play against a team I can’t remember.

There was an electric atmosphere, some massive hits, and for me, confusion at 2 point ‘penalty goals’ announced on the big screen, and 4 point tries. I thought a ‘goal’ was an AFL term. Besides, when you kick a penalty off a tee its worth 3 points, and it’s never referred to as a ‘goal’.

But the greatest memory was at half time. I turned to my uncle and said, ‘I have to go to the toilet now’. Barely containing exasperation that I had not told him 2 minutes earlier so we could beat the rush, uncle Steve walked me between the masses to the toilet.

The place was utterly packed. There was blue and white everywhere, it was noisy, people were smoking, drinking, laughing, and arguing. Memorably, there was a woman there shouting at her husband through a shut cubicle door while he was shitting.

What happened next was really fun. Uncle Steve, knowing I had no chance of making it to the front normally, simply held little me above the crowd and roared out ‘HE’S GOTTA GO!!’.

From on high, I see about 50 faces turn and look at me in a mixture of simple surprise and fear that I will piss on them, and a very large man in a Canterbury jumper takes me from uncle Steve, handing me through pairs of hands of all colours and size, but equal in their adult strength and safety, until I reach the front.

Crowd-surfing above the atmosphere of a late 90s rugby league bathroom was pretty memorable, especially when I reached the front, and the biggest one of all of them, a huge Lebanese guy, put me next to him, pulled my pants down, and said ‘go on then’. He then stood next to me, pulled my pants back up when I was done, and handed me back over the crowd until I reached uncle Steve.

What I felt at Belmore that day was a wonderful togetherness. Just like walking in a big blob of humanity to the G over the Yarra, hugging 20 mates after a club rugby win on a hill in Tuggeranong, or being inside a scrum myself pushing along with mates, it was another little chapter of my love affair with sport.

I want to squeeze in one final memory of sporting unity. Last year, I recall standing at a bar alongside a guy in a Raiders jumper. I was in an old Wallabies jumper, and we had beaten Ireland in a test earlier that night. The guy slaps his hand on my shoulder and says ‘Mate! Did they win?’, excited and a few beers in, I turned to him and said ‘They did mate! They did! Fuck I love footy.’ Laughing, he responded in a lovely way; ‘Me too mate, me too.’

One response to “Rugby’s league problem”

  1. Pat Beautifully written. Such a future ahead of you! While I generally agree, I grew up in a league town but fell out of love with the game because of the sheer lack of physical contact. I tend to characterise today’s league as pass,pass, pass,pass, pass, kick and if you forget to kick the forwards play ring-a-ring-a-roses.

    That said the atmosphere at a Raiders’ game beats the atmosphere at a Brumbies’ game hands down. Except when your father is calling the referee a bum!


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