If you’ll allow me the analogy, rugby league and rugby union are like two bickering, divorced ex-lovers – and the combined sporting consumer base its collective offspring. Once happily married, money tore them apart and now, years later, they’re thinking about a second wedding. But what for?
The temporary reconciliation took place a month ago, with heavyweights of both codes – Robbie “Dingo” Deans, Bob “Bozo” Fulton, Max “I probably have a nick-name” Krillich and Tim “Sheensy” Sheens – among the 4000-strong crowd braving icy conditions to witness the respective schoolboy champions, Keebra Park and St Augustines, face off in the historic cross-code exhibition.
Many have mulled the idea of a hybrid game, but aside from making great conversation at the building site worksite over a Four’nTwenty – or over a skinny latte by the photocopier in the office – is the cross-code experiment now destined to become a weekly reality? While some see it as a Frankenstein-ian monster, many accept a hybrid code is fated to happen. Hardened ex-players of both codes have gone on record backing the product. Even die-hard league immortal Noel “Crusher” Cleal admitted to sports journalists that “the concept is inevitable; it’s going to happen.” He’d had 12 schooners at the time, but it’s there on the record.
THE RULES: When attacking in their own half, the teams played under rugby league rules, with the rules reversing once the attackers passed half-way. The points system was league-based – four points for a try, two for a conversion – and scrums were union-based. A 60 second “shot clock” system regulated the flow of possession, keeping the game moving by eliminating those frequent lulls during the match.
The discussion of which rules from both game would be best suit a new form of the game would be better left to a longer column. A much longer column. And personally, I’m as biased towards rugby league as Piers Akerman is allegedly towards sexually confused new members of the Young Liberals. So I’ll leave that one well alone – as should Piers. Allegedly.
THE QUESTIONS: With the enthusiasm from ex-greats from both sides of the spectrum in getting behind an alternative game, this writer is wondering what the emergence of a popular hybrid game would mean on a grassroots social context? Would the white collar/blue collar archetypes be phased out? Could we, socially, adapt to a change of this magnitude?
Here’s another one: is there something wrong with the existing products? I really enjoy watching both forms of the game; they’re entertaining, comfortable and full of characters. In saying that, so was Australian family sitcom “Hey Dad” back in the late 80‘s early 90’s. But we now know something wasn’t right there. Come to think of it, David Gallop does look a little like Robert Hughes.
THE HISTORY: The phrase “Rugby League” was first muttered – I hope by a man not dissimilar in looks to Tommy Radonikis – upon the 1901 merger of Northern English rugby union teams Yorkshire and Lancashire. The clubs, which were working-class in nature, essentially broke away from their amateur status to create the means of paying players who couldn’t perform their blue-collar jobs after sustaining injuries. At the time, union clubs were of the belief that if a player couldn’t afford to be injured he shouldn’t be playing the sport. Hence, the founding clubs set the blue-collar tone of Rugby League in the Northern Hemisphere. The same scenario played itself out again, this time south of the Equator, in 1907. This led to the creation of the NSWRL and QRL, and their respective seasons of 1908. Media reports at the time described the large crowds as drawn to the “new, fast-paced, exciting” code.
Rugby league continued its blue-collar grassroots by establishing links to Labour unions and the development of the ‘Leagues Club’: the incoming dollars from big crowds and problem gamblers helped secure rugby league at the forefront of East Coast sport. Not only did this close the door on AFL campaigners with the disdain one offers to an unwanted Jehovah’s Witness at the doorstep, but it also, most importantly, cemented the social stereotype of the ‘league supporter’. Much to ThePublicApology’s appreciation, the pokies-playing, Winfield Blue-smoking, singlet-wearing, fluoride-starved rugby league supporter has become a solid archetype; similarly has the privileged, private school-educated, collar up, corporate trader/banker/surgeon rugby union fanatic.
THE VERDICT: In reality, the existence of a hybrid code may work as a novelty schoolboy game, or even annually at the elite level. But as a genuine alternative to existing codes, I don’t see the potential. If a new game was introduced one of the existing codes would suffer financially – and eventually dissolve. League supporters are passionate and not particularly adept at dealing with change, note the rise and fall of Super League. Union has strong structural support locally and even stronger internationally. Both codes have hands too strong to fold and there is just no room for a third player.
So if a new game is not a viable long term option, then why bother? If a few elite players are injured during an exhibition game, then clubs would rightfully cry foul. More importantly, if a cross-code form of the game did prove an unlikely success even annually, then we might soon find ourselves short of two comedic social stereotypes. I’m not sure I’m OK with that.
Rugby union and rugby league have been apart for so long that I doubt they could get back together and make it work. After all these years – not to mention the inherent rivalry and, given both codes are now professional, the different economic context – they’ve simply grown apart. They’ve also thrown too many insults at each other: rugby league is “stupid” to union lovers; rugby union is a “boring kick-fest” to leaguies.
It’s a little bit like the current situation with Woody Allen and his ex-wife Mia Farrow. They might reconcile one day, but at the back of Mia’s mind would be the eternal thought: he fucked and consequently married my daughter. I wouldn’t be cool with that, either.
I better wind this up; the footy’s almost on the tele. I’m dying for a dart and I’ve still got to make it to the TAB before kick-off. Guess which stereotype I am?
By Luke Meredith