Despite constant nagging to family, friends, relatives – anyone who might listen to my begging – I have finally realised that a full Sky Sports subscription is perhaps a little too expensive, not least in our current economic climate, where shopping at M&S leaves you feeling somewhat contrite, despite the irresistible attraction of that middle-class taste sensation of stuffed vine-leaves. Therefore when I realised that the friend’s house at which I would be staying for three weeks over summer had not just Sky Sports 1, 2, 3 and 4 but Eurosport and ESPN, a genuine feeling of sports-based ecstasy surged through my body. It was during this honeymoon period that I started to resent my love of crusty ciabatta drizzled with Balsamic from Modena and Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, and began to yearn for Pukka Pies, Bovril, and Tetleys. Three short weeks of sports television saw a greater enlightenment than a Gap Year student discovering the Full Moon Parties on the once-pristine beaches of Thailand. The subject enriching my mind so? Rugby League.
Oxford born and bred, Union has long dominated my life. As a larger man, it is one of the few sports acceptable for me to play, inherently inclusive, making sure even those who would normally be picked last for each and every team get a chance to spend at least an hour with sweat waterfalling from furrowed brow. Yet three weeks of watching League in summer has given me a new perspective on footy. League dominates a relatively thin belt of England and Wales surrounding the M62, taken up by single double page spread on a W.H. Smith Road Atlas, from Hull on the North Sea to Liverpool on the Irish. Here, Association Football and Rugby League Football contest for popularity, but for many of the smaller cities and larger towns, League is everything. Widnes, Warrington, Wakefield; all mid-size towns, with Rugby League teams with world-wide followings. This is for a simple reason which will will shock all those who are as fond of Union as I am: I personally believe that Rugby League is a more exciting game.
Whether a result of my being a Bear of Very Little Brain (Milne, 1926), or simply an interest in something new and (for me) undiscovered, I find league to be fast, flowing and fully laden with tries. For those who don’t know the basic premise of League, here’s a concise introduction. 13 men a side. No rucks, mauls, scrums, lineouts. Tackled player must roll the ball back between his legs to the next player to start the next phase of play. The defending team must retreat 10 metres every tackle. After 6 tackles the ball is turned over to the opposing team. Score more points (a try is worth four, a conversion or penalty two, and a drop goal one) than the other team and you win. Incredibly simple. And it is this simplicity that, I believe, makes league such an entertaining game. It is undeniable: I enjoy Union an indescribable amount; at the scrum, lineout, in the tackle, the adrenaline rush is unparalleled. But as a spectator sport, seeing a scrum reset 7 or 8 times at a grey, windy Murrayfield clash between Scotland and Italy is hardly going to cause me to fall off my chair. League rarely, and by rarely I mean very rarely, fails to entertain. The constant attacking into a solid wall of defence requires the need for a mixture of speed and strength, an ability to run destructive lines, and more often than not liquid gas, that leads to emphatic tries. Jason Robinson seems to help prove this point: his blisteringly quick footwork and unfathomable pace honoured Union for so many years, helping England to a World Cup Victory in 2003. He was, however, a stalwart of League before converting. This sort of skill is a pleasure to watch, and is part-and-parcel of even quite unimportant matches.
It is necessary to mention that there are others who play Rugby League. Very few others, but a group crucial to the vitality of the game. The ANZACs long ago adopted League, and in many areas it is vastly more popular than Union. They have shaped League immensely both at home and here in the Northern Hemisphere, their pace, strength and general ability transforming League into something quite spectacular. With a mix of Northern grit and Southern (Hemisphere) flair, the Super League and Challenge Cup are quite extraordinarily charged competitions. The Challenge Cup Final this year at Wembley was no-exception: edge of your seat, nail-bitingly tense action, and unbelievably flair tries. When the Rugby Union World Cup came around this Autumn, after a summer of watching League, I was shocked by the pace of the game. New Zealand’s dominating back line aside, Union seemed slow, startlingly so, with rucks, mauls and scrums all serving to slow down play. This is pretty much tantamount to heresy from a prop forward, but as a spectator sport I had to side with League. Whilst this was perhaps just an anomalous world cup – it stands out as relatively uninspiring – there is a particular pace and ferocity to League which is seldom seen in Union.
I’m not quite at the point of joining the Northerners on their side of the real Great Schism: it’ll be a frosty Friday in July before you see me donning a bechevroned, unnecessarily large collared jersey and running out for St Helens to the wailing of Eddie Waring in the commentary box. Neither am I prepared to say unequivocally that I prefer League, as Union is still the blood that runs through my veins. But once in a while, I like to crack out my ‘I heart Arthur Scargill’ t-shirt, a six-pack of bitter and some pie and beans, and watch one of the most entertaining games on the telly.