By Geoff Mason
I was reading another rugby website recently and came across a fierce discussion on the purity of rugby union and the supposed abomination that is rugby league. Some of you may not be too familiar with League –basically it is 13 a side not 15, has a “six tackle” rule, and no lineouts, but is still a somewhat similar game to union. Yet the angry words being bantered about on the internet from supporters of each game reminded me of the mantra “four legs good, two legs bad” in the George Orwell novel ‘Animal Farm’ where everything is black and white with no redeeming qualities of the other side.
Having familiarity with both codes, I wondered why this argument was taking place and why here in the US this even matters. Currently, both games in the US are blips on the sporting scene and not likely to soon enter the nation’s collective consciousness in any significant way although we all hope the 2016 Olympics will bring rugby union, or at least the seven’s version, out of the shadows. As for Rugby League, its influence in the US is miniscule, split between two competing national bodies, and with teams mostly in the East with players that moonlight from rugby union.
But let’s say both games grew and became more noticed by the sporting public. Which would be the one most likely to be successful and more attractive to US viewers? Both have their merits. There are fewer stoppages in Rugby League, it is a more continuous game and I saw recently a study which estimated that the ball is in play for 50 minutes in a RL game compared to about 35-38 minutes in a RU match. League is very physical player on player which would appeal to American viewers. On the other hand, you can argue that Rugby Union 15’s with the constant build-up of phases and pressure, the frequent chain passing and the free-for-all contest for the ball following an “up and under” make for pretty compelling watching. Plus, you have the global appeal of RU – it is played in over 150 countries (Rugby League in about 25).
Rugby League is more structurally similar to US football, with the six tackles like football downs, and it is far less technical with many less laws that are easier to follow than its cousin game. For example, trying to explain RU scrum penalties and the ruck and maul to novice viewers may take a while. Even knowledgeable students of union can’t explain some of the scrum infractions! This accessibility may give an advantage to league.
Of course, the biggest negative for both is how to fit commercials in during full side games without destroying the flow for the viewer. Neither game allows for constant interruption to enable broadcasters to flog product like the NFL or college football does. But I guess it could be done and the NRL in Australia does it fairly well with minimal disruption. But it is no wonder that most rugby on US television networks is rugby sevens which in seven minute increments is tailor made for TV as the recent success of televising college and international sevens bears out.
If I had to predict which full side game would be more likely to “make it” on TV over here, it would be Rugby League for the reasons I have listed. Ironically, even though I have a substantial rugby league background, personally I prefer to watch rugby union 15’s over both league and sevens. To me, Rugby League is now too routinized, with the six tackles generally consisting of three or four one man ‘hit-ups, one tackle where there may be a pass or two or off-load, and then a kick. Over and over! The hard core league supporters would say union is endless kicking and head down, bum up “pick and goes” but to my view, there is much more variation and tactical play in rugby union. It is a more cerebral game hands down.
With all that said, I know there will be many who may disagree with my belief league would be the more viewer-attractive, but I would love either code to be a break out in the US sporting scene and become regular items on ESPN Sportscenter, rather than totally ignored like they are now.
HAVE YOUR SAY…Which do you think would take hold better in the U.S.? Talk about it below.
A native of Australia, Geoff Mason played both rugby league, professionally in Sydney, and rugby union for 35 years. He emigrated to the US in 1980 and was a Player/Coach at University of South Carolina from 1983-1985 and returned to his alma mater to serve as USC’s head coach from 2004 through 2011 compiling a record of 166 wins, 94 losses and 8 ties.
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