Spectator sport

Rugby union vs league – or Barbour-clad southerners vs the whippet brigade

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

Leader in the clubhouse for top rugby try by an Englishman in 2018: Oliver Gildart. Oliver who? Oliver Gildart, only 22, scored a corker of a try on his debut, sprinting from well within his own half, with several sidesteps and a blinding turn of speed, to secure an 18-16 win over New Zealand in a brutal first rugby league test at Hull. If you missed it please catch up: it doesn’t take long to watch, trust me. I remember once getting into a steaming row with a rugby pal who had dared to suggest that rugby league was better to watch than union. But who really does get the better entertainment? The Barbour–clad southerners at Twickenham or the flat-cap whippet brigade along the M62 who after the thriller at Hull last weekend must be savouring the prospect of the next two tests against the Kiwis, at Anfield on Sunday and Leeds the week after.

Is it a cultural thing? I’m a union devotee but I was brought up on union, and people who like league were usually brought up on league. What is appealing about that code though — besides the astounding fitness and courage of the players — is that it has done away with all the arcane stuff: set scrums (still being interminably reset), mauls/rucks and line-outs, which only the refs understand (most of them anyway).

The game is ferociously fast moving, but counter-intuitively this has reduced rugby league to something rather sterile and formulaic, a bit like basketball, with the ball passing through hands up and down the field in a featureless ebb and flow. But seeing Gildart’s try — which had it been scored by an All Black or a Barbarian would be hailed as one of the tries of all time — makes you realise that there should be a great readiness on both sides of the league/union debate to recognise the virtues of the other’s code.

Events in Australian grade cricket matches — their top club level — rarely get much coverage in the old country, more’s the pity. So you may have missed a delicious moment in a game between Randwick Petersham and Western Suburbs in Sydney the other day. David Warner, a talented player but not the best-loved character in the game, decided he had to leave the field when batting because he had been so upset by something that had been said to him — incidentally by Jason Hughes, brother of Phil, who died after being hit by a bouncer in a Shield match in 2014. Warner leaving a cricket match with wounded feelings is a bit like Roy Keane walking out of a training session because he didn’t like the way someone was looking at him.

The charge sheet against Warner is pretty lengthy: he told Rohit Sharma to ‘speak English’, tried to lamp Joe Root in a night club and had a ferocious set-to with Quinton de Kock of South Africa. Still, poor thing — we mustn’t upset the pugnacious left-hander. Anyway, after a few minutes’ wiping his eyes in the pavilion he came back out and made 157. Not much damage done then.

At almost exactly the same time an oxymoronically named bunch called the Ethics Centre of Australia produced a savage report into one of Warner’s finest hours, the ‘sandpapergate’ ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town in March. Everybody gets it in the report: Warner, of course, Steve Smith, coach Darren Lehmann and poor Cameron Bancroft, who couldn’t say no and shoved the sandpaper into his Y-fronts. The governing body, Cricket Australia, is accused of presiding over a rotten and macho cricketing culture. ‘We are obsessed with being No. 1, but it is fool’s gold,’ says one official. Well fair enough, but an Ashes series should be a tough old contest. No quarter and all that. And try telling Eddie Jones not to worry about being No 1.

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