The science and magic of rugby league
Those familiar with the Roar would no doubt be familiar with code wars. However, it’s all getting a bit ‘same-ish’ for me.
It seems to me that the code war arguments are getting to the same refined, rehearsed and rehashed stage that the other great modern debate has reached – i.e. religion v no-reigion.
You see the same self-assuredness and lack out doubt, you see absolute conviction. You also witness the same fraying of tempers, the same righteous anger and the same basic misunderstanding of the other’s point of view.
While these debates are quite pointless, they are very entertaining to those who love to argue. And maybe a little educational.
As a fan of both rugby league and arguing, I’d like to discuss a couple of recurring and probably fair-enough criticisms of the game as it’s played at the professional level. If these critiques are merely clichés pedalled by uninspired code warriors, they still deserve to be answered.
No code is an island.
The first oft-regurgitated reproach comes from fans of Aussie Rules who cannot fathom why 13 men must line-up in mirror formation with 13 others and then basically line-dance for 80 minutes.
To them, the idea of having to go backwards to proceed is bizarre. This is often bundled in with complaints about the repetitiveness of the sport, with its formulaic five-rucks-then-kick method, which, they argue, supplys ample evidence that league is a simplistic game that affords no nuance and discourages creativity.
The next commonly cited problem with league comes from those who prefer their rugby played with 15 men per side. They also lambast the repetitive grind of league, but to these fans the fact that there’s no contest for possession of the football is what grates.
Why should a team be allowed to have exclusive use of the ball for six tackles before just giving it away to the other team? Why aren’t scrums, play-the-balls and tackles legitimate theatres for battle over the ball?
To the fair-minded, these basic criticisms are pretty hard to dismiss out of hand. They both strike at the same perceived problem with league, that it is too formulaic. There’s not enough randomness to keep things interesting. Players don’t need skill to advance the team, they just need penalties so they can keep doing the exact same 5 ruck then kick routine further up the field.
It boils down to this – there is a constant contest for possession going in league but it’s not for the ball. It’s for territory. Every minute decision made by a player on the fly, every angled run and calculated fall, every fight for the speed of the tackle and play-the-ball, every tactical decision made by a coach during the week and on the day, every step taken in possession is done with one thing in mind – go forward.
When you know what to look for you can see the absolute science that goes into transforming this simple concept into two competition points. A player taking one of those ‘boring’ rucks knows that he will probably be stopped pretty comfortably by two or three defenders.
Therefore he must make sure he controls every subroutine of the act of being tackled. This includes falling onto his stomach, perpendicular to the try-lines, somehow avoiding being on the bottom of a pile of players, let the ref know he’s fighting to rise, bounce to his feet and play the ball fast.
Of course he might choose to offload to the ball instead.
The defenders for their part must firstly get the most physically painful shot they can manage on the ball runner. This is as much for psychological reasons as physical ones – if they can rattle his ribs he might be put off his run next time. The much-reviled wrestle needs a mention here because the science of a good tackle demands it. Having hit the ball carrier as hard as his run allowed, the tacklers now want to slow everything down to permit the defence to retreat the required 10 metres and maybe even take a breath.
To do this they might spin or flip the ball carrier so it takes a split second longer and requires a scintilla more effort to play the ball in the legal way (parallel with the sidelines). These little extra efforts add up over the course of the game and fatigue a player. The defenders also have more obvious slowing options available, such as lying on top of the tackled player or interfering with the ball.
What I hope you’re getting here is the idea that every little thing counts in league. Often called a game of inches, the endless barrage of effort upon effort upon effort can be measured in fitness, spirit and teamwork as teams employ the science of their sport to best effect.
This is a zoom-in on one specific area of the game and probably hasn’t done a lot to change the minds of league’s critics. What needs to be acknowledged is that league is not the mindless bash-and-barge-oh-and-why-not-have-a-kick game as it’s sometimes caricatured. Every moment of live play has a hundred years of refinement and scientific analysis poured into it.
We’re at a time in the code’s history where the best effort-for-reward methods have been distilled and perfected by the coaches and the onus is on the players to get these myriad details right, or pay the price. It might not be immediately apparent, but it will be later in the game when you’re too tired to make that last desperate tackle.
The grind of constant effort towards perfection creates fatigue in the players and it’s when the players are tired that league’s explosive, running, attacking brilliance so often manifests. This is the payoff for the fans who’ve toughed out the grind with their team.
They stand and scream – for once putting aside the science and embracing the magic.
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