The Roar
The Roar


League versus union: Letting go of the code war bitterness

Debating whether league or union is the better game is pointless. (AAP Image/Craig Golding)
7th July, 2017
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Admittedly I’m a person with an elaborate imagination, but lately I’ve become transfixed by a rather absurd hypothetical scenario.

Do you think that, while knocking the froth off a few cold ones and sending down lopsided lumps of black plastic at their local lawn bowls club, Reg and Bruce regularly slag off practitioners of other forms of bowls?

“What about that hoity-toity lot down at bocce? And don’t get me started on those petanque imposters,” Reg would say.

“Bunch of pansies. I reckon even the skittles crowd would have their measure, even though there’s bugger-all of them left,” Bruce would fire back indignantly.

Then they’d both vent their anger about the ‘sell-outs’ of tenpin bowling, protecting their delicate skin by congregating indoors, jiving away to garish music, wearing fancy shoes and rolling off for the big money.

Quite possibly this daydream comes to me because I’m approaching the second half of life in which the prospect of walking back-and-forth on a 35-metre patch of grass is gradually starting to sound like an acceptable way to spend a weekend.

But, more strongly, I suspect this fantasy has entered my consciousness because of the increasingly ludicrous juxtaposition of rugby league and rugby union supporters.

Me, I’m firmly a rugby league kid. To me it reflects the way I grew up, it reflects where my family is from, it reflects my values and I genuinely believe it is the more dynamic and entertaining game.

In my younger years, when I thought it might actually be something that mattered to anyone else, it was a fierce affiliation I wore like a badge.


(Image: Grant Trouville /

It’s as if rugby league versus rugby union reflects a simmering class war that has never physically erupted for our rather blessed and privileged generation in Australia.

You can say, “I’m a league man” and it allows you to believe you are a man of the people, fighting the good fight, standing up to the nepotism and corporate greed of our failed capitalist system – or, erm, something like that.

To imagine yourself as a ‘league man’ is akin to imagining Che Guevara staring wistfully into the distance as he fights for the plight of the common man – save aside the fact Guevera was actually a rugby union inside centre in his youth.

My allegiance to rugby league will surely never abate, but the happenings of the past few months and weeks have made me question how stupid the whole league versus union things is and how foolishly we tie our identity to it.

As I’ve alluded to in past columns, I assist with helping to spread and develop rugby league across Latin American communities. I do so on a committee of nine people who treat what we do as a humanitarian and cultural project as much as we treat it as a sporting project.

I’d say that at least once per week I receive an antagonistic message from somebody involved in rugby union about the supposed pointlessness and failure of our efforts.

Sometimes I know we must be doing particularly well. Those are the weeks where I receive four or five aggressive, insecure emails. Nobody much bothers writing when they don’t feel threatened.


But as much as my own rough hide has become impervious to insults from working in a daily environment surrounded by journalists, not everyone is the same.

Just this week another of our committee members received a grenade from the blue – some internet warrior who had tracked him down and unloaded a string of abusive messages about the “stupidity of Mungos” before then blocking his account so there was no right of reply.

To give context, this particular committee member lives in quite a remote area, and our project is not only a way for him to interact with the wider world, it’s also a way for him to honour his wife’s family, who came from a poor, war-torn background.

His involvement with rugby league allows him to have a connection to her relatives and culture, and do some good for the community. He sacrifices countless hours, like everybody involved, for free.

And this is where I think the whole rugby union versus rugby league thing has worn thin on me – or any sport versus any other sport for that matter.

(Image: AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Essentially what we have is a person with a social conscience, giving up their time and money to promote an activity for young men and women, copping a gobful from some trumped up idiot that believes he is a warrior for his clan.

A younger me would notch this down as another grudge against union – you know, stretching back to the breakaway in 1895, the Vichy period, the many roadblocks, bans and even imprisonments that have been imposed over time – except I know that s**t flows both ways, excuse the English.


I’m sure there are dyed-in-the-wool leaguies out there lobbing similar gutless barbs at proponents of the 15-man game, similarly hitting those who sacrifice time, money and effort because they want to do something tangible for the community.

I’m over waging war against the supposedly elite classes, ‘tweed patch brigade’ or whatever else we choose to denigrate union lovers with.

The war I choose to take up now is against the apathetic and unhelpful in our community.

It’s cool these days to be disengaged, critical and free of responsibility. You can blame everyone for your’s and society’s ills without ever getting off your fat arse to do something about it.

Most don’t.

Governments, councils and neighbourhood action groups rarely help either, legislating anything physical to within an inch of its life, finding reasons to deter groups from using public parks.

I’m of the view that anyone who is making the effort to enrich lives of others, promote health, meaningful interaction and teach life values is to be applauded no matter what sport they proffer.

It’s why when our organisation takes league into a new country we specifically outline that we are simply another avenue for people to represent their heritage, improve their life, learn important lessons, not to oppose rugby union.


And the honest truth is that outside of Australia and a select band of administrators with a position to protect, not many people the world over care at all about the whole league versus union thing.

I’ve taught clinics in Brazil where the same athletes played union first, had a break to learn how to make an effective league tackle, practised their union line-outs, played touch football, then progressed to full rugby league rules.

These people, millions of them around the globe, don’t see a delineation or a reason not to play and enjoy both sports or choose whichever one they prefer.

To them, closing their minds to possibilities and new experiences is as stupid as old men in a park fighting over what’s better: lawn bowls, bocce, petanque, skittles or tenpin bowling.

Sometimes you have to let go of the bitterness that’s holding you back.