It’s quite unreal that we are less than a week from the start of the 2021 NRL season, and yet one of the greatest players of all time still hasn’t decided whether he will play on, and if so, where.
Do you like balls to get plenty of air, or do you prefer them to be held tightly to avoid popping out in heavy contact?
Ok, that could be misleading. I’ll try again.
Fancy footwork or big collisions? Multiple phases to build pressure or six tackles to make something happen?
Rugby union versus rugby league? Which code is better?
I grew up in rugby union territory. I loved watching Taranaki play in New Zealand’s provincial competition. We could even see the rugby park scoreboard from our lounge.
It was aggressive, uncompromising. Forwards considered ‘great footwork’ a euphemism for rucking some unfortunate sod until his back had more stripes than the American flag.
Then came professionalism and the Hurricanes blew into my life on the back of a two-legged gazelle in ballet shoes, who could corner like a Ferrari and looked like a school boy his entire career: Christian Cullen.
Still the best running back I have seen. Look him up.
The All Blacks were, and remain, a thing of legend. Their feats no less believable if accomplished while riding unicorns, or if Richie McCaw could fly. Which incidentally, he can. Helicopters. But technically he can still fly, so let’s just call him Superman.
Despite my passion for union, I had been unfaithful. If union was the stable relationship, then rugby league was the dirty secret, the code my mother had always warned me about. Filthy, mean, a bit of rough.
TVNZ started broadcasting NSWRL matches. From my first match, I was in awe. Who were these lunatics who just ran at each other as hard as they could? They didn’t use arms in the tackle. If they disagreed, they punched each other. And they seemed to disagree a lot. It was glorious.
We had league in Taranaki, but nothing like this. Not even close.
There were Kiwis playing too! I tried to follow them all. Quentin Pongia, Johnny Lomax and Brent Todd at Canberra. Gary ‘The Whiz’ Freeman ran out for Balmain and I loved watching the Bulldogs to see how many bodies Jarrod McCracken would leave prone, before being sent from the field. It was normally a few.
Manly. I had no idea of their history or that other clubs hated them. I just knew Graham Lowe was coach and the team included the Iro brothers, Darrell Williams and one of the first big name New Zealand union converts, All Black Matthew Ridge. They became Maori-Warringah, I bought the shirt and was hooked.
And then came the Warriors. I was beyond excited. Perhaps if I had known what was to come I might have been a little more circumspect. Although at 5-1 this season, it appears I’ve learned absolutely nothing.
I recently moved from Auckland back to Hurricanes country in the Manawatu. I was surprised to discover no one in the office cares much for the Warriors, or the NRL. Except for Tony, who spends most days defending his code.
The local papers have limited coverage. As an experiment Tony has been sticking Warriors articles to the wall, including date, page they appeared on and result. 5-1 and they haven’t made the front page of the sports section.
‘I’m a ‘Canes fan, but this is outrageous!’ I cried. Someone muttered ‘who cares about state-house footy?’
Ouch. Then I remembered he was actually from Highlanders territory, where they play their rugby indoors, safe from the wind and the rain. I can see why league might be a bit much for him.
Plus, they tend to be about as open minded as Israel Folau during a Q and A on social media.
But it got me thinking. Where do my loyalties lie?
I love watching league. And not just the Warriors, but every NRL match I can, even the Sharks. I used to watch Mt Albert in the Auckland club competition approx. 5 B.C. (before children), but the English Super League leaves me flat.
What about the crowds? For me union crowds are too subdued – in New Zealand anyway – and don’t have the crackle of league crowds. Where’s the barely hidden malice, the collective animosity?
I have been to an All Blacks match in Soweto, Johannesburg. Not so subdued. Big, passionate, and intimidating.
The All Blacks still trump all for me, but is this loyalty borne from a love of the code or because they dominate on a world stage like no other New Zealand team can? Who doesn’t love backing a winner? I can name at least one Melbourne Storm fan who could relate to this.
So, what about you? Which code do you prefer? Who is your team?
Is rugby a glorified touch football match, played by men who hold their pose a fraction too long after the kick? Or do you appreciate that rugby players can actually spiral punt and find touch more than 10m from where it was kicked?
Do you enjoy the dark art of scrummaging, or do constant scrum resets do your head in? A friend once announced she didn’t follow rugby much, but quite liked those group cuddles.
Is league the pinnacle of high intensity sports, or a game played by convicts for convicts with all the subtlety of an ATM ram-raid?
I enjoy both codes; but have realised I may be in a minority. If I had to separate them, I think league might be leading – if only by a broken nose.