The Roar
The Roar


Rugby Z? Alternative versions of sports and why rugby league doesn't seem interested

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4th June, 2019

The posters are all over the London Underground: Rugby X is coming to the O2 Arena in October.

Rugby X is an indoor, five-a-side variant of rugby union – the sport’s version of Twenty20 cricket. Matches will go for ten minutes on an artificial pitch, with former England and Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan one of the architects.

From where you are sitting, in a place where the rugby codes are well-known, it probably sounds silly. AFL X sounds silly too, right?

Australia and New Zealand’s men’s and women’s teams are in line to take part. It’s unlikely either nation – even the rugby union-crazy Shaky Isles – will be stopping in its tracks awaiting the results.

But alternative versions of sports are not for the here and now, they are seeds being planted for when the current administrators at World Rugby are all dead. Remember when we spoke about kids having an “MTV attention span”?

Now it’s even shorter than a three-and-a-half minute Madonna video.


Sports administrators are charged with more than just serving their current customers. It’s their job to attract new customers and ensure the survival of their sport.

Personally, I like to see them trying – even if the idea is flawed. I don’t mind the AFL playing matches in China.

So if it’s perfectly OK if you don’t like the idea of Rugby X. It’s not for you.

Which brings us to the usual topic of this column, rugby league. League is finally trying to get a Nines circuit together but, as usual, union is a step ahead internationally by adding to its inventory of events money-spinning Sevens tournaments with Rugby X.

Rugby league simply doesn’t have the resources to rent the O2 and advertise all over London something that no-one has ever seen before and no-one might show up at.

But it can call things ‘rugby’. Rugby is in its name. Plenty of events on the proposed new circuit, such as in North America, will just be known as Rugby Nines. Nine-a-side just happens to have historical links to league, while sevens is union.

They’re all forms of rugby, as are 15 and 13-a-side.

According to Pierre Vandome, the much travelled French player, coach and administrator who is putting on the Indonesian Nines in Bali at the end of this year (please don’t call it the ‘Bali Nines’), rugby league should take the initiative here and get an alternate version up and running.


Nines is a great thing – he’s doing it – but to keep up with the (Eddie) Joneses, we need to do much more. Pierre’s hybrid game actually has line-outs. He says if union can adopt league practices then it should also work in reverse.

“I said to Tas (Baitieri, NRL international development manager) a few years ago: ‘why doesn’t the NRL invest to find new games?’

“Union tried to find a new game to attract the world but unfortunately for them rugby league already exists so they cannot do a lot of things!

“Us, with rugby league, we can do a lot of things. You know what I mean? You remember when the boxing got in trouble with too many federations they decided to create the MMA.

North Queensland Cowboys players celebrate winning the Rugby League NRL Auckland Nines at Eden Park, Auckland on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. (AAP Image/SNPA, Teaukura Moetaua)

“Why don’t we do that in rugby league but we control the game? For instance, doing 11 players, four quarters, the rules of the five tackles and just for marketing we do the line-out – three against three…

“We will control again the game. Sometimes I think the rugby league has not so much imagination, too conservative in Australia. 

“To attract young players in places like Asia, we need to do some marketing, to have some sort of different image. 


“I would like to create a game – I’m crazy, eh, it’s just a dream – of Mixed Rugby but under the control of rugby league.

“The physical has become too important in our game. Not so much the skill. We have to find something else.”