There have been one or two benefits of lockdown in the UK, such as Sky Sports taking the opportunity granted by the blanket absence of live sport to broadcast some forgotten gems from their archives.
One of those jewels has turned out to be a reprise of the Wigan versus Bath double-header back in 1996.
Wigan were the English rugby league kingpins at the time, while Bath ruled union.
The two-match series was a dig in the ribs, a sharp reminder about the difficulty of arranging truly competitive matches in such different versions of rugby. Wigan won the league encounter 82-6:
Bath emerged victors in the return 44-19:
Over the entire piece, rugby league came out the winner. Even a cursory glance at the two highlights packages reveals Wigan to be far more advanced in their physical and technical preparation than their opponents.
Eight of those Wiganers either had, or went on to have, significant careers in the other code: Jason Robinson, Vaiga Tuigamala, Henry Paul, Garry Connolly, Martin Offiah, and Scott Quinnell as players; Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards as coaches.
It was hardly surprising. Union had only turned professional the previous year, whereas league has always been a sport in which the players are paid (at least in part) to play.
The vast differences in amateur and professional approaches to a game played with the same ball always undermined a straightforward comparison between the codes. So too did the technical aspects of play in the front five forwards. Where league forwards had to be powerful, mobile ball-carriers (preferably with offloading skills) and defenders, the primary task of their union counterparts was always to scrum and win lineout ball.
But times have changed. The old amateur union ratio of two or three set-pieces to every ruck has spun on its heel – now the ratio is roughly one set-piece to every seven or eight breakdowns – and the body-shape of the code’s forwards has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.
That is the change which makes a clash between the All Blacks and Kangaroos far more appetising to the onlooker than it might have once been. New Zealand would now be able to field a very competitive team in terms of both athleticism and ball skills.
Here is my fantasy All Blacks rugby league side, with some allowable flights of fancy:
1. Charles Piutau*
2. Ben Smith
3. Ma’a Nonu
4. Anton Lienert-Brown
5. Nemani Nadolo* [Caleb Clarke]
6. Beauden Barrett
7. Aaron Smith
8. Brad Thorn* [Marino Mikaele Tu’u]
9. TJ Perenara
10. Jerome Kaino*
11. Sonny Bill Williams
12. Dalton Papalii
13. Ardie Savea
Firstly, pretend Brad Thorn is 20 years younger than he really is, and rewind Sonny Bill all the way back to his physical peak ten years ago.
Sprinkle in a couple of good ex-All Blacks now sightseeing around Europe (Jerome Kaino and Charles Piutau) and massive Fijian Nemani Nadolo who played 40 times for the Crusaders and proved to be the most physically dominant winger since Jonah Lomu.
Add in the most promising of a new crop from Super Rugby Aotearoa and, well, you get the picture.
There are three great playmakers at 6, 7 and 9 covering the creative needs in and around the play-the-ball and further out. There are five accomplished kickers, both right foot (Smith, Barrett and Nonu) and left (Piutau and Perenara).
The side features at least eight effective off-loaders in contact, and has smarts at the back to rival Billy Slater. Stir in a magical background of five seasons’ experience, and that team could give any in the NRL a run for their money!
I have tried to keep the side current and relevant by including some of the emerging talent thrown out by the recast Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament. Hence the options for Marino Mikaele Tu’u to replace Brad Thorn at number 8 and Blues winger Caleb Clarke to sub in for Nadolo on the left.
The one issue for a union team converting to league remains the chasm in the front five forward requirements. Outside the possibility of either Brodie Retallick or Patrick Tuipulotu, it was difficult to think of a union tight forward who could consistently run as hard in defence and attack as the sister code requires.
Three of the emerging players (Tu’u, Dalton Papalii and Clarke) were on duty in the game between the Blues and the Highlanders in the third weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa. All had notable matches, while exhibiting skills which would be equally at home in both codes.
Eroni Clarke’s son Caleb could easily be a league back. He is very physical, a north-south runner who is low in the hips and hard to bring down. As the first try of the game demonstrated, he does not need much of a step off his left foot to take him through the tackle, those hips will do the rest:
It’s more of a shuffle than a definite step, but it gives the arm tackle no chance. That would be a clear bonus in periods where the forwards need to be spelled on hard-ball carries pushing out from the goalline.
Clarke also has excellent technique in the air. Imagine him defusing a bomb on the sixth tackle with the Kangaroos going for the kill in the red zone:
The technique is essentially that of an Aussie rules overhead mark, with knees high and the ball received well above the head:
Compare that with the skills advice in this AFL session:
The Blues scored their third try of the game less than 20 seconds after Clarke’s overhead take. He was back on his feet and making the crucial break and offload for the try by Rieko Ioane:
Whenever Beauden Barrett (kicking), Clarke (catching or chasing) and Papalii (picking up the pieces) were involved together, it was a triangle of effort which produced positive results for the Blues:
In the first example, Clarke knocks the restart down for Papalii to repossess, in the second he scares the bejesus out of Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory and the Blues number 7 is again first to pick up the loose ball.
Papalii and Barrett had already connected for the Blues’ second try via a kick down the left wing:
Another sequence in the first half featured a kick-pass direct from Barrett to Papalii creating the break for Clarke:
Papalii showed consistently good instincts in the wide areas throughout the match, staying in play under pressure and preserving the space on the extreme outside. Two neat offloads are enough to create another break for TJ Faiane.
Defensively, Papalii is very active and Clarke very aggressive. In the following sequence, the Blues openside has just competed at the tackle area before making two tackles on two consecutive plays, followed swiftly by a third in three:
Four direct involvements in 17 seconds represents the kind of reloading ability on defence that is applauded in league.
Caleb Clarke is a north-south defender who can generate a lot of muzzle velocity within a few strides. When Mitch Hunt evaded Clarke’s clutches on this inside force play, he ran straight into a turnover at the tackle:
There is no question that elite union teams like the All Blacks are better equipped than ever before to compete evenly, in a shared athletic and skills forum, with rugby league.
Twenty-five years of professionalism have changed body shapes, attitudes to conditioning and skills development dramatically. Union athletes now belong on league paddocks as they did not in the days of Wigan versus Bath back in 1996.
The only differences now would be experience in the code, and the long-standing discrepancy in front five forward core tasks. But union players from 6 to 15, in addition to exceptional big tight forwards like Pieter-Steph du Toit, would be fully fit for purpose – any purpose.
A number of the younger players emerging from Super Rugby Aotearoa possess skills cultivated from training with a multi-code background. Marino Mikaele Tu’u looks to have excellent offloading skills in heavy contact for such a big man, Caleb Clarke has AFL style receiving skills, Dalton Papalii has the ability and desire to get up off the ground and reload, play-in and play-out, in a league defensive set.
As all three progress towards full national recognition, they will draw on the water from that well. And if there ever is a meaningful cross-code series between league and union, they will be ready for that too.