There is no doubt about it, to the average young rugby player a game of league is far more entertaining to watch than a game of union.
The collisions are bigger, the game is faster and the commentators seem to care about the outcome of the game rather than reminiscing about that one time in 60 Wallaby caps they managed to beat the All Blacks 25 years ago. But does this perception of league negatively affect how young players want to play the game of rugby union?
Short answer, yes. It does.
To explain why, first let’s look at another sport more popular than rugby in Australia, cricket.
Cricket is technically a team sport with 11 individuals competing together, however their reliance on each other when playing in almost non-existent. Sure, the fielders need to catch and the batsmen need to communicate as to not run each other out, but it comes down to the actions of 11 individuals.
To contrast this, rugby union is entirely dependant on the team working together to achieve the desired outcome. When a player breaks the line in union, if their teammates are not close by in support then the ball will be lost. Individual brilliance helps of course, but it can only get you part of the way there. Games are won through selfless, thankless actions by players wanting to play for their team, not for individual glory.
Rugby league sits somewhere in the middle of the two. Whilst in league a magnificent winger try needs to be set up by a playmaker and some bruising forward runners, it comes down to individuals playing for themselves, together. Have you ever seen a league forward check for support before making a run?
Has a league fullback ever forgone a potential half-break opportunity to run toward his teammates and set up future phases? Not that I can remember. That is not saying league players are inherently selfish, just that their game doesn’t require teamwork for four or five out of the six tackles per set.
In this is the appeal of league and the downfall of union. There are very few young union players coming through who are happy to make 15 tackles and put their head in dark places 20 times a game. Where is the appeal in that? All the forwards want to be lead runners in their pods, no one cares about securing the ball for the next phase.
Cleaning out is seen as a chore instead of as another opportunity to put the team in the best possible position. You can’t score a try if you pass the ball. You can’t run the ball with your head in a ruck.
This is seen to an extent in the rugby public’s perception of young players just starting their professional careers. All the hype is around the Fraser McReights, Jordan Petaias and Harry Wilsons coming through, and for good reason. They are all extremely talented and will earn a huge number of Wallabies caps, however, they aren’t the type of players that will win Australia a World Cup.
Wilson and Petaia are great ball runners and McReight could be the best breakdown artist since David Pocock, however, they will only be as good as their supporting cast. As soon as Scott Fardy left, Pocock stopped getting the opportunities he once did because suddenly he was making an extra five tackles and ten cleanouts a game that he didn’t have to before.
Rugby league is a game of 13 individuals all trying to play the best they can as individuals. Rugby union is a game of 15 teammates forced to rely on each other to even hold on to the ball, let alone win a game. Selfishness and individual brilliance are key, not teamwork and selflessness.
Young union players in Australia want to be Kalyn Ponga, the supremely talented try scorer or Taniela Tupou, the unstoppable Tongan Thor. Who cares about some tall brute with a beard that is somehow always bleeding somewhere on his heavily taped head? Who wants to be that guy?