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Just like in rugby union, rugby league nostalgia is not what it used to be

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11th January, 2024
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When does old footy start to look like new footy?

It’s an interesting thought to consider given the vast changes in rules, fitness, analytics and coaching over the last 25 years since the arrival of full-time professionalism in rugby league.

It’s one that the other code has been acutely aware of. Having had no professionalism of any kind prior to 1995 – stop sniggering at the back – they have been able to watch their sport grow from something designed to give differently-sized schoolchildren something to do into a global entertainment enterprise.

Still, despite the undeniable advances that have taken place since they started employed rugby league coaches to teach them how to tackle, many out there will tell you that the game isn’t what it used to be.

The recent death of legendary Welsh captain JPR Williams, allied to a superb article by Michael Aylwin in The Guardian, have brought this to the fore since the turn of the year.

The article eruditely points out that rugby union, as a spectacle at least, has rarely been better than it was in 2023, where the World Cup was widely seen as a success (unless you’re Australian) and the style of play was more open and interesting than ever.

As if sparked into action, Bath and Gloucester in the English domestic league engaged in a 12-part kicking duel that couldn’t have been a better advertisement for rugby league if Tina Turner had risen from the grave to star in it.

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Digs aside, there is a point here. The athletes are better, the coaches are better, the fields are better and the technology available to them are better.

Whether JPR Williams would have been equally as good if not better had he had the same structural advantages is an argument that could be had, but the bottom line is that he didn’t so he wasn’t.

The central tenet of Aylwin’s article was that nostalgia is highly flawed when watching sport, and he evidenced it by going back to rewatch classic matches from the old days, when amateurism came in envelopes, to assess the quality of spectacle.

In doing so, he counted scrums, lineouts, tackles and the like to see just how much actually went on, with predictable results.

Funny as it is to make the same joke about union today in relation to league, the same methods expose something similar about our code.

As a journalist, it’s been occasionally required of me to go back into the YouTube archives, and in truth, it’s the sort of thing I do for fun anyway.

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For an episode of the excellent Rugby League Digest podcast, I rewatched both the 1985 and 1996 Challenge Cup Finals – widely regarded as the best two ever – and, while sick last year, I took a long period stranded on the sofa to watch every NRL Grand Final going back to the 1970s.

What it tells you is that, yes, footy in the past was quite rubbish. Whether it was rubbish at the time, when it was new, is another question, but in the light of today’s games, it’s really not a product that you would want to consume particularly often.

Take the 1970 Grand Final between South Sydney and Manly.

While the day John Sattler broke his jaw stands as a testament to the toughness and grit of footballers, the match itself is mostly slow defensive lines, missed tackles, unexplained penalty goals and repeated field goal attempts.

If punters wanted a form of rugby that involved poor defence, inscrutable refereeing and needless kicking – well, it does exist if you use your imagination.

Of course, the prowess of Eric Simms prompted a change in rules that moved rugby league away from the field goal, and the game moved on, evolving as the game constantly has in search of a better TV product.

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They knew at the time that things had to change, so changed them.

Moving forward, that 1985 Challenge Cup Final, where Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling faced off in the colours of Wigan and Hull FC respectively, is as entertaining a spectacle as one could wish for in terms of drama, but as football, it’s pure chaos.

Much as the 10-metre rule wasn’t implemented into the early 1990s, it wasn’t needed much anyway as attackers stood so far back and defensive lines barely advanced. It’s like watching rugby union now – not a dig, just a statement of tactical fact.

Both defence and attack appear to be entirely one-out, with far more individual tackles and thus offloads, sidesteps and mistakes. The skill and athleticism are all there, but organisation? Forget about it.

It looks like they’re making it up as they go along, and in fairness, given all the players had other jobs and trained just twice a week, they probably are.

It’s that off-the-cuff footy that people say they like right up until the point that their team tries a chip and chase on the third tackle in their own half for the sixth time.

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The 1989 Grand Final, regarded as perhaps the best ever until this year’s, looks much the same.

There’s a lot more defensive organisation, but it’s still rare that a team gets deep into a set: the run of play remains chaotic and without structure.

Guys kick early, attack from deep, play the ball to nobody and attack without ever seeming to think beyond the play happening right then and there.

It’s ironic that, in an era where the modern game is often compared to touch football because of the Six Again rule, the gameplay in 1989 is actually like touch footy, the sort you’d play with your mates in the park, where the idea is enjoyment and giving it a chuck rather than winning or losing.

It’s possible to debate if this was actually better. Certainly in the mid-2010s, when the block play predominated, this kind of footy would have seemed like a panacea. But now? Not really.

So again: when did footy start to look like footy?

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Once professionalism kicks in around the Super League War, things do pick up. The defensive structures that are now seen as the cornerstone of rugby league are well in place.

On RL Digest, I pinpointed the 2002 World Club Challenge, in which a Bradford side featuring a prime Robbie Paul and an elite middle rotation of Joe Vagana, Brian McDermott, Stuart Fielden and Paul Anderson defeated a Newcastle team led by Andrew Johns and Danny Buderus, as a moment in which the gameplay definitively looks like it does today on both sides of the world.

In 2001, Parramatta posted the most ever points in the NRL era, 32 per game, but lost the Grand Final to the Knights, a move that seemed to calcify the idea that defence won premierships even if attack could go a long way in the regular season.

One could draw a direct line from the failure of Brian Smith’s all-attack Eels to pick up the title in 2001 – go watch their compilation of tries to see the rage against the dying of the light – to the advent of the wrestle, the block play and the yardage carry.

It’s also possible to make the argument that, for the 20 years since between the 2001 season and the 2021 year of ridiculous statsflation, defence was the priority. In that light, a nostalgic look at the pre-professionalism era might work.

The goal of the Six Again was to open up the game, and plenty of sage commentators (including this journalist) referred to it as ‘boomer nostalgia’, cooked up to satisfy an imagined audience who thought footy used to be better in the 1980s.

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Other commentators lamented the end of the late-2010s grinding style of footy, which had kept scores relatively tight and thus produced a lot of tense, if not high-scoring, games and guaranteed drama.

Now, with the rules set not to materially change for a third consecutive season, it might be possible to call what we have the best ever, where athletes get the best opportunities, coaches have the most input and the sport should, if left to its own devices, find an equilibrium.

Much like our cousins in the other code, we can recognise that the willingness to look to the past and see better things mightn’t be all that it’s cracked up to be.

We all think the best bands ever were the ones that were popular when we were teenagers. Sport, it seems, works a little like that too.

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