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Last weekend marked the start of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, with the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff hosting two intense opening matches that saw Australia come back from 10-0 in the first twenty minutes to beat England 28 to 20, followed by Italy defeating Wales 32-16. Over the next five weeks, the world’s top rugby league nations – plus some others who were persuaded to come along to make the numbers up – will battle it out across England and Wales to see who will be crowned world champions.
“Yeah, and why should I care?” I hear you say, giving me a withering look before going back to watching Doctor Who/playing the new Pokemon game/getting sucked into a two-hour linkhopping spree on Buzzfeed (delete as applicable). “I don’t know anything about rugby league.”
Well, neither did I until Saturday. However, about fifteen minutes into the opening match, a lightbulb turned on above my head, a chorus of unusually hefty angels sang, and verily, I did see the light. And now, like all annoying born-again types, I’m feeling the urge to evangelise. So here’s my reasons for why now’s the perfect time to realise what you’ve been missing all your life and get into rugby league.
Preliminary note: I would like to apologise in advance to any seasoned league fans and also to my future self for the embarrassing inaccuracies and schoolboy errors that are almost certainly going to crop up in this article. I am completely aware that one match and reading a lot of Wikipedia articles over a weekend don’t make you an expert. If that kind of thing bothers you, you might want to click the Back button now and go read one of our many other excellent articles written by authors who actually know what they’re talking about.
Still with me? Good!
Reason 1. It’s easy to understand
Most sports leave me completely cold. There’s only really three that have ever caught my imagination before – ice hockey (fighting, on ice!), bobsleigh (because it’s just sliding down a hill), and swimming (men in tiny shorts) – all of which are fairly simple to understand and make rewarding viewing even for someone who doesn’t understand the technicalities. Especially swimming.
Anything more complicated than that, though, and I’m lost. I understand the offside rule for ice hockey but not, despite multiple attempts to memorise it to avoid being shown up as hopelessly unmanly, exactly how it works in football; I haven’t a clue what situation calls for a scrum in rugby union or what conditions the players are supposed to meet before they can un-scrum themselves and get on with it. As for cricket, I’m almost certain that it’s all a complex Mornington Crescent-esque hoax in which the players all solemnly pretend that they’re not just making it up as long as people keep giving them money and/or sponge cake.
Rugby league, though, is easy. There’s a team trying to get a ball to the other end of a field. The other team try to stop them. They do this by tackling the guy holding the ball. If they can do that six times before the team with the ball get to the other side, the team trying to stop them get the ball and take their turn. Basically, it’s British Bulldog. With a ball.
Oh, and there’s some other stuff – you can pass the ball, but only sideways and backwards, never forwards; if a team scores, they then get a chance to score a couple of extra points by kicking the ball through the goal posts; there’s an offside rule but all it means is that members of the team trying to score can’t run ahead of the ball – but it’s all pretty basic and, crucially, lacks most of the stops in play and faffing around that characterises other pointy-ball sports like rugby union and, worst of all, American football, a game so focussed on tactics over gameplay that, as I understand it, each team has completely different guys on the field depending on whether they’re trying to score or trying to stop the other guys from scoring.
Of course, just because you can understand what’s going on within a few minutes of starting to watch a game doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Which leads me neatly on to…
Reason 2. It’s fun to watch
Obviously, all sports fans believe their game of choice to be entertaining. I once, for example, bore awkward witness to a cricket fan and a darts fan passionately debating which of the two sports was more exciting, as if the very idea of either being anything other than tortuously dull wasn’t a contradiction in terms. Millions of people around the world love football, despite it being a sport which can frequently lead to matches which take two hours without anyone scoring or doing anything interesting at all. Heck, people even watch golf. Voluntarily!
Still, for me, rugby league hits that sweet spot that most sports don’t – easy to understand yet clearly challenging to play, with a roughly even split of impressive athleticism and hilarious playground violence. Perhaps I’m just too stupid and short of attention span to appreciate the subtlety of slower-paced sports, but I enjoy that the rules of the game are designed to make stops in play as short as possible so that everyone can concentrate on the pure and simple joy of big men running into each other. Football stars whine and roll on the ground at the slightest knock, yet in rugby league it’s completely legal for tackles to include shirt-pulling, leg-grabbing, and three blokes piling on top of the unfortunate guy with the ball while he wriggles around kicking his legs in the air like a dying housefly.
This kind of thing happens all the time. (Image credit: AFP Photo/Paul Ellis)
It’s as brutal as wrestling, but without a script (and it’s no surprise that rugby league has the highest injury rate of any contact sport), and yet mixed in with this are moments of beautiful grace when a player leaps to catch a high kick or feints to evade a tackle. When the attacking team are near the goal line, the play becomes intensely tactical, and there’s something deeply satisfying about watching a team work together to perfectly execute a series of passes leading to a final, triumphant try. To go back to my Bulldog comparison, watching Josh Charnley dash straight past the Australian defence to sneak in a cheeky try in the last five minutes of Saturday’s game gave me the exact same feeling of relief and elation I got on those rare occasions I managed to evade the bigger kids and make it safe to the end zone. It wasn’t enough to win the game, of course, but it was still a joyous thing to observe.
There’s also one other reason some of our readers might find it rewarding to watch – eye candy. There’s more massive meaty thighs on display than in the chicken aisle at Morrisons, and you get to see a lot of them. Big beefy chaps aren’t my personal cup of tea, but if your fancy is tickled by burly men grappling, then boy, is this the game for you.
But if the appeal to your lower nature doesn’t work, how about the more intellectual side of things?
Reason 3. It’s fascinating
I realise that not everybody, on discovering they like a sport, feels an urge to make up for lost time by reading up on all the background information they can get at – but nevertheless, there’s no denying rugby league has an interesting and somewhat eccentric past. The World Cup itself, with its eclectic selection of countries and history of erratic scheduling and frequent format changes, is a perfect reflection of that. The only serious contenders are Australia, New Zealand and England, with many of the other international sides made up of Aussie, Kiwi and English players with ties to other countries, but to compensate for this the group stages are now set up to provide clashes between the big guys in the early games while giving the smaller sides a fair go at getting to the knockout stages. The countries that feature are, with a few exceptions, from either the British Isles or the South Pacific, and even in most of these it’s something of a niche sport.
As a result of being the plucky underdog of the various forms of rugby football, it’s also a very down-to-earth sport. To generalise wildly, top-level and international football’s more about the money than the game, cricket is rife with corruption, and rugby union is a game for men in boat shoes called Jonty. Rugby league, though, remains a sport of the working man, and while it’s obscure outside of its homelands, it attracts a devoted following in the places where it’s popular. It’s the national sport of Papua New Guinea, and its popularity far outstrips that of rugby union and football in Australia. Up here in Leeds, I seem to see and hear more about the Rhinos than I do about Leeds United; and no surprise, given they’re a much more successful team.
The 2012 London Olympics brought a lot of under-appreciated sports to the nation’s attention, and there seems to be a lot of hope that the World Cup will do the same for rugby league. If you’re in the UK, the BBC are providing radio commentary for every match and screening at least one game every weekend throughout the competition, as well as providing coverage online. Even better, if you live near a venue, in many cases tickets are still available and surprisingly affordable. From what I can gather, everything seems better organised than in previous years, there’s high hopes for the England team, and okay, Australia will probably win again like they do most of the time, but it’s not the winning that counts, right? There’s never been a better time for a clueless newbie to discover rugby league – so why not give it a try? You might just be converted.