Crossing Codes

Well, it was rugby last time and it’ll be rugby this time next week, so I might as well buck the trend and start talking a little more about rugby in preparation for the upcoming Lions tour (anyone who wants to hear my views regarding Christian Wade/Shane Williams’ callup will have to make themselves heard over the sound of me clapping with glee at the prospect of a bit of magic from either). However, today I will not be confining myself solely to my preferred variant of rugby union, but will instead be analysing its relationship to the other code; rugby league.

To tell the story of rugby league, we must travel back to 1895, just 22 years after the official founding of the game of rugby football. As befits a sport named after and originating from a public school, rugby at the time was very much a rich man’s game, particularly in the south of Britain, and such people could afford to live the amateur dream; where the game was not influenced by such crass things as money, but by honour and other such proud words. Indeed, as I explained last time, this attitude of die-hard defence of amateurism would persist in the union game for nearly the next century, and as late as 1995, as the game lay on the very verge of going professional, Will Carling was stripped of the England captaincy for (quite accurately) referring to the board of the RFU as ’57 old farts’.

However, way back in the late 19th century the game was just starting to take off in the north of England as well, where ex-public schoolboys were rather thin on the ground. This was working-class country, and rugby here was a working class game; for these men, amateurism was a hard task, and every game they played on a Saturday was another three hours where they weren’t earning much-needed cash. As such, a group of northern clubs proposed to the RFU that, with the reasonable income generated from the spectators at matches, players could be ‘recompensed for loss of time’; a reasonable request, one might assume. However, the old farts took the suggestion badly, not only rejecting it out of hand  but issuing a dictum that banned teams from playing at grounds where an entrance fee was charged for spectators. This, to put it mildly, did not go down well with the northern clubs, and on the 29th of August that year, 22 clubs formed the Northern Union; an entirely separate officiating organisation. Over 200 clubs would join the Northern Union within the next decade and a half (some argue this did the union code the world of good, stripping England of much of its skilled player base and making the international playing field more even), and gradually they also began fiddling with the laws, fitting them to their liking. The biggest changes came in 1906, when the number of men per team was reduced from 15 to 13 (dropping the flankers to give the attacking side more room; an idea being voiced by some in the union code at the moment too), and when the ruck was abolished, being replaced instead with rugby league’s characteristic ‘writhe around on the floor until the ref shouts “move”‘.

This revolutionised league’s playing structure, doing away with the dull scrummaging and mauling that dominated union at the time in favour of a faster, more flowing game. Gone was the suffering of the union winger, doomed to forever hang around getting cold and hoping for a pass or two; backs became the focus of the league game, as handling skills became prioritised over strength and wingers were encouraged to go looking for the ball, to make themselves useful. Games became far higher-scoring than in union (where 3-0 wins were not uncommon at the time), and this was only enhanced when league became a summer game, played on hard, fast grounds rather than getting bogged down in the mud and rain. Add to that the fact that league players could get paid to play, and it’s not surprising that many union players chose to switch codes (much to the chagrin of their respective unions, who would frequently ban them from ever playing the union code again). All in all, for much of the 20th century, rugby league could easily argue to be on top of its union cousin.

However, when union (finally, amidst much chaos and complaining) turned professional in 1995, the tide began to turn. In spite of everything, union had, particularly in the latter half of the century, maintained a bigger player and supporter base than league, and much of it in the affluent south; this meant that it was able to cash in on professionalism to an extent that league couldn’t match, and the union authorities had finally made concessions on the laws that were conducive to a far more spectator-friendly game. The tide began to turn. Union got richer (especially when businessmen like Francis Baron started to weigh in) and took back a few stars who had gone over to league. Then, it started poaching a few league stars of its own; former rugby league internationals like Lote Tuqiri, Jason Robinson & Andy Farrell began making their considerable presence felt as union started to wave around fat payslips and an approach to professionalism that has begun to take over from league in terms of intensity. Just recently, Sonny Bill Williams (who has just returned to league after a few years in an All Blacks shirt) has said that the approach that became second nature to him in union has marked him out in terms of professionalism in a league environment. As evidenced in this article, winner of the ‘most needlessly provocative title in a sporting article’ award.

So, rugby league then; a game conceived in rebellion to the arrogance of the wealthy southerners, it is in many ways the perfect embodiment of England’s north-south divide. Thankfully, said divide has (to me at least) receded somewhat in recent years, and so has some of the animosity between the two codes. This has lead some to propose a somewhat radical new idea; that the two codes combine, returning union to a single sport united by the best of both worlds. Will it happen in the forseeable future? Of course not; league is a proud game well capable of standing on its own two feet, and is blessed with some of the most passionate fans in sport, who I don’t think would take kindly to the identity of their sport fading away. Not only that, but trying to create a game appreciated by both parties would be a messy old business, even if the conception of the IRB has made union slightly more accepting than if negotiations were headed by unions quite as… vociferous as the RFU. Nonetheless, the debate does highlight an important issue; both codes have an awful lot to learn from one another, and union in particular has utilised the skills of former league talents both on the field and in coaching. With both games in serious trouble in places, particularly in today’s economic climate, not making use of such cooperation could prove very costly indeed.

Lions History

Yes, it’s Lions time again and, with Film Fortnight over, I thought it was high time to start talking about the greatest adventure in modern rugby. I’ve already gone on three long semi-rants with regards to the squad selection (and yes, I was rather glad that Rory Best made it onto the tour in the end, even if he hasn’t been playing fantastically well) and was originally going to start off with a nice long analysis of the warmup games thus far. However, I then decided that there was no way I was going to be able to restrict that to anything less than fourteen thousand posts, especially given that the Lions’ penultimate game was played this morning, so I thought I’d just do a post about each test (yes, the awards ceremony’s coming back) and this; a potted history of the British and Irish Lions.

The Lions story begins in 1888, when a group of upper class Britons, (as most rugby players were at the time) decided to go for an extended tour around Australia and New Zealand. There was no national setup at the time in either country so the side played mainly provincial and university sides. The tour wasn’t especially serious, being little more than a very long, privately funded rugby-playing jolly. The next year, two significant events occured; the South African Rugby Union was founded, and a cricketing outfit went down to South Africa and slaughtered every side they came across. This positive attitude to not daring to come anywhere close to challenging the motherland among the locals was attractive to the English RFU, so a couple of years later in 1891 they revived the spirit of the ’88 tourists and sent the first official touring party down. In collaboration with the SRU, a selection of English and Scottish internationals/senior players, captained by Bill Maclagan, set off to South Africa for a nineteen-match tour. To say that they captured the spirit of ’88 can be confirmed by one tourist’s (Paul Clauss, for the record) description of the tour as ‘all champagne and travel’, and like the cricketers they swept all before them. That might be expected when the founders of a sport travel to a company that has only played it for two years, but what might not have been expected was the first match against Cape Town Clubs. In this game Carles ‘Hasie’ Versfeld ‘found an opening, put in a grand sprint and scored a try amidst tremendous cheering’. That this was the only point scored against them during the tour, and that they scored 224 themselves, mattered not; the Afrikaaner population loved the idea that they, despite all the odds, had put one over on the touring side. Hasie Versfeld became something of a national treasure (among the whites at least), and rugby became the white South African’s sport of choice. It’s no coincidence that South African rugby’s Pretoria home is named after Hasie’s brother, Loftus Versfeld. Just twelve years later, when the British came to tour again, they won the series outright for the first time (the score was 1-0, with two tests drawn), and wouldn’t lose another one for 73 years.

A few things had changed in those twelve years; the tour became more of an established thing, and the British Isles team did the rounds of both Australia & New Zealand and South Africa once apiece, and it was during this time that Irish representatives were asked to join the party. Thus was the format of a tour established; every four-ish years, a coach picked some players from all four countries (from 1910 they were selected by a committee of four nations), they headed off to either South Africa or New Zealand and played some rugby amidst general mucking around. As time went by, another fixture of these tours became losing; the Lions lost every single series between 1903 and 1955, and didn’t win one proper until 1971. Even provincial matches, against sides often shorn of star quality, were frequently lost. This wasn’t so much because the tourists weren’t good players, or even because of the issues concerning modern Lions tours of how fast a squad is able to gel or the touring schedule, but really thanks to amateurism.

In our modern rugby age of protein shakes and gym schedules it’s often easy to forget just how dedicated the ‘old farts’ who used to run the home unions were to the concept of amateurism (and not just because it made them a fair old slice of cash). These people didn’t think that ‘it’s not the winning, but the taking part that counts’ was for the losers on sports day- this was the core of their sporting philosophy. These were the days when players could be banned from ever attending a rugby match again just for accepting cash to play, and when the greatest shame imaginable was to be sent off. The score didn’t matter to the home unions in those day; a tour was really little more than a paid-for sporting holiday once every few years, and a Lions tour (as they were nicknamed from 1924 onwards) was no different. Down south, victory was more than just nice when it happened, but something to actively be sought. The southern hemisphere were the first unions to sanction the appointment of coaches (as late as the 1970s, the Scottish Rugby Union couldn’t bring themselves to create the job title of ‘coach’, instead going with ‘advisor to the captain’), and all in all had a more professional approach to the game- and it showed in the results. To be sure, there were several cases of it running close to the wire, but even the creme de la creme of northern hemisphere rugby could rarely manage more than one test win out of four. Of the four (and there were only four) tours the Lions didn’t lose throughout the 20th century, one was in the professional era (1997), one required all the guile of the great Cliff Morgan and all the total inability to kick of Jack van der Schyff just to salvage a draw (1955), and even the famous 1974 tour, in which the Lions didn’t lose a game, came about as a result of pitting the greatest players from Northern hemisphere rugby’s (read “mostly Wales'”) golden age against a South African outfit who were far from their country’s greatest side and whose selectors lost the plot so completely that they ended up playing an uncapped No. 8 (Gerrie Sonnekus) at scrum-half in the third test. Yes, the ’74 Lions may have been, as some put it, the greatest ever rugby side to set foot on a pitch, but they sure as hell could have had trickier opposition. To my mind, of all the amateur Lions tours only the 1971 tour, in which the Lions triumphed over the legendary Colin Meads’ formidable All Blacks outfit, can be dubbed a definite victory from the men north of the equator.

Those days of amateurism are long gone now. Players are professional and on big contracts whilst rugby itself is big business, and the Lions even more so (HSBC’s sponsorship deal for the 2013 tour is rumoured to be in the region of £7-8 million). Nowadays, the Lions face the problems of professional sport when trying to put one over on the southern hemisphere giants; those of forming a team from a collection of individuals in a shortened tour itinerary, injury worries and seemingly always having to play the most on-form of the three. But what I hope hasn’t changed are the things that make a Lions tour, or indeed any tour, so special; the adventure and the stories. Call me an old romantic, but one of the reasons I love rugby is the way its players still manage to enjoy themselves and mess around amidst all the chaos of a professional sporting life, that they can still go out for a drink and still be a bit stupid now and again. Long may it continue- especially on Lions tours.