Different rules, different heritages and different sets of fans; rugby league and rugby union have evolved from the same origin to become vastly different sports today. The question on my mind is whether, in this age of pure professionalism in sport where innovation is dictated by cash, do we really need to compare the sport's two codes any more? Or has the pressures put upon them by the modern media and bureaucratic governing hierarchies turned them into purely different sports that should not be compared any more?
On the surface these two great games seem very similar however, look a little deeper and the differences are vast. Rugby league is more intensive, tackling-based game with fewer main rules which results in an open structure with the ball in play for most of the game. Union however is far more structured with a greater emphasis on set-piece and formulated play. Professional sport places incredible demands on athletes these days and results in sportsmen and teams that are physically highly specialised in a certain type of activity. This is why it is a common observation that league players have very similar body shapes and physical attributes, because they all do a similar job on the field.
But this concept extends beyond mere physical size or statistical information on speed or strength to team tactics also. Rugby union teams have members with some very specific roles. The hooker for example, always throws the ball into the line-out and 'hooks' the ball with his feet in the scrum to regain possession. Likewise the outside-half always (well, almost always) kicks the points and lines up as first receiver in attack. These two positions have very different physical demands and will be filled by very different players. There are numerous other examples of this throughout the union team also; second-rows are usually tall, wingers are usually very fast and the scrum-half tends to be a shorter more agile player than the front-row forward.
Such characteristics are maximised in the professional sporting environment. To take a simple example, if being tall makes you a good second row then the taller you are (within reason of course) the better second-row you are! I know this is basic but the idea holds true throughout a union team and therefore it can be seen as a team of specialists who each focus on a different (but related) job. Compared this to league where every player's job is similar, the team is made up of similar players specialising in the same job.
It is for this reason that it is unfair to compare these sports in the modern era. They are simply too different! In fact, they were different to begin with and professionalism, with its rigorous demanding for perfection has simply maximised these differences. So do we really need to compare them? Aren't they just too different as sports? You be the judge!
Having been a rugby player for many years, at many levels and in both codes of this wonderful sport, I like to think I know what I'm talking about! However, one question I have never been able to answer is which is the best code? Add your voice today and help solve the age-old debate of Rugby League vs. Rugby Union: