rugby league vs. rugby union

I'm embarrassed, as any thinking person should be, to admit that I've watched quite a bit of televised sport lately. But for one reason or another, I've seen several games of rugby - both League and Union - over the past few weeks. And I feel myself drawn to comment on a certain sporting injustice.

First, a note for baffled Americans. Rugby is a kind of 'British Empire' version of American Football, in which two opposing teams of 250-pound hulks attempt to force an oval ball over the opponent's line - a procedure known as a 'try'. (There's more to it than that, but let's leave it there for the moment.) In 1895, rugby split into two different camps. Rugby League became a professional game with a simplified set of rules; today it is chiefly only played in Australia and northern England. Rugby Union stayed amateur and kept the original rules; today it claims to be one of the world's most widely played games, played all over the British Isles, France, Italy, South Africa, Argentina and throughout Oceania. Rubgy Union gets massive TV and media coverage; Rugby League is only covered when there's nothing else happening, and sometimes not even then.

And this is the injustice I was talking about, because Rugby League is the better game in every way. It's faster, more open, more exciting. In League, the ball is always in motion; in Union, the ball always seems to be stuck under a pile of bodies. In League, most of the points come from tries; in Union, most of the points come from penalties. League games are all-action, with barely enough time to squeeze in TV replays; Union games involve lots of standing around in bewilderment as the play gets halted for constant rule infringements.

The reason for the constant rule infringements is that Union has far too many rules. Nobody knows them all: not the players, not the commentators, and certainly not the tossers in burberry who shout 'heave' on the sidelines. Perhaps fittingly for a game played by people who grow up to be lawyers, games often hinge on the interpretation of obscure rules and precedents that are applied almost at random. It's like an ultra-violent version of Mornington Crescent.

I'm tempted to say that the more rules there are in a game, the less satisfactory it is. Chess, for example, is a very simple game, yet it is deep and rich enough to have inspired a mass of study and literature. Go is simpler and richer again. In fact, simplicity has been the key to most of the games that have inspired the popular imagination - from football to basketball, from Scrabble to Monopoly. Apart from Rugby Union, I can't think of another popular game with such a messy, patched-up ruleset. Why has this abomination survived for so long? And why has it flourished when there is a much simpler and more satisfactory alternative in Rugby League?

The answer is obvious. Rugby Union was the sport of choice in the schools that TV executives went to. Rugby Union nets the TV station a nice cachet of ABC1 viewers. Rugby Union, more than any other sport, is the preserve of the middle classes.

The truth is that despite the media hype and its status as a 'world sport', Rugby Union isn't all that popular. Nobody goes to see club matches. Internationals do get big crowds, but these are drawn from a thin social layer. And these are just the spectators: even fewer people actually play the game. In South Africa, despite lip-service to the contrary, it's a pastime exclusively for white boys. In Britain and Ireland, despite all the media coverage, it's only played in a handful of schools - the fee-paying ones. Why hasn't Rugby Union spread to working-class schools? One reason is that the boys of Old Wesley and Old Belvedere wouldn't fancy lining up against a Ballyfermot XV. Another reason, quite simply, is that it's crap.

Like many of the entertainments to come out of British public schools, Rubgy Union is a mix of sadism and coming-of-age ceremony. For eighty minutes, a group of public school boys undergo a series of punishing ordeals, which must be endured rather than enjoyed. To succeed, they must show courage, commitment, self-sacrifice, teamwork, individual responsibility and a number of other things they'll talk about when they become management consultants. Only when the eighty minutes are over can they call themselves men. This is the 'amateurism' to which the rugby football unions were so dedicated.

The game aspect of Rugby Union is always subordinated to this 'self-proving' aspect; even at international level, Rugby Union is less a game and more a televised Masonic ritual. The parallels with Freemasonry don't stop there, however. Once the players become too knackered to play anymore, young boys' pastime turns into old boys' network. As with a carefully contrived handshake, or the astute raising of a trouser leg, a past in Rugby Union can get you places. Many, perhaps even most, of Ireland's present knights of industry - Sir Tony O'Reilly the most prominent example - were former rugby players. It's a truism, almost a banality, to say that Rugby Union looks after its own.

Rugby League, by contrast, is played by coal-miners' sons from Wigan. Did it ever stand a chance?