Forget stereotypes about flat caps and boring play—rugby league has been smashing our preconceptions about sport since the 1960s. Perhaps it's time we all convertedby James Oddy / January 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Say you like rugby league to people and you’ll typically get one of two replies. The first is an admission that the person has no idea why it’s different to Rugby union. That’s understandable. Similar shaped ball, similar shaped goal posts; similar tackling styles, similar running, similar kicking.
The second is derision that you follow the “inferior” code of rugby. Ask why the code is inferior, and it’s usually related to the fact that Rugby union is the thinking man’s game, whilst league lacks any kind of tactical subtly.
To suggest that, actually, rugby league is one of the most revolutionary sports in the UK only adds to further looks of bewilderment or howls of laughter.
Yet rugby league’s birth was in itself an act of protest.
At a meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, 22 clubs predominantly from Yorkshire and Lancashire met to vote on splitting from the English Rugby Union. The reason for the vote was money—or a lack of it. Clubs in the industrial North believed that their players, drawn from factories and mills and coalmines, deserved to be paid to play, especially when players also often forfeited wages to do so.
To the staunchly amateur clubs found in the south, professionalism was intolerable. Nor was it needed; many of the players being independently wealthy individuals who could play for pleasure. Thus, the rebel Northern Rugby football union was born.
The northern teams, playing in “the league,” quickly began tampering with the numbers of players and rules in order to make it as an appealing a spectator sport as possible. Paying punters were, after all, integral to not only paying players, but also paying them well enough to stop them leaving for a rival. These rule changes continued, resulting in the two very different games we see today.
Rugby league has always therefore prioritized results above a person’s background. It’s created a culture with a remarkable ability to break down racial, religious and sexual boundaries both locally and nationally.
Clive Sullivan, for example, first captained the Great Britain rugby league team in 1972. He was the first black Briton to captain any British sports team— decades before any other sport did so—and won a world cup in the process. Sullivan was a phenomenal character: he overcame countless serious childhood and adult injuries and a near fatal car crash to play for two decades at the elite level in a brutal sport. But his spell as a captain undoubtedly set a precedent that the colour of a person’s skin needn’t mean they couldn’t inspire and lead on a sports field.