I want to start this article by giving some background on myself. I will do this so people cannot respond saying that I am one-eyed or biased or don’t know what I am talking about.
I am from Wales, a Union country, and grew up playing Rugby Union. I played the game to a reasonably high level (county schools rep player and regional trials) but was never in love with the game. The ball spent too much time on the floor for my liking.
I was always aware of Rugby League whilst growing up because my grandparents on my mother’s side were from Salford. My interest was always casual because I wasn’t exactly enamoured with the Super League competition.
One day I came across the NRL on television and have been a passionate follower of the competition ever since. I still follow Union casually, mainly to look at the trends and code-switchers.
Because of my background I feel I am qualified to talk about the differences between the two games in the UK.
There are lots of myths and misconceptions about the two games in the UK. There is not enough time in the world to explore and expose them all so I will concentrate on a couple of them.
Many people seem to think that Union is some kind of religion in Wales and I can categorically tell you that this is untrue. Union in Wales is dying. Club sides are really struggling to draw crowds and there is a civil war currently taking place.
Another myth in UK Union is that Wales have historically played exciting ‘running rugby’. This is a way for Welsh fans to make themselves feel superior to the English. There really are very few knowledgeable Rugby people in Wales
You may see a big crowd at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and think otherwise but those people are there because they feel it validates their ‘Welshness’, not because they know what is happening on the field.
The worst thing that has ever happened to Welsh Rugby Union is Cardiff City and Swansea City being promoted to the Premier League. This has taken even more spotlight off of Rugby Union. If you add in the fact that Wales has the most expensive footballer to ever play the game, Gareth Bale, then it is safe to say that Wales is a round ball country.
In England, a much bigger country, Rugby Union and Rugby League’s position in the national sporting pecking is basically set. Both will always be miles behind Football or Soccer, depending on which terminology you prefer.
Union gets a good amount of media coverage when the international games come around and League gets its own coverage on Grand Final and Challenge Cup Final weekend. The individual club competitions of both sports get basically the same national coverage, apart from in a snobby paper like the Daily Mail, and both sports pull in mainly small crowds apart from a couple of clubs in each sport and Union’s international games.
In terms of national visibility at club level, I would say that the most visible ‘Rugby’ club in the UK has always been Wigan RL, mainly because of the 80’s/90’s domination of the Challenge Cup competition. Leicester Tigers (Rugby Union), St Helens (Rugby League), Bath Rugby (Rugby Union) and Leeds Rhinos (Rugby League), are probably the other most visible clubs in the UK at the moment.
There are very few players of either code that could claim to have a visible national profile outside of the people that follow sports. Jonny Wilkinson springs to mind after England won the World Cup in 2003. Wilkinson isn’t a media person though, he is very shy. Danny Cipriani is famous to a degree because of his relationship with Kelly Brook. The same could be said of Gavin Henson after his relationship with Charlotte Church.
There is no doubt that that when a non-fan says the word ‘Rugby’ they are referring to Rugby Union. Union is the more visible game. But if anybody thinks Sam Burgess will be as famous in England as he is in Australia, then they are incredibly mistaken.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com
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