League wins the running battle of the rugby codes
Against my better judgment I turned on the rugby union on Saturday night to see the Wallabies vs the All Blacks, traditionally the biggest game on the Australian rah rah calendar.
It was probably at about the time of the fourth penalty for lying on the ball, or wrong side of the ruck or possibly, being rugby, driving the wrong make of luxury 4WD, that the remote finger got awfully itchy.
Soon I was simultaneously keeping up with the cricket, the silly science fiction movie on Channel 10 and Gordon Bray’s running commentary on how that wasn’t really a penalty under law 543, sub section b of the improperly binding to a maul code.
Perhaps it no longer has the gall, but rugby used to style itself as the running game.
In the “big lie” school of truth inversion that’s pretty well up there with North Korea styling itself as the Democratic People’s Republic or terms like “fun run”.
There may be some running at the lower levels of rugby, but who would know? The only people who watch that are the players’ relatives and the suburban oval groundsmen waiting to turn the sprinklers back on.
At the pinnacle of the sport it is kick, kick and kick some more.
So much so that former Wallaby and longtime rugby apologist Peter FitzSimons felt compelled to make a frontpage plea for a bit of non-boot related play in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Under the headline “Let’s give kicking the boot”, FitzSimons wrote: “We’ve had a gutful of watching marathon kick-fests.”
He suggested the Wallabies and All Blacks make a pact to run the ball for the sake of long-suffering spectators.
So how was Saturday’s match decided? No prizes for guessing, by a late penalty kick.
It was a just result because it gave New Zealand, the only team to score an actual try, if rugby fans remember what that is, the win.
All Australia’s points came from penalty kicks.
And the man of the match?
Clearly, and as normal, the referee, despite absent-mindedly occasionally allowing whole three-minute stretches of play before raising his arm and letting the whistle shriek.
Luckily if you wanted to see some actual running of the ball by professional athletes you could have got your fill on Friday night.
In the NRL match between Wests Tigers and Parramatta there was a scintillating display of all the running rugby skills.
The teams scored four tries apiece. These involved elusive and powerful running, brilliant blink-of-an-eye passing dummies and flick passes, impossible offloads, wide sweeping backline play and an audacious chip and regather to give the mach its final extraordinary exclamation mark.
A look at the stats for the two games shows that the combined number of runs and metres gained on foot by both the combatant union sides doesn’t add up to total of either the league sides. (Links at the foot of this article.)
Alright fair enough, rugby in Australia is not so much a sport but a social marker of having paid a lot to go to school.
Certainly that would seem to be the only way to understand its audience because if you prefer kicking, Australia has other codes to accommodate that.
There is the AFL, which admittedly is not much of a game, more a sort of rolling riot at a children’s party over the last piece of cake.
However at least, in the vein of Tibetan kite duelling, it serves as an exotic novelty spectacle for the less exciting Australian states when the shops shut for the week at 3pm on a Wednesday.
Of course, if you really like kicking, there’s always soccer.
Or to call it by the poncy European affectation its coiffure blow-dried fans tend to demand, football.
It’s football, they will explain in the exasperated tone of a kindergarten teacher again pointing out that crayons are not food, because its played with the feet, you see, except for goalkeepers, throw-ins and Maradona World Cup goals.
Anyway if FitzSimons really does want to see a game played at a professional level where athletes pick up a ball, run and pass it, he shouldn’t bother watching union Tests.
Instead he should tune in every week to watch the more evolved form of rugby union, rugby league, the real running game.
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