As a self-professed rugby union fan, I have been asked to write an article on rugby league In Australia.
I will refer to rugby league as league, and rugby union as union. This is for the American readers who probably dont know that there are two forms of rugby.
Rugby league is the second most popular form of football in Australia—second only to Australian rules football. Australian rules is played in every state in Australia but league is only really played in two states, Queensland and New South Wales. Its following, though, is huge, and makes the first or second sports news story every night on Australian TV.
To the rest of the world though, league is unheard of. Only in Northern England, France, and New Zealand is League competitive to a standard that rivals Australia.
Rugby league is widely reguarded as the toughest man-on-man contact sport in the world, surpassing rugby union, boxing, wrestling, and American football.
Before the dawn of true professionalism in league, Queensland and New South Wales would meet every year to play for the best state in Australia.The problem was, in New South Wales the money was superior, so every Queensland player with talent ended up playing in New South Wales, and then they would represent New South Wales against their old State.
The result was that Queensland lost almost every game over an 80-year period. Then in 1980, "State of Origin" began, which made players represent the state they were from originally. A pride in your state, instead of money earned, made this a great spectacle.
Queensland won that first ever State of Origin, and since then, "Origin" has produced some of the toughest, closest, and most exciting games of football ever seen. Queensland has now won two more games than New South Wales in the total history of Origin, where the teams usually meet three times a year. Series wins also favour Queensland, but only by one.
Players are picked from the NRL (National Rugby League), Australia's premier competition. The NRL Consists of 16 teams, most of which come from New South Wales due to the success of their original competition.
The New Zealand Warriors, Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, North Queensland Cowboys, Gold Coast Titans, and the Canberra Raiders are the teams from the other states. Note the similar NFL names involved.
Success of the Melbourne Storm has been great for league in Victoria, a state where Australian rules football has reigned supreme. This year the Melbourne Storm (as defending champions) and the Manly Sea Eagles are the two strongest teams and look likely to meet again in the Grand Final later this year.
Most of the talent from both forms of Rugby in Australia end up playing League. Greg Inglis, Israel Falu, and Billy Slater from the Melbourne Storm, are probably the most talented outside backs in the game. They have set a new benchmark as far as talent is concerned in the sport.
Others like Darren Lockyer (Brisbane Broncos) and Johnathon Thurston (Cowboys) are widely regarded as the best halves (thinking man's positions like quarterback for Americans) in the game.
League has a very strong junior program in Oz, pumping out great players constantly to replace former heroes of the sport. The money involved, though, cannot produce the lucrative yearly amounts found in the NFL, NBA, professional soccer, golf, and the like. A good living can be made though, and the sport has produced quite a few millionaires.
In recent times the money on offer in rugby union has caused a change where some players from league have switched codes. As a union follower, I can only hope this trend continues—league has many Dan Carter-types in their game that would switch to rugby union without much trouble at all.
Andrew Johns (one of the greatest ever League players) almost made a switch to the New South Wales Warratahs in union, but the deal never happened.
Quite a few outside backs and a few forwards have made the switch, but never a truly great half or second half. It would be great for an Australian union supporter to see that happen.
The latest to switch has been Sonny Bill Williams, who I will bet plays in the centres for the All Blacks in 2011, and Mark Gasnier, who is another fantastic Australian centre who played for his country in league.
Brad Thorn, who plays for the All Blacks in union, originally played league for the Brisbane Broncos. He represented Queensland in Origin, and Australia in league also, before trying the 15-man Game. Lote Tuqiri also played for the Broncos, Queensland, and Australia. Tahu, Elsome, and Rogers are others who have made the switch in Oz.
League is like Australia's version of the NFL—it's played mainly in its own country, and Australia (like America and the NFL) have little or no chance of being knocked off the top of the sport. Australia have not been seriously challenged in a long long time, except one series to New Zealand about four years ago.
Every rugby league World Cup has been won by Australia, and they have been the best in the game for close to 30 years.
I would love to see the great players of rugby league play rugby union and really test themselves on the world stage. Lets hope it happens more often in the future. One thing is for certain—rugby union is the third most popular team sport on earth, and league, like the NFL, will never challenge its world following.