Almanac Rugby League – What is wrong with rugby league?

by Jim Young (author of Any Old Eleven and legendary Almanac luncher)



What’s wrong with Rugby League?


For a start, the wrong team kicks off.


This is not an entirely frivolous comment. Of the football codes I know something about (the rules, not the skills) only Australian Football has the basic principle “put the ball in the air and let’s see who’s good enough to get it.” Rugby League, Rugby Union, soccer, gridiron all have a kick-off to start play.


And to restart, after a score – which is the important part of this argument.


In soccer, if you’ve given up a goal you at least get possession back, and it’s a tap to someone a feet feet away who taps it back to someone else, at which everyone moves into the positions the coach has allocated and the game proceeds at its own pace. (Which would be much more entertaining if they abolished the off-side rule and anyone could go where they like – but that’s another discussion.)


In American football it is the side that has just scored that must kick off, and thus give possession back to the side that has just suffered a reverse, but now, with ball in hand, have a chance to return with vengeance.


Rugby League and Rugby Union both have the opposite rule – if you score, then the other side kicks off, and thus gives the ball back to you. But with opposite results in each code.


And Rugby League has got it wrong.


Rugby League (like gridiron, which got this basic principle right – as noted above) is a possession game, whereas Rugby Union is a momentum game. In League, grab the ball and hang onto it. Play stops, and you are still in possession. Then there’s a ritual play-the-ball – one of several farces of the game – see below. In Rugby Union, however, you get where the ball is, then maul and push and try to shove the other team back past the ball, which you can then pick up, pass off, and do fancy things with. If the pack is going your way you’ll get the ball and run all over the other team.


Standard practice in Rugby League (and because the rules are as they are, the only sensible way of proceeding) a kickoff always goes as far as it can within the field of play and then let’s try to pin them down as far away from our try line as possible. (Not very imaginative, but what the praxis of the game dictates.) Conversely, in Rugby Union you kick as shallow as possible – and you want a kicker who can hang the ball in the air long enough for the big brutal bastards who lurk in your forward pack to hit the poor bastard (they live on both sides) who has to catch it, and then drive him backwards, trample all over him and win a major advantage – if you’re good enough. But it is a human contest – and dramatic.


And it has nothing to do with counting how may tackles have taken place – which must be one of the silliest rules ever invented, but which Rugby League has found itself forced to adopt simply because those who administer the game have never quite understood how it actually operates.


When I started watching (and – despite my total incompetence and cowardice – being forced to play) Rugby League in the 1950’s there was no tackle count. At a rather higher level than the five stone sevens at Gurwood St Primary School in Wagga Wagga, St George was dominant – how many successive premierships? They were my team – I like winners. Poker machine money was the big new discovery, transfer fees were simply a matter of deep pockets with no protection for poorer clubs – Johnny Raper (with Reg Gasnier about the best player going round at the time) was pinched by St George off poor old Newtown for a pittance, and Newtown went down the mine a couple of seasons later. Even the VFL’s humiliation of Fitzroy doesn’t match the callous disregard of history that has marked Rugby League’s march to power.


But back in those days, when I lobbed in Sydney in the early 60s and went to the SCG every winter Saturday, St George would let the opposition have the ball for the first half, all played within St George’s defensive 25 (yards, as they were at the time). More or less any brutality was permitted in the tackle – and Darcy Lawler, who seemed to referee all the big games, was uncommonly kind to St George (as the SCG crowd were apt to notice). The second half was played in the same quarter of the field as the first, with the sides running in opposite directions. Half time score would be 3-0 either way – full time St George would be 30 or more in front.


I vividly remember Norm Provan, who was massive, standing the mark as Kel O’Shea (pretty massive himself) played the ball – Provan laid a gently restraining hand on O’Shea until the ball was two passes clear of the ruck with the ref (probably Darcy Lawler) running across field following the ball and then delivered a right cross that ended O’Shea’s afternoon. And no replacements back then! If someone went down you were one short for the rest of the day. (No one had heard of concussion in 1963. Get up and get on with it. Or else, get off the park.)


I can remember listening on the radio to a Rugby League test against England where a Queenslander earned the admiration of even New South Wales commentators for his stoic courage in staying on the ground with one arm completely useless, but persistently targeting one of the England forwards, belting him with the good arm to the point where the Pom chosen as most likely to respond retaliated, and they were both sent off. So he took one with him and became a national hero (if Queensland and New South Wales constitute a nation).


What etches this event in my mind is that the Queenslander involved bore what I have ever since regarded as the quintessential Rugby League name, which I apply to all participants in the code – Dud Beattie.


But to return to an earlier observation – those who administer Rugby League (i.e. they make up the rules) have never understood the nature of their own game, and every bit of fiddling demonstrates they do not know what they’re doing.


Coaches certainly understand, and school their players to maximise whatever advantage they can obtain.


Basic point – every change of the rules of Rugby League since I was a boy has been to eliminate contest for possession – in tackling, in the scrum, in the play the ball. The only time both sides are allowed to compete for possession is the up-and-under, and the knock-on.


In every code of football possession of the ball is everything – but what I find so exciting in Aussie Rules is that, except for a mark or a free, possession is always under contest – and the same is true of Rugby Union (though there the actual struggle is often and for long periods of time occluded by the mass of bodies scrambling and booting for the ball hidden under other hapless bodies, whether in a set scrum or a loos maul). In soccer (except for the goalkeeper, who can pick the ball up) possession is always provisional and dependent on who can get his boot in there first. In gridiron, keeping possession is the fundamental task and you know everyone else is trying to take the ball away from you if they can (hence the risible ¼ back slide where one player is allowed to say “I’m too important to risk injury so I’ll just duck out and keep safe.”).


Not so in Rugby League. As far as I can understand, the way the game runs now is that if you have the ball in your arms the opposition have the right to bring you to ground with all the brutality at their command (though they have belatedly signed up to rules that outlaw belting someone in the head as often as you can), but are forbidden to actually try to take the ball from you. What sort of a stupid rule is this?


A decade ago Queensland (Alfie Langer and all those Walters brothers from Bundaberg) devised ways of reefing the ball away from the NSW boofheads as the tackle was being made. The governing body immediately changed the rules to forbid such behaviour, and it is now a penalty kick against you if you manage to make your opponent lose his grip on the ball.



Why do you give a free kick to someone simply because he hasn’t been able to keep hold of the ball?


All of this is of course all related to the fundamental change Rugby League made when it split from Rugby Union – the play-the-ball rule.


The historical (sociological?) reason for this most fundamental change of rules between the codes is intriguing – I suspect it’s the difference between working men, who had to turn up on Monday morning and put in 10 hours down the pit or in the factory), and toffs who could swan around and take a week off to recover from injury in their own good time.


In Union you go in hard and kick heads. League decided to ritualise the tackle as a two-man scrum – tackler and tackled competing for possession after a stoppage, whereby the tackled player would drop the ball between them and both would try to rake the ball back, as the hooker used to do in a scrum (though never again in Rugby League – see below!) But that notion of an even contest at the ruck was (probably) never part of the way League has actually been played. The player with the ball would of course make sure that when he dropped it it went back the way he wanted and not towards the other team.


I watched with careful attention a recent NSW-Qld game – never once did a New South Wales player touch the ball with his boot in playing the ball – always just thrown behind as he stumbled into the dummy half to make sure he couldn’t get near the ball, which is sensible – one less possibility of bobbling and fumbling. But of course a total breach of the rules of the game as originally conceived.


As an innocent eight-year-old and onwards I was forced to play this dangerous game, at which I was never any good. The Wagga Leagues Club gave our schools (primary and high) vast quantities of sporting equipment (netball, cricket, tennis) on the strict proviso that no Aussie Rules be played in any school in Wagga Wagga. (My last year at school we – well, not me but the kids who really could play – did have a game of real footy against Albury High – who towelled us up no end. Earlier that year, I vividly remember a large bruise dealt me by Bruce Waite, who took the new ball when we played them at cricket, but played footy for Essendon a season later.)


Off in Sydney in 1963, I noticed in the small columns of the Sydney Morning Herald a brief mention of the death on the playing fields in Bolton Park in Wagga of a kid named Peter Quintall – whom I barely knew (he was a year below me, and nobody knows them). A knee to the side of the head – dead before the ambulance got there. Yet Rugby League was a compulsory sport both for me and for Peter Quintall. In Memoriam, Peter Quintall.


The significant, determining, difference between League and Union is what happens when you get tackled. The whole economy, momentum, structure of each game hinges on that instant – which of course takes place hundreds of times (well, dozens at least) every game that’s played.


In Rugby Union, pile in and scrounge it out – in Rugby League, let’s stop, stand off and have a ritual handover to a team-mate. And even the ritual delivery is now a farce. The original idea of the play-the-ball rule was a drop between two players who had equal rights to hack for the ball.


When I was a kid it was perfectly normal practice for the man standing the mark to try to kick through the ball hoping for a knock-on, ricochet, spillage, whatever advantage might be gained.


Not any more. Penalty kick against you. And neither does the man playing the ball need to heel it back to dummy half. I watched a recent State of Origin game and I swear that never once did a New South Wales player touch boot to ball in a so-called “play-the-ball”. They simply threw it behind them – which makes sense, one less probability of a bobble that might cause a knock-on by dummy-half. And neither did any marker try to interfere with this ritual failure to observe the rules of the game. He would be penalised for interfering with the play-the-ball. So why play the ball at all? Why doesn’t the tackled player simply hand it to dummy half who then shoots it off wherever he will, without the onerous duty of bending down to pick it up?


The action (or perhaps imitation) of playing the ball is as silly and unnecessary as the free kick where they choose to take a tap – whereby a player holds the ball in both hands, cocks one leg up to his other knee and touches the ball on the heel of his boot. It is the ugliest manoeuvre a sportsman can be asked to perform with a straight face, but it is accepted by Rugby League referees as constituting a “kick”.


Which brings me to the scrum. What a farce – what stupid nonsense, and why does the game continue with something that has complicated rules but clearly no relevance to what the players on the ground are actually doing?


When I was a kid (a continuing motif, you will have detected) there was a player called Noel Kelly who beat New South Wales time after time because he simply won every scrum, no matter who fed.


Western Suburbs (who I should have barracked for but didn’t) paid big money (in those days) to bring him to Sydney but didn’t have prop forwards strong enough to carry a big man. But he was a master of a special skill – hooking. Doesn’t exist any more – the ball goes into (or mostly doesn’t quite get into) the scrum somewhere behind the second rowers and comes out so quick the lock has to stand off the pack so he’s there to collect it since the half-back hasn’t got time to double around.


They still call players “hooker”, “lock” etc. but none of them do any of the jobs so described. “Front rowers” still stand in the front row, but the ball is dispatched a long way behind them so no one needs to dirty their boots by actually scrummaging . The hooker, as far as I can understand, never gets to lay his heel on the ball in a scrum but is now the player who stands behind the player who has just been tackled and dishes the ball off to whoever barges up next. Important role but nothing whatever to do with hooking in the scrum. Winning a 50-50 ball used to be the most precious skill in the game. That’s a job he never gets to do because the scrums are now not allowed to be contested.


Watch a Rugby Union scrum pack down and you see a mass of human bodies exerting extreme energy. You can see the force of it. And who wins that contest wins the game.


Rugby League used to be like that (well, maybe only a bit like that) – but now you see a few blokes vaguely touch arms while someone throws the ball exactly where he wants to, well behind the so-called hooker (who now never hooks a ball in his whole career) to be picked up by the so-called lock, who doesn’t lock the scrum any more because the ball, which never went into the scrum at all, comes back far too quickly for the half-back to get there in time and the lock has to not lock the scrum because he’s required to pick up the ball that never actually went into the scrum.


It is simply stupid – but so are a great many other things about Rugby League.



Rugby League began as a working man’s game – those who couldn’t afford to swan around the country for weeks at a time but had to turn up Monday morning and put in eight hours in the pit. That’s why they invented a rule to stop the cascade of stamping which can still be a feature of Rugby Union. None of this history now applies.


Victor Trumper was there at the meeting and held his hand up for the vote which established the NSW Rugby League – and I hold his name in reverence. God bless Trumper.


But he was wrong on this one!




Jim Young grew up in the sporting frontline of Wagga Wagga, can lunch with the best of them, and is the author of the humorous cricketing memoir Any Old Eleven






  1. Ian Hauser says

    Jim, I’m a few years shy of you but old enough to remember how the game used to be played.

    I’m not sure where we start in response to all this but I do know the ending – it’s all about money!

    Let’s start with the kick-off. The breakaway Super League of the 1990s used the American version – your team scores so you kick-off to give the other side gets a chance to respond. It was different to see it used in rugby league but hey-ho, whatever. I can handle either approach but am happy to stick to ‘the traditional way’, a theme that will become apparent.

    Unlimited possession? I probably wouldn’t mind this as long as the defending team is allowed to contest for the ball in both the tackle and the play-the-ball. The one-on-one strip in the tackle is a particular skill and, yes, those Walters boys (from Ipswich, by the way) and Alfie Langer were masters of the art. But I think I’d prefer to limit the strip to one-on-one tackles only to make it as close as possible to a fair contest. Wally Lewis was an expert at striking for the ball (or ‘raking it’) in the ruck. Again, I see this as a one-on-one contest. Both situations make the player in possession responsible for ball security- as they should be. On the other hand, if we have to have limited tackles, then I think 6 tackles seems to be a healthy medium – 4 is just not enough.

    Play the ball with the foot: at least this seems to be an area returning to prominence. About time, too! It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

    Scrums! What a total shambles and a complete departure from tradition. Who was the last actual, genuine ‘hooker’? Someone back in the late 70s or early 80s, I’d guess. Again, it was one of the specialisations and supreme skills of the game as it was meant to be. Even more, it was about the ability of the half-back and his hooker to develop the perfect understanding of exactly when to feed and when to strike respectively. I was a schoolboy hooker, a bloody poor one at that, and that was what the role was all about – winning the scrum in a genuine contest. And it meant you had to have dependable, strong props off whom you could swing and reach across the tunnel to compete for the ball. That’s why they were called props! Loose head and feed, fair enough, but let’s see contested scrums with the ball rolled into the middle of the tunnel between the two front rows, and where who wins it comes about as a result of a real test of strength between the two packs and the talents of the two hookers.

    Reserves/interchange: We might have to make concessions here since developments sports science have resulted in different (and, perhaps, greater) demands on players. How about a compromise: three on the bench and only six interchanges? This might bring back a bit of ‘survival of the fittest’.

    Physicality: There’s still plenty of scope for strongmen in today’s game without the spear tackle, the stiff arm and other versions of head-high tackles. We can do without those. We’re after physicality, not thuggery.

    But as I said, Jim, it’s all about the money, the corporatisation of the game, to the point where it’s about business, investment, returns, etc. The suits have it and we, the mug punters in fandom, pay for it. Good luck trying to change that.

    And don’t get me started on issues such as ticket prices, so-called ‘game day entertainment’, the lack of a decent second grade as a curtain raiser and the paucity of funding to the local game.

    Yours in conjoined exasperation!

Leave a Comment