David Hinchliffe: The facts suggest league is tougher, faster and cleaner

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The Independent Online

Although I have the greatest respect for his political antennae, Alan Watkins' assertion in these pages this week that union is the modern day's tougher code suggests to me that it is some considerable time since he last went to a top-level rugby league game.

I read his comments not long after seeing my own team, Wakefield Trinity, end a match with two broken legs. Their opponents, Castleford, lost a key player with serious concussion minutes after the kick-off and numerous other players required attention in a match which was, for rugby league, just another day at the office.

The 13-a-side game has long since come to terms with the fact that there are around 55 injuries per 1,000 hours of play. When you have 90 kilogram athletes colliding in perhaps 600 tackles a match the physical consequences are fairly obvious. I am told the impact can be similar to two cars colliding at 30mph, with the 10 metre rule, separating attack and defence, enabling even the biggest forwards to hit the tackle at considerable speed. To imply that league is somehow less demanding is frankly risible.

Alan suggests that forwards in league are excused the strength-sapping rucks, mauls and line-outs and implies that their play-the-ball is the equivalent of a tea break. He takes no account of the fact league is now a summer game frequently played in baking heat on rock-hard pitches. He ignores the reality of most union games being peppered with stoppages with the ball actually out of play for sometimes as much as half of the match.

His armchair analysis of rugby league is obviously shaped by viewing television's close camera angles of the play-the-balls which disregard the out-of-picture movements of forwards and backs into attacking or defensive positions. Put simply, the fundamental difference between the codes is that league's main restart mechanism demands movement and continuity while union's frequently don't. The consequent greater physical demands on the league player are fairly obvious as a result.

I have more sympathy with his thoughts on rugby league scrums. But as a former hooker I wish he was right about the ball bouncing off the prop's legs following the feed. It is actually more likely to be fed to the second row or loose-forward, making a hooker's strike as unlikely as a rugby league nominee in the New Year Honours list.

While I will concede that in my more nostalgic moments I long for a return to the competitive scrums of my youth, common sense suggests that this would come at a considerable cost. The contemporary purpose of a rugby league scrum is also to restart play but, let's be honest, it allows as well a brief, essential pause in a sport that is now faster and more demanding than it has ever been.

The cries of "own feet" are long gone from rugby league grounds because most of the spectators regard predictable scrums as a price worth paying for the spectacle and excitement of the modern game. They recognise that the specialist forwards of union - the unwieldy, near obese front-rowers and the line-out giraffes - would be irrelevant spare parts in the much faster and more fluent handling code.

I'm not the first to view the comparative development of the two rugby codes in evolutionary terms. As I watched a plodding prop flop over the line at Cardiff to deliver some short-lived Welsh joy in this year's Six Nations I was reminded of some of the Neanderthals who played league before the advent of the six-tackle rule. They practised the darker arts which were apparently on show in the Wasps match at Dublin, but in a game which was nowhere near as demanding as today's Super League.

As union continues to borrow ideas from league and becomes better regulated and cleaner we may hear less of the stamping, scraping and violence. But to suggest that a more disciplined game is somehow not as tough or demanding is to ignore the evidence before our very eyes in league every week.

If Alan Watkins gets a move on, he might just secure a ticket for the next big match at Cardiff on 15 May. It's Wigan versus St Helens by the way. And if he comes away from that one still implying that league is for wimps I'll be very surprised.

David Hinchliffe is Labour MP for Wakefield