Australians warming to global reach of union

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The Independent Online

There is nothing quite like a Wallaby pratfall to unite Australia's rugby league community in an outpouring of supremacist scorn. "Okay, John O'Neill, your shout," wrote one scribe yesterday, addressing himself to the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union. "You may be preening yourself about bagging Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers from league, but attendance at the State of Origin match, where real men were playing, should have been compulsory for all rah-rah recruiters." At which point, the great sage identified 34 league professionals (a mere free sample, naturally, for there must be many more) who might usefully be lured across the oval-ball Rubicon to teach John Eales, George Gregan and Joe Roff how to do things.

Four winter games are jostling for breathing space in this extraordinarily competitive, sport-obsessed country, and three of them were showing the best of themselves in Brisbane over the weekend. Friday night's Australian Rules match between the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn drew well over 30,000 spectators to The Gabba, while a full house of 37,000 attended the Australia-British Isles Test at the same venue 24 hours later. On Sunday, the State of Origin set-to between Queensland and New South Wales was watched by very nearly 50,000 league followers at the ANZ Stadium. Had the footballing Socceroos also been in action, local ticket presses would have staged a wildcat strike for over-work.

Of the four, rugby union is the one lying outside the top three. League and Rules are five-pages-a-day sports in the city's newspapers, the great expressions of Australian machismo, and while the football here is far from top-notch, it exists in a uniquely global sporting village and is therefore under little pressure on the commercial front.

Unsurprisingly, this status quo is not to union's liking, and the game has ideas far above its present station. Hence the current tension between the two rugby codes – a tension far more taut than in England. Rod Macqueen, the cerebral Wallaby coach, is on record as saying that a couple of law tweaks could give the 15-man game a decisive advantage over league, and that theory is gaining credence in the ranks of the 13-a-siders.

By joining the "rah-rahs", Rogers has put league on a war footing. The relationship between the two codes is akin to that between the Lions and the New South Wales Waratahs during the spectacular outbreak of pugilism in Sydney two Saturdays ago. League administrators had known about Sailor – who announced yesterday that he will formally switch codes on 1 November – for some time, and while they were less than chuffed, they concluded there was no preventing one errant spirit making a pact with the devil. Rogers, one of the very biggest names in league, was and remains a different matter. The public bitterness generated by his decision is probably without precedent.

Macqueen wants union to seize this moment as its own. He is convinced that a clean-up campaign around the breakdown area – the most esoteric aspect of the sport, and a legislative nightmare to boot – would help attract a new audience of those with neither the time nor the inclination to learn the game from scratch and develop an appreciation of the difference between a ruck and a maul. As an expansionist quick-fix, the coach's views make perfect sense. Quick, unobstructed ball from the tackle area would undoubtedly make life easier for the backs, result in more tries and therefore improve the "product".

And there lies the rub. Rugby traditionalists – not only the badged and blazered buffers of Twickenham renown, but the grass-roots players who love the game for its unique degree of contestability – believe union, especially the brand in vogue in the southern hemisphere, has already mutated into a form of 15-man league, and do not like it one little bit. They see beauty in the bravery of killing opposition ball on the floor, of wrapping up a rival on the floor and suffering the consequent torments of fist and studs. They admire an outside-half who can single-bootedly remove the leather from the ball, and are moved to tears by the sight of a front row scrummaging an inferior pack into the middle of next week.

One of the reasons the Lions knocked the union world off its axis by smashing the Wallabies at The Gabba was that they were permitted to indulge their expertise in the traditional skills of scrum and maul. Martin Johnson, the tour captain, is not a great player because of his embrace of new-age values. He is a great player because he does precisely the things great second rows have done down the ages: he scrummages powerfully, he guarantees delivery at line-out time, he is hard and ruthless and nasty, he hits rucks and mauls with the force of a bulldozer and he makes opponents wonder whether there might be an easier way of spending their Saturdays. If union loses that, it loses its soul.

Rugby league bought into the consumer revolution years ago, with its six-tackle rule and, in Britain, its shift to summer competition. Many union die-hards fear television, with its insatiable appetite for simplistic, lowest common denominator sport, will drive union up a similar avenue. Indeed, some suspect the two codes will eventually merge, although Andrew Walker, the Wallaby wing, disagrees. "League in Australia is too big a game for that," said the 27-year-old Brumbie, who played league for St George, Sydney City and his country before jumping ship last year. "Union won't kill it off, either. But the growing game is the union game. Its internationalism gives it a crucial advantage."

If the United States can exist happily on a diet of two purely domestic team sports – gridiron and baseball – there is no obvious reason why Australia should not continue to prosper with its Aussie Rules aficionados in one camp and its league followers in the other, with union registering with the wider population on big Test match days. But with O'Neill in the box seat, union wants more. For the first time in living memory, the sport of league legends Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga is feeling the heat, despite the 11 pages of coverage in yesterday's NSW Daily Telegraph.