Sonny Bill Williams will spearhead the Kiwis' next step in retaining the Rugby League World Cup when they take on Scotland in Leeds in tomorrow's quarter-final, having made his contribution to the All Blacks' capture of the rugby union version of the global tournament two years ago. But the peculiar sporting world inhabited by SBW – who also boxes professionally now and then – is not the norm in New Zealand, where the two rugby codes occupy markedly different places in the public psyche.
Just as league and union have blurred lines of demarcation in England – the 13-a-side game, broadly speaking, is a northern game, but that is not to say 15-a-side union is anything less than well rooted in Lancashire and Yorkshire – so the division in New Zealand should not be too boldly simplified. The fact that a New Zealander will routinely refer to the two sports as "rugby" and "league" is one clue as to union being much the more popular game. Another is to reflect on playing numbers officially put at 189,661 adults for union and 68,042 for league. Or to count the three television crews and seven journalists (print, radio and photographic) currently following the All Blacks in London as they attempt to beat England at Twickenham on Saturday, whereas a meagre two print journalists have been dispatched from Down Under to keep track of the Kiwis.
But just as an English taste for one or other or both the codes comes down to individual choice or possibly upbringing, so it is in New Zealand. One travelling broadcaster summed it up this week that rugby union in his homeland is an "egalitarian game played by everyone, be he a bricklayer or a lawyer", compared to the strictly "working man's game" of league.
A nice illustration is that Helen Clark, the Labour MP for the Auckland district of Mount Albert – where Sonny Bill, who has a Samoan father, grew up playing league at the local state grammar school – was very much a league fan, until she became Prime Minister in 1999, when she was obliged to take a more benevolent view of union.
There is certainly a geographical split: league in New Zealand is concentrated in the country's biggest city Auckland, with smatterings of interest in Wellington, Christchurch, the greater Waikato and, historically anyway, the industrial west coast of the South Island. Rugby union, as anyone who visits the Land of the Long White Cloud will testify, is everywhere. Both sports are popular with and played brilliantly by Polynesian Islanders who have either migrated to or settled in the country. Because fewer people play league it is perceived by some as an Islanders' pursuit.
The Australian influence is crucial in a wider sense. New Zealand has one domestic professional rugby league team, the Warriors, who play at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland in front of crowds of around 20,000 and participate in the otherwise all-Aussie NRL. The televising of live games from the NRL's forerunner in the 1980s and 90s attracted a big new audience across the Tasman. Kids began to follow those teams in the way a football-loving Irish child might have an allegiance to Manchester United. Now a star Kiwi player will crave a contract with one of the big Australian clubs rather than being "loyal" to the Warriors. The switch back to league by Williams – internationally, he has reverted from All Black centre to Kiwi second row – was made with the Sydney Roosters.
For the lucky few with a Warriors contract, wages compare well enough with a Super Rugby player in union. A revised pay deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union in August is reckoned to put top All Blacks such as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter on around NZ$650,000 (£335,000) per year, topped up by individual commercial deals. Super Rugby players not playing for the All Blacks earn between NZ$70,000 and NZ$180,000.
The Warriors are subject to the NRL club salary cap of $NZ6.9m split between around 28 players for potentially an average NZ$250,000 each – and a marquee player might receive considerably more. The Warriors forked out a reported world record £700,000 transfer fee to sign England's Sam Tomkins from Wigan in September and revenues are going up. They finished 10th out of 16 in the NRL this year. "The perfect world for us is that we grow our own and we are paying New Zealand-born stars that sort of money [NZ$1m a season],'' the Warriors' chief executive, Wayne Scurrah, said a few months ago.
Historically there was a kinder attitude to code-crossers – Bob Scott famously went from league to union in the 1940s – than in England. The All Blacks were all watching in their hotel in Cardiff on the Saturday in 2008 when the Kiwis won the league World Cup, and the word from their camp is that the union men will tune in again tomorrow. "We have nothing organised but I am sure quite a few will be watching as they support all fellow New Zealand sports teams," said a spokesman.
And the landscape is ever changing. Wayne "Buck" Shelford, the former All Blacks captain and No 8, "married into" rugby league when he wed the daughter of Pat Bennett, league organiser. His cousin Adrian and brother Darrall each had fine league careers.
"I'll go and watch Warriors' games on a spare weekend, of course I will," says Shelford. "It still tends to be 'rugby on Saturdays, league on Sundays'. But there has been change. Some of those schools who used to frown on league are playing it now – because there are a lot of Island boys who want to play sport and they cannot all play in the union first XV. Actually, in their infancy both games were for everybody; the social divide, I think, came along afterwards."
All a New Zealander really wants to talk about in either code is winning and the game itself. Sonny Bill said recently that league was the more physical sport. "That's true in the sense of the tackle," says Shelford, "when in league you're getting three or four on to one, whereas rugby is basically one or two to one. The one person in league gets hell smashed out of him. But the leagueies can't handle the aerobic fitness of rugby. Both games have their merits; both have their deficiencies."Reuse content