Sport on TV; The toughest call can be decided on the touchlines

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WATCH THE rugby league, the rugby union and the American football over the weekend, my editor said, and tell me which is the hardest sport of all. Easy, I said. Boxing. That's not helpful, he said.

First up was the BBC highlights of league's World Club Challenge - Leeds (or the Rhinos, as they hilariously like to be known) against Canterbury Bulldogs (original nickname: "Country Bumpkins"). As I was reviewing the tape on Thursday night, Horizon was doing a number on Neanderthal man. Synchronicity or what?

Leeds charged into a huge lead, but as the Australians started their fightback, Sonny Bill Williams began to assert himself. He may only be 19 but he's already legendary Down Under for his defensive shoulder charge, a manoeuvre which brings to mind the Crocodile Dundee line when he confronts an armed mugger and pulls out a huge blade: "That's not a knife. This is a knife." That's not a tackle, Williams was saying. This is a tackle.

He hit Ryan Bailey shoulder to chest, knocking him into the middle of next season, and the Wigan coach and match analyser Dennis Betts purred in admiration: "He's famous for that and he's standing over him - really proud of himself. Bailey did well to get up and carry on playing."

He did it again a minute later: "And there's another big hit from Sonny Bill," roared the commentator Dave Watson. "He has laid out Marcus Bai! He got to his feet but I'm not sure he's all too steady." Betts purred anew: "How tough is this game?"

As tough as union, that's for sure. As in bloody tough. Ask the England debutant against Wales, Mathew Tait, twice lifted bodily by Gavin Henson and thrown down like a sack of spuds. "Welcome to international rugby," said Brian Moore in the commentary box.

At first glance, union looks rougher than league because they all pile in. And in union, players look bulked-up; in league, they just look evil.

Mental toughness is as vital as the physical variety, of course, as Henson, the match-winner, demonstrated when asked in the tunnel how he felt going up to take the last-gasp penalty.

"I knew I was going to kick it," he said. "I'd been kicking them all week." And did he feel under a huge amount of pressure going into the match? "I don't tend to feel pressure, to be honest." Mortals like you and me can only stand back and admire.

With an average career of around four years, American football is clearly the most physically punishing of the three. They might wear all that protective gear, but if it's wrapped round 250lb of bone and muscle it becomes an offensive weapon. And you get confrontations that in either rugby code would result in a disciplinary ton of bricks, back-snapping tackles coming in not so much late as just in time for the next game.

Though he ended up on the losing side of Super Bowl XXXIX (ITV1, Sunday), Terrell Owens summed up gridiron's warrior spirit. Seven weeks previously, the Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver broke his leg, and the run-up to the game was dominated by his typically cocky insistence that, whatever the doctors told him, he'd be playing.

The doctors said no. He played. Limping throughout, he caught nine passes for 122 yards, all the time in visible pain. Just as boxers often show their finest qualities in defeat, Owens marked himself out as a man above men.

And my conclusion? Degrees of toughness are irrelevant; to play any of these three sports you have to have guts and character by the shedload. But what rugby really lacks is gridiron's soft-porn cheerleaders. Be careful with those pom-poms! You'll put somebody's eye out!