It has been said that rugby league is a gentleman's game played by thugs and rugby union is a thug's game played by gentlemen. Unlike union, league doesn't have the mess of players that allows for dirty play such as eye gouging, biting ears, grabbing testicles or stomping on hands. Aside from the odd finger in the date, rugby league has generally been free of the dirty play seen in union.
Considering the nature of rugby union, it is a little unusual that it has managed to maintain a gentleman's image for more than a century and a half. This unusual outcome is best explained by union's history as an amateur sport. As an amateur sport, union attracted well-educated players that didn't need to rely upon the sport for their income. Today, professionalism is slowly resulting in its boganisation.
The first rugby club formed in Australia was the Sydney University Club in 1864. In 1874 a Sydney metropolitan competition was established with the new league being administered from Twickenham, England. The new league suffered a blow in 1877 when the powerful 'Waratah' Rugby Club invited Carlton (an Aussie rules club) to play two matches, one each under union and Australian rules. For many Sydney football fans, union was slow and unattractive and the Waratah club hoped to make the point in a direct comparison with the Australian game.
A week later over 100 footballers formed the New South Wales Football Association (NSWFA) to play the Australian game. For the next three decades, the two codes battled for the hearts and minds of Sydney siders. Union used its influence in the corridors of power to have Australian football banned from Sydney's enclosed grounds. As a consequence, Australian football was unable to raise money to pay players or promote the code.
As an amateur sport, union would have eventually lost to Australian football had rugby league not arrived in 1908 to act as a circuit breaker. The drift of union players to Australian football became a drift to rugby league. Union became confined to the private schools, which were attracted by its English image and well-mannered players that played for love instead of money.
Despite losing the fight against both Australian football and rugby league, as an amateur sport, rugby union was immune from destruction. Union players were lawyers, doctors and accountants who could make more money in their professions than they ever could if the defected to league. For them, the joy of union was to be able to travel the world and represent their country. For union, it didn't matter that it didn't have crowds because they didn't have huge overheads to maintain.
In the 1980s, rugby league started going more mainstream by targeting more white-collar supporters. With its market being encroached upon, rugby union responded with moves towards professionalism. In 1987, the first rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand. By the early 90s, the code was experiencing such a surge in popularity that it started breaking free of its white-collar following.
With a common market being pursued, tensions between the two rugby codes increased and each started plotting the demise of the other. League offered salary cap incentives to any club buying union players. Because the money on offer was more than a white-collar job, union players were far more tempted by league money than their predecessors had been.
When Super League was launched in 1995, rugby union faced destruction. With rugby league paying a fortune to anyone who could pass or tackle, the entire Wallaby and All Black teams threatened to defect. To provide a professional league, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia hastily organised the Super 12 and Tri Nations. A new force in the Australian professional sports market had emerged.
Without the shackles of a popular club competition to weigh them down, all of rugby union's resources were directed towards the success of the Wallabies. Thus Australia, where union ran a distant last in terms of playing numbers, became a powerhouse of world rugby. In less than two decades, it won two World Cups, and narrowly missed out on a third.
The success of the Wallabies allowed union to gain a following in Australian markets that had no history of support for the code. Testament to the value of a national team was the 2003 World Cup final between England and Australia, which attracted a national audience of 4.01million.
As well as making spectacular commercial strides, union also made significant progress at the junior level. Since turning professional in 1996, the number of people playing union in Australia has more than doubled. In 1996, 89,760 people played union in Australia. In 2006, the number was 193,382. With the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Australian Sports Commission estimating that League only has 180,000-190,000 players, union was more popular from a playing point of view.
Despite its growth, union didn’t seem capable of landing the knockout blow on rugby league in regards to market appeal. Of the 50 top-rating sports programs in Australia in 2005, 12 were AFL, six were league and not one was rugby. Not even the Bledisloe Cup made the list.
As a competition, the expanded Super 15 was quite limited. Because it spanned three countries, games were played in the middle of the night, thus making it difficult to form a tribal following. In addition, because fans were in different countries, fans rarely came into contact with each other to voice their prejudices, which make football interesting. Finally, the Super 15 was sold as a Pay TV product, which made it difficult to grow outside of its upper class niche to reach mainstream audiences.
Activity 1- Battle of the Codes
Look at the statistics comparing the fortunes of Australia's football codes