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Football v rugby: who wins?

There is plenty of antipathy between the two sports, but also plenty of common ground. And there is much that one can learn from the other.


This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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One of the advantages of football is that it has hardly ever significantly changed its rules. It is still recognisable to fans of 40 or 50 years ago. Rugby is not. There are almost annual rule changes. People – and I include current players – basically don’t know the rules.
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Want to see subs done properly and with no fuss? No time wasting agenda? Watch rugby league. See if you even notice.

For two sports which arose out of a common heritage some 140 years or so ago, it is strange how little contact there is between football and rugby. It always disappoints me how much antipathy exists between the two. Football guys don’t like rugby and vice versa. Games for gentlemen played by hooligans and vice versa. Sad, tired, socio-economic stereotyping.

I love both games. I played both – rugby into my late 30s, not I hasten to add at a terribly high level. I am a Buddie. I have supported my hometown team since 1966 when I asked my dad if I could go to the football on Saturday.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Love Street.”

“Ok. There are two rules. The first is you don’t go to Ibrox and the second is you don’t go to Parkhead.”

And for years I didn’t. But I did go to Firhill, Cappielow, Broomfield et al. And mostly on supporters’ buses. The point is, I was nine in 1966. My dad was a headmaster. My mum (of whom more later) was Head of English at a local school, and they were not negligent parents. It was accepted that kids would go to games, home and away, even at that young age. These days? Health and Safety. Risk Assessments. Registers. Don’t get me started.

Anyway. Thorburn, Murray, Connell; Fulton, McFadden, Renton; Adamson, Pinkerton, Kane, Blair and Hamilton. It impacted and I did not miss a home game for nine years. Football and later rugby for the school in the morning and the Saints in the afternoon. Even reserve games if the team was too far away from home.

Not just me. My pals. There was nothing inconsistent in loving both games. By 18 I was playing Former Pupil rugby on Saturday afternoon, so it was mostly midweek Saints matches. After the rugby finding out the Saints score was a must, and could affect your mood for the rest of the weekend. And if the rugby was off there would be a bunch of us heading to Love Street at short notice.

My first trip to Murrayfield for rugby was South Africa in 1969 and again, I missed few home games (and went to a fair few away ones) for about 30 years. Heretically, I got into rugby league in the 1990s. It was the professional offshoot of union. It was all about broken time. Professionalism and paying the very working-class players. The northern clubs met in Halifax in 1895 and formed their own game – 13 rather than the 15-man game. They were shunned until the last decade or so, partly for pinching amateur union players for the professional game. Jonathan Davies, Alan Tait et al. Since then I have watched about 40 games. Having a son in Manchester helps.

And thanks to a pal I am now a big fan of Junior football. Being a sad pair, we have bagged about 50 grounds over the last four years or so.  Always a joy.

So, that’s an attempt to establish my well-balanced credentials. No bias. Both games. Both variants. An average season? Six Saints games, 15 Juniors, six union and three league fixtures. The comparisons are fresh in my mind.

What does rugby think of football and vice versa?  What can each sport learn from the other? What, from watching both regularly, is noticeable about each? Have they changed , and if so for better or for worse. For richer or for poorer?

It has to be said that one of the advantages of football is that it has hardly ever significantly changed its rules. It is still recognisable to fans of 40 or 50 years ago. Rugby is not. There are almost annual rule changes. People – and I include current players – basically don’t know the rules. And a lot of hypocrisy has filtered into the game. One example is the squint feed to the scrum, which although still illegal, is ignored, fundamentally changing the game.

One of the inevitable results of professionalism, to which union came belatedly, is greater physicality. Rugby used to be a game for all shapes, sizes and talents, but is now, frankly a game for hulks. Jim Renwick was 12 stone only if his Hawick top was sopping wet. Gareth Edwards was 5’9”. Now, if you are not at least 6’4” and 17 stone, don’t think about it. And the increased physicality of rugby means that any crossover between the codes is much less likely. In 1984, when Scotland ‘Grand Slammed’,  one of their centres was ex-Hearts footballer, David Johnston. These days… no chance. Body types and sizes almost completely preclude it.

Substitutions are another area of divergence. Most of you will know that Archie Gemmill was Scotland’s first substitute in 1965 when he came on, as a 16 year old, for Saints after Jim Clunie (who would go on to manage the club) had broken his leg. This was only a few months after my mum had coached him to his ‘O’ grade English (told you I would mention her again). She considered this one of her greatest professional achievements. So, subs for injury in football first and years later in rugby. And then tactical subs, the number growing over the years. It has changed football a good bit, but in rugby the shift has fundamentally altered the game at all levels.

Union is now no longer a 15-man game. It is a fully-fledged 23-man sport. Is it moving towards American Football with padding and special teams? Possibly. At a low level, clubs which once put out four XVs are now lucky to field two XXIIIs because of a combination of simple arithmetic and the increasing level of injuries brought on by rule changes.

Top-level games will see the 17-stone front row subbed off for the 18-stone front row after 50 minutes. It is no longer an 80-minute sport. In the old days, even front row donkeys like me had to be fit enough to run for the whole match. The damage that can be done by fresh hulks is being measured in concussions. Scotland entered the Six Nations this year with seven front row players out – one of them having been told to take a year out after head knocks. The leading English club Wasps are regularly losing three or four players per game and much of that is down to rule changes. Many are predicting a death in the game at a high level. Rollerball?

Want to see subs done properly and with no fuss? No time wasting agenda? Watch rugby league. See if you even notice.

A game for gentlemen is becoming a game for thugs. Check out the disciplinary records of English internationalists such as Marler, Hartley (who has served 60 weeks of cumulative bans in the last ten seasons) and Haskell. Compare to the suspension of Scotland and Lions hero Gordon Brown in 1976. Check it out. Changing times? Falling standards? Come back Willie Woodburn, all is forgiven.

Now, football is not a game for wimps (especially the Juniors), but rugby is becoming a sport parents are glad their sons are not taking up.

What other comparisons can be made? Well the moral high ground on respect for officialdom remains with union. Just.

Football has – be honest guys – happily developed a culture of cheating. Take a dive. Con the referee. Try to get your opponent yellow/red carded. Not nice. Most of this comes from the English Premiership, awash with excessive money, several vile managers and content to see referees abused. Not nice. Kids watch and mimic.

Union is going that way. Last year in New Zealand, the Lions manager praised his captain basically for conning the referee in the final Test. And the England captain (yes, you, Mr Hartley) has been red carded for his club in a national final for telling a respected international referee he was a f***ing cheat. One of his many bans. So, union looking down its nose at football is no longer tenable.

Respect for officials? Watch a rugby league game with miked-up refs on first-name terms with the players. A breath of fresh air.

Why any sane person would want to referee Junior football is beyond me. Fed up with the prancing prima donnas of Arsenal and Man Utd? Go and watch the Juniors. They could do with your £4. Football in the raw. I cannot be alone in bemoaning the lack of crossover between Senior and Junior football in Scotland. The early Saints teams I watched got their players from Johnstone Burgh, Kilwinning Rangers and Arthurlie. Indeed former Saints captain and now Killie manager Steve Clarke came from Beith Juniors.

A great, tough, game played with pride in the (mostly long-forgotten former mining) towns and villages of Scotland, its only problem is the torrents of abuse directed at officials. Largely some poor ref without linesmen trying his best to get the long-distance offside decisions right. I reckon there are as many yellow cards for dissent and foul language as for bad fouls in the Juniors. The manager who applies duct tape will win!

Here’s an idea from rugby: make each team provide a linesman. If they don’t, remove a player to run touch. They do it in club rugby. There are always, dads, injured players etc willing to help. I guarantee they will only fail to provide once, then it will bed in as a culture.

Technology? Rugby league showed the way. Union followed, and football is left looking luddite. Strange when millions of pounds may depend on a marginal, instant decision.

Is there anything football could learn from rugby? Here are two ideas.

In rugby dissent sees the penalty moved back 10 yards. More than once if it continues. The result could be converting a nothing situation into a bang on three points. Imagine the difference that could make in football. How quickly would leading managers be telling their players to shut up?

In a similar vein, sin bins. They work a treat in league and union. Infringe and cool your heels for 10 minutes. It’s equitable because the team you have infringed against benefit by your absence, rather than some team eight weeks from now when your cards tot up. And you can’t engineer your yellow cards and bans to make sure you don’t miss the important games. Again, this could kick start a change in culture.

The codes differ on what it is that people actually support. There are important differences here, which need to be understood.

In football it is almost certainly the club, first and last. Again, be honest, does the average Old Firm fan actually love football itself? Not often. It is more the game in much less tribal rugby union. And almost totally the game itself in league where the culture is to get your cup final tickets at the start of the season and go regardless of who is playing. Wigan v Leeds at Wembley or Old Trafford with banks of Warrington and Wakefield fans is an impressive sight. Unimaginable in Senior football in Scotland, yet in the Juniors, it used to be that way with huge crowds at going to the Junior Cup final (nearly 78,000 in 1951 for Petershill v Irvine Meadow).

Common cause?  Both football and rugby (but most of all, golf) are suffering from the fat kid generation and the impact of saturation TV coverage. It makes people Barca and Chelsea fans rather than Bonnyrigg Rose and Alloa fans. Common issues to be explored jointly? Aye, right.

As far as marketing is concerned, football and union have much to learn. Rugby league is well ahead. The profile of a game with a relatively small player base and geographical capture is well above par. Why? Because they do not take fans for granted and milk them like the brand football clubs.

And what a difference it would make in football if only a part of a percent of the obscene earnings of top players cascaded down to the grass roots.

Two great games – actually four great games – with lots in common but little mutual understanding. l

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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