It’s an ambiguous title, but an accurate one. Whatever you name, be it a sport, a hobby, an occupation or kinky, Rugby Union is better. It’s not a common opinion. I’d go so far as to say that it’s an opinion held only by me. But what it is an opinion that I’m going to try my damnedest to support using both evidence, anecdotes, and at least two instances of humour.
Rugby union was created when, supposedly, William Webb-Ellis picked up the ball during a school football game and ran with it. The referee penalised him for cheating, gave him a yellow card and a 10m advantage to the opposition. But this origin story showed the world that there were better ways to gain territory in football than just kicking the ball downfield. Carrying the ball forward was the best way for Rugby teams to play until someone forget to tell Leicester Tigers who chose to kick the possession way at every possible opportunity – that way the other team get more chances to score. How kind of them.
There are many reasons why Rugby Union is superior to everything and it’s been difficult to limit them down to just 4. There will not be any annoying rugby clichés appearing on this list – so no saying it’s a game for thugs played by gentlemen, like every American rugby commentator. Also, as much as it’s rightfully adored by everyone, I’m not counting the fact you can drink in the ground, at least not as its own point. I’m also going to put this as an extra point now; rugby is th emost respectful sport on the planet, where the ref’s word is final and you buy the opposing team a pint afterwards.
Quick Point of order: It’s going to be very obvious that this post is going to entirely ignore Rugby League and for a good reason; it doesn’t match up with some of the core reasons why Union is perfect. League is a good sport and deserves more coverage and love than it gets, but I’m afraid there are reasons why it’s unions lesser brother.
Firstly, and a point that many would say is the most important, are the fans. Rugby union shares a quality with but a few sports in that the fans are completely integrated. In football there is very strict and rigorous policing to ensure that fans of rival teams never meet, going so far as “bubbling” them from coaches to ground and back again. The same is said for Rugby League where even last year there have been instances of fan violence, between each other, the opposition supporters and even the players. And of course above you all don’t get the reaction we saw following the recent Superbowl where supporters of the winning team decided to show their gratitude to their team by setting Philadelphia on fire.
Rugby union is more like Cricket. Everyone sits together, you drink together, cheer and moan together, and generally have a nice time of it. The very fact that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) still insists on mixed seating is a sign of trust they have in the supporters. There are bad apples, of course there are, but unlike football there is no great history or culture of violence when watching Rugby, and the crowds are self-policed. Fans who shout and swear at players or fans are hushed by those around them asked to leave. Being drunk is okay, but being a nuisance is annoying and you’ll be removed, if not by the stewards then by your compatriots around you.
Clubs are very well aware of the role fans play around the grounds, and are very appreciative of it. The passion pours from the stands onto the pitch, regardless of the score. Leicester Tigers, currently in one of their worst runs of form for nearly a decade and at the wrong end of the league, have published a number of articles about ‘It’s all about the fans’. Rugby fans are special, odd, and usually 4 pints shy of sober. They sing loudly, usually raunchy, and will make a joke of anything, normally the fact that they can’t buy a win or that Dai Jones just keeps getting fatter.
Another reason why Rugby Union, at least in the UK, is superior to everything is down to money. It would be utterly wrong of me to suggest that football has been weakened by the sudden influx of television money that has flooded the sport since the late ’90s, or that the French Rugby Championship, the Top14, has seen a marked improvement in quality after being bankrolled by billionaires. What the money has done is seen the leagues attract some of the World’s best players, managers, with the strongest facilities and equipment.
What is the complaint with too much money in the sport? Corruption, control, snap decisions and profit over pride. Football is littered with stories of club owners who, after injecting their money into a club, take it upon themselves to sack coaches at will, churning through dozens in but a few years. Leeds Utd, recently freed from a terrible owner, have experienced the horrors that a meddling owner who promised free cash could exact upon a historical, proud club. On an even bigger scale, once the game is worth vast sums and it starts being run like a business, you get corruption at the highest level.
FIFA, the international governing body of Association Football, is currently in the middle of a huge and deep-reaching corruption investigation. Both the UK AFS and internationally by the CIA have been looking into their actions, with confirmed reports coming out not too long ago about bribery of officials to secure international tournaments. These tournaments are worth Billions of dollars in revenue to the nations and football associations that win the contracts, and wherever there is an opportunity for someone to make money you will find corruption.
Rugby Union isn’t perfect. The world governing body is occasionally terrible and does have it’s moments of frailty, it can’t organise tournaments very well for the smaller nations, and makes some bad decisions. But it has, so far, managed to steer clear of any major scandal and has even done much good, practically forcing the game to grow in some completely new areas by funding at the grassroots level.
Professional rugby union sides in the UK have to work within the salary cap, and they face fierce punishment if they break the upper limit, or at least they’re meant to. What this ensures is that Rugby union doesn’t end up like football or American Football, with players under extreme stresses and pressures to make it to the top and make the huge weekly salaries, and because there is the cap there is a greater bonus for bringing youth talent up through the ranks (because they’re so much cheaper) rather than paying expensive foreign talent. The highest paid Rugby player in the UK earns about £460,000 per year, and the world’s highest earner takes about £1.4 million. Compare this to the highest paid Football player, Lionel Messi, who takes home a comfortable 46 million Euros a year, of £784,000 a week. The salary cap is designed to keep a good number of young players coming through, as well as securing home-grown talent in the starting line ups of many premiership sides, as they can’t keep doling out infinitely on players from other teams. Teams can’t just buy their talent, but have to develop it. And, as they can’t encourage players solely with money they have to get creative – Bath rugby used to take their players out doing extreme, fun activities, such as skydiving and rallying. Leicester Tigers used to pay their players through a subsidiary company so they could freely breach the cap, but each to their own.
If we go onto point three then it is required to quote advertising guru Rory Sutherland. Although he was more making fun of the commentators, he called out commentators for claiming every action on the pitch was due to the agency of the players and not because of luck. When a team does badly in one game there is immediately calls to sack the manager despite the fact one game has little statistical relevance due to the multiple variable that occur. And I got really annoyed because I really like football. It’s called the beautiful game for a reason, and regardless if the statistics it’s damn fun. But he got me thinking, that as there is only one way to score a goal – the ball has to completely cross the line and you get a single point – you are very much limited in your tactics. Usually the scoreline is tiny insomuch as to be statistically insignificant and such a tiny amount of play is actually part of the play leads to a goal that the game becomes slow. Rory Sutherland ruined football for me, but he did make rugby better.
In Rugby Union you can score in one of 4 ways: Drop goal for 3 points, penalty also for 3, a try gets your 5, and the conversion lands you a further 2. The conversion can only come after a try, but it’s still points on the board. There’s also a penalty try, but as that’s just a try and conversion rolled into one as a punishment it’s not needed no the list. As there are more ways for players to score, and the methods are clearly defined and easy to specify, it makes the game more active. Of course, most the time the teams will be trying to score a try, to get those 7 points, but when the play slows down and you’re no longer rumbling towards the try line you have the other options. You could force a penalty and get a kick at goal, or go for the drop goal. And if you have a player with a good boot on them, these are options that you can implement from damn near anywhere in your opponents half. Or, if you’re Francois Steyn you can do it from literally anywhere on the pitch. By adding the other options in you have a greater range of tactics available to you. Sides such as Exeter Chiefs win games by playing fast, attacking rugby and by scoring tries. Lots of tries. Whereas a side like Saracens kick their way to win more often than not, with slower, more attritional play that wares their opposition down. And then you have teams like Leicester Tigers, who have transcended tactics all together and just do what feels right at the time. Normally they feel like losing.
Aside from club rugby you have the internationals. As already said, I grew up watching football and have never really enjoyed the internationals as much as national, club games. Because they are so rare, and teams know that defeat usually means they’re chances of winning a tournament is scuppered you often see tactics so dull it makes Last of the Summer Wine seem like Pulp Fiction. In recent round of international play off games, across 7 games theres was 6 goals, 5 of them in one match. What was billed by television adverts to be a fun weekend of goals galore turned into a spectacle more boring than the second day of a county cricket match.
Rugby internationals luckily doesn’t suffer from anything like that, at damn near any level of the game. From the off everything about them is more of a spectacle, more important and passionate (I have put a pound in my ‘rugby cliché’ swearbox). If we compare a rugby international and a football one we can see the difference and why one is clearly better. From the anthems the point goes to rugby. Football players usually mumble their way through the words and the crowd is out of time with the recording. Rugby fans and players blast out the song, often signing it through tears of pride, with the crowd behind them roaring them to play out of their skin. This is unless you’re a pacific islander or Kiwi, then you get to perform the Haka. A bit too much like a drama class performance and receives a mixed reaction, but it sets all the hair on your back on edge. 1-0 to Rugby.
The in-game singing and atmosphere is also integral to a good international. Football is very sporadic with its atmosphere, especially in England, and The Wembley Stadium is a vacuum for atmosphere. Add in how stagnant the England national football team play and it’s no shock that one of the biggest cheers the ground’s experienced is when a paper airplane hit a player.Compare that to the Millennium Stadium which is a cauldron of song. To be fair, I will pick a rugby ground that doesn’t have the advantage of a closed roof and we’ll compare Wembley to Twickenham for atmosphere. Worth noting, Twickenham is regarded as a quiet ground. No contest. 2-0.
Finally, the rivalry of the international teams in rugby is always heightened. And this can be felt in the games. To take a look at the England team’s last few home fixtures: Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Spain, Scotland, and Malta. Of those only two are games worth attending. England Rugby’s last 6 home games were Wales, Samoa, Australia, Australia, Barbarians F.C. So that’s the enemy across the border, a pacific island nation (yeah, not massive), the Aussies twice (and everyone likes beating Australia) and an invitational side that are Rugby’s Harlem Globetrotters. That’s it, it has to be 3-0 to Rugby.
So there we have it, rugby is just the best thing ever; the fans, the lack of money tainting it, the brilliant scoring system, and the internationals. I am aware that I haven’t compared rugby to many things in the essay, so I’m going to do a quick fire sector that I call “Things that rugby is definitely better than but I couldn’t put into the main body of the text, and why”. So, why is rugby better than…
…my fiance? Rugby comes with a rule book and has an obvious way to win.
…my cat/dog/pet? Simple, rugby won’t worm their way into your heart only to die after 14 years.
…cheese? No one is allergic to rugby. It’s an equal opportunities sport.
…the internet? Rugby never develops connectivity issues.
…Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough? Rugby don’t melt.
…Nesting with a good, proper book? Since when has rugby let you with a bad ending or been written by Dan Brown?
…Doc Martins? Are you insane?
…Andy Goode? Fuck.