I hadn't watched any Rugby League since the days it was on telly every Saturday, when for me it was a puzzling substitute for my beloved Union (played, very badly but with enthusiasm, until just after Uni). Yesterday I watched the TV highlights of the two Super League semi-finals, Wigan Warriors versus Leeds Rhinos, and Warrington Wolves against Huddersfield Giants. I was mesmerised.
What I remembered from those teenage telly weekends was a downmarket sense of grim, slow physicality: then you had the puzzling breakdowns after every tackle, the lack of lineouts, that silly wee joke scrummages. But this? This was lean, mean, brutal yet open and very, very fast. The handling skills were on a different level from any recent RU international I've seen.
Because modern RU is a frustrating watch, even at the top level. The set scrum is now a hopeless, tedious farrago of bulk and fakery. The referee is the most important player. It's no longer a 'loose maul', it's a static one. Kick, catch, hold, maul, kick, lineout (another piece of ludicrous tedium and gigantism: and in my day lifting was rightly illegal)... kick,maul, run, breakdown, maul...Interesting too that the bulk of RU players is so vast now, even among the backs. There is so much sheer...lumbering.
The first thing that struck me about League yesterday was how thin everyone was. And then I realised it was all about fitness, fluidity and breathtaking speed. Fewer rules, and fewer daft ones. No allowances for the occasional one-role giant or muscled blob. No passengers.
Also: I have no idea of comparative injury levels in top class Union and League, but I'm betting that at the very least the kind of injuries sustained in League matches are nothing like as serious when it comes to necks and spines. Scrums and mauls look like passports to intensive care nowadays, and about as entertaining as a week in traction.
(UPDATE: According to a study in New South Wales, Rugby Union is more than 400 per cent more likely to cause serious spinal injury than Rugby League - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16800205 )
League is and always has been professional, of course, with £700,000 transfer fees and an evident sheen of cash in stadia and presentation. But Union is pro too now in all but the brandy-soaked delusions of the class-ridden top administration. And if it is to have a future in TV it has to take even more lessons from League. RU has already tried to appropriate the family-friendliness, the cartoon names, aspects of the showbiz. But the time has come to go further. Like perhaps, I don't know...13 men per side, slashing numbers in the scrum, abandoning lineouts and loose mauls?
You never know. It could just work...