Ever since 1895, supporters of the rival rugby codes have never been able to see eye to eye. Sportingo's Donna Gee believes it's time they united in a common cause - and stopped behaving like a bunch of football hooligans.
As a lifelong rugby fan, it mystifies me why the vitriol between the game’s two codes seems to be festering as deeply as ever.
I could understand the frustration of the League brigade in the days when Union was amateur and inferior - yet the upper-class twits who ran the game in England used all their powers to keep the ‘pro’ game from blooming on a world stage.
But now that both games are fully professional and their respective stars more talented, athletic and committed than ever, I find it really sad that the two codes cannot find a common denominator which would enable ALL the world’s best players to compete against each other.
Last November, I wrote an article suggesting that League and Union officials should try to reach a compromise which would enable the top stars on the planet to pit their talents against their counterparts in the rival code. The Kangaroos of Rugby League against Union’s All Blacks in a compromise-rules series - what a mouthwatering thought! Or how about a series between the British Lions and Great Britain’s Rugby League Test team?
My ultimate dream is to see an amalgamation between the two codes - something I touched on in my November article. I hoped the idea would receive a positive reaction and indeed, it did spark what was initially a lively, intelligent debate (even if very few people gave the concept of a unified code any credence). However, that soon deteriorated into a war of words between supporters of the rival games - each seemingly as biased, bitter and bloody-minded as the next.
To date, that article has elicited nearly 300 comments - by far the biggest response to any Sportingo article on any sport. It remains the second-most read rugby article in Sportingo history - just behind the one that Rugby League aficionado James Vukmirovic wrote in response to it. And the battle of bitterness is still going on - seven months after the article was published.
The third most-read Sportingo rugby article, by Steve Bott, was published only last week. It was angled on Bradford Bulls wing Lesley Vainikolo's 'defection’ from RL to Gloucester RUFC - and the fact that League is perhaps not quite the game it used to be..
That was a licence for the League boys to lay into poor Steve with a vengeance, claiming the Tongan volcano (Vainikolo, I mean, not Bott!) was either past it or a permanent crock. ''Rugby League is 3,000 times the sport Union is,'' commented one. ''Steve, you talk out of your surname. Put the fishing rod away and open your eyes.''
I can assure the writer of that comment that Steve Bott is steeped in a Rugby League background - indeed, his brother-in-law (I won’t mention his name) played for Wigan in the 1985 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. Steve just happens to see problems ahead for the 13-a-side code. What treachery!
On the opposite side, we had a Union aficicianado commenting: ''Mr Bott, you must learn NEVER to say anything that would appear derogatory about League. It’s a culture, a way of life, a history steeped in victimhood. Otherwise you face the wrath of the 1895 Committee.''
That final comment was an allusion to the split that created Rugby League. It all blew up over wages for working-class players in the North of England who, unlike their ‘gentlemen’ counterparts in the south, had to take time off from their jobs to play at top level. More than a century after the event, the bitterness lingers at a time we should all be pulling together for the good of the game.
Coming from South Wales, I was brought up in an area where Rugby Union is played and watched by everyone, regardless of class. Sadly, that's not the way RL folk, in particular, see English rugby. To the working classes, it's all about public schools, Twickers and hooray Henrys - a totally unrealistic image these days, but one that HQ just can't seem to throw off.
My love for Union was strengthened by my involvement as a reporter - a privilege that enabled me to get to know personally (but not too personally!) Welsh legends like Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and Jonathan Davies.
Having declared my preference, I can also appreciate the skills and excitement of League - and I have to admit that it was definitely the superior code until some time after Union officially became a professional game. Indeed, it is still every bit as good in its own way - and miles better in terms of continuity.
I can sympathise with the Rugby League fraternity who find the competitive scrummaging and countless lineouts in Union eminently boring. To anyone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of set-pieces, it must be like watching grass grow.
I would, however, argue that Union was, and is, just as thrilling as League in its own way…and indeed, the excitement of the Five-Nations (now Six-Nations) Championship has to be experienced to be believed.
I have attended perhaps 100 Rugby Union internationals in my life - often arriving in the host city one or two days before the game to enjoy the big-match atmosphere and build-up to the game. I cannot remember one negative experience…that is, if you discount the time I lost my ticket at the turnstiles before an Ireland v Scotland Five-Nations game at Lansdowne Road . I did manage to see the match - but that’s another story!
The main thing is that the rivalry between Rugby Union fans is one borne of respect. Supporters of rival teams will drink and celebrate together before, during and after the game - and share mutual banter in the most positive way.
I remember spending the evening in the aftermath of the very same Ireland v Scotland game in a vast Chinese restaurant in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. I was on my feet for half the evening, joining dozens of rival fans in a ridiculous sequence of mutual toasts. The fact that few were sober enough to know the difference between a foo yung and a young fool was irrelevant - we were all great guys, no matter who we supported.
The point I am making is that if rival rugby fans of one code can bond together, why can’t we ALL try to pull in the same direction - League and Union. There’s a thing called mutual respect, which I know Union fans have in abundance - and which I am sure also applies to Rugby League rivalries.
So why do we have to descend to the level of football yobs, whose chief aim in life seems to goad fans of opposition teams for all they are worth? I mean, could you imagine a Man United fan saying anything complimentary about Liverpool, or an Arsenal supporter about Spurs?
So let’s end the League/Union bitterness, guys. It’s 2007, not 1895 - and we all know rugby is a better game than football. So let’s start pulling together - for the good of the game.