Why rugby league is harder, better, faster and stronger than rugby union

As England prepare to compete in the Rugby League Four Nations, former captain Jamie Peacock reveals why league is more skilful than rugby union

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England head to the southern hemisphere this weekend for the Rugby League Four Nations, playing rivals New Zealand, Australia and Samoa, three of the best sides in the world.

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Jamie Peacock is one of the greats of the English game, captaining his country for seven years. He’s now following England as a BBC pundit. Here he gives his thoughts on why rugby league is the best form of rugby in the world (even though its best players are jumping ship to play rugby union), and confronts the vicious punch that almost destroyed the game’s growing reputation.

England has crucial matches in both rugby union and rugby league this Autumn. Why should we tune in to your sport over rugby union?

Anyone who saw the Rugby League World Cup in England last year knows what a compelling game international rugby league can be. Rugby league is faster than rugby union, more skilful, and every player out there is an incredible athlete. It’s no coincidence union always tries to poach the best league players; they are the best rugby players in the world.

Apart from the number of players, what is the main difference between union and league?

The key difference is the ball is in play far more in rugby league than it is in union. There are fewer set pieces and fewer rules, all of which allows for a free-flowing, frenetic game.

Why do league players want to convert to rugby union then?

It is a worry. Perhaps the two best players in world rugby league, England’s Sam Burgess and New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, are leaving for union. It’s due to the size of the international game. Rugby union has developed its international competition to make it the pinnacle of the sport. Rugby league is too short-sighted, with no long-term plan. Clearly, the best players in the world want to prove themselves on the biggest stage. We are way behind union in that respect.

What do league players offer England’s rugby union side?

Take Sam Burgess, the best rugby league player in the world, in my opinion. He’s got an astonishing ability to break the line and offload. There aren’t many true line-breakers in rugby union, which is why they look to our players.

England’s coaches have done their homework on Sam. The harder the competition gets, the better he plays. Few players can match him for guts: in the Australian National Rugby League Grand Final this month, he played 80 minutes with a fractured cheekbone and was named man of the match.

Rugby league recently made headlines for the wrong reasons, when Wigan forward Ben Flower punched a player as he lay on the ground. Does league have a violence problem?

Incidents like that are absolutely not typical of the game. Why do you think such a big fuss was made out of it? The second punch was appalling, and Ben Flower knows it. He is sorry not just for his opponent Lance Hohaia, but for the game itself. He’s been given a six-month ban. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but you show me another incident that’s as bad as that. There isn’t one. This is not the norm in our game.

Since Sir Clive Woodward, modern rugby union preparation has become a science. Can league match that?

England coach Steve McNamara has created a high-performance environment to rival any sport in the world. That squad will want for nothing scientifically or tactically. And Mark Bitcon, who is the head of strength and conditioning for England, brings real knowledge to the setup. From high altitude training to nutrition, marginal gains are as much a part of modern rugby league as any other sport. 

Who are England’s standout players for this year’s tournament?

Sam Tomkins is developing into a real leader within the group, he will be key to how they play. Perhaps even more important, however, is James Graham. Now that Sam Burgess is gone, he can stake his claim as the best forward in rugby league.

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England have a serious chance of reaching the Four Nations final this year, and if they make it there’s always a chance of an upset away from home. Union or league, there’s nothing better watching an English side get one over the Southern hemisphere.