You say rugby, we say rugby league: Does it really matter?

10 April 2019 - Written by Stuart McLennan

Following the announcement of Valentine Holmes signing a practice squad contract with NFL club the New York Jets there has been plenty of angst in Australia on social media about the way the American sporting press is referring to the former Cronulla Sharks winger/fullback as a “rugby” player.

In the Australian NRL dominated states the term ‘rugby’ refers to the rugby union code.

While it’s common in New South Wales and Queensland there are many Australians in the AFL states that still use the general term of ‘rugby’ to introduce the topic whether it be league or union.

In the rugby league heartlands of northern England, where the game was invented, fans and media will often say rugby player when referring to one of their own Super League participants. So much so that sometimes I have to double check to ascertain which code they are discussing. The thinking is that rugby league is as much entitled to the ‘rugby’ term as union is.

Many Australian fans have been lambasting the media in New York for being ignorant, lazy and not doing the required research as journalists.

The anger and hostility shows that we still have a small sport syndrome on the world stage. It’s almost as though we want rugby league to be a secret game and if you don’t understand the terminology or the jargon you don’t belong.

The fact that Holmes and the Cronulla Sharks got a mention in a New York Jets media release is special. I am sure it can be used to advantage by the NYC rugby league club if they are successful in gaining entry to the RFL League One competition.

If a keen NFL fan looks up the Jets recruit from Australia they will most likely stumble on some thrilling club and State of Origin highlights. Maybe rugby league will gain a new advocate. Who knows.

The Toronto Wolfpack supporter base will regularly talk about both codes on their fan forums free from the code war history that prevails in Australia and England.

Across Europe, in countries that are dominated by football and basketball, ‘rugby’ is the capture all terminology. Most people don’t understand the difference and I am not sure that matters.

Here in Greece I could go around correcting people constantly or appreciate the fact that people are interested in a sport outside of football or basketball. I take the second option.

On a cab ride to training in Athens, drivers will often strike up a conversation and ask why I am going to a particular sports field. After my reply that I coach a rugby league team they may say something like “aah a rugby coach! I like the All Blacks. Jonah Lomu is my favourite player.” (True story).

I could reply by telling him he has the wrong code and that Jonah Lomu last played rugby in 2007 and has sadly passed away but would that encourage him to take any further interest in rugby league?

As someone said to me on Twitter suggesting they check out the Australian rugby league team, the Kangaroos, or a highlights reel of Benji Marshall on YouTube might be a better response. I know which one I would prefer in that situation.

Rugby league is expanding across the globe. There have been reports of strong growth and development across the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe recently.

The Balkan Super League competition launched its third season last weekend.

If we want to encourage more people to our game we need to be leaders and promote a welcoming environment where media and fans in new rugby league countries are appreciated and not belittled because they didn’t grow up with the game.

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