Is rugby better than football?

Dan Carter

Dan Carter: photo by Quintin Smith

Last week I found myself in some sort of broad agreement with David Beckham. A rather discombobulating experience it was too but nevertheless I must admit to the truth of it.

In fact it’s been an altogether discombobulating sort of a week for me regarding former Manchester United players as I’ve caught myself developing a certain respect for Gary Neville and wishing him somewhat well in his endeavours at Valencia.

This is of course a strange sensation because the first rule of being a Liverpool fan is that you hate Gary Neville. I presume myself to still be a Liverpool fan, in fact a reinvigorated one under Mr. Klopp, but it is a peculiar world I appear to have entered. Anyway, back to my bemusement with Beckham …

The issue on which we agree (at least partially) is rugby. It was reported recently that Beckham expressed a preference for going to rugby games over football matches as there is “no nastiness” between fans at the former.

Beckham’s comments came only a month or so after I’d heard something very similar from my brother. It was the day that we took my son to his first ever football match (the subject of my previous post) and it was certainly one to put you off football for life; a rather unfortunate start then for Toma. My brother described it as the worst game he’d ever seen and he’s a man who has seen a lot of football.

After the match finished we hurried back to my Dad’s place in order to watch Scotland v Australia in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup.  Arriving just in time to open a beer as the national anthems were being sung, my brother said: “Here we go. I think I actually prefer rugby to football these days.”

I confidently predicted that there would be little to enjoy as a Scotland fan over the course of the next 80 minutes. He, being somehow devoid of the pessimism that afflicts most Scottish supporters (of any sport), predicted that we would win.

He was very nearly right. It was a riveting game of rugby that was a million times more entertaining than the dire encounter we’d witnessed at Tannadice earlier in the day. Scotland suffered a familiar – and particularly acute even by our standards – brave defeat courtesy of a dubious late penalty.

The referee, seemingly having realised that he had erred, sprinted to the dressing room immediately upon blowing the final whistle, leaving behind a rather relieved looking Australian side and a thoroughly disconsolate Scottish one.

It was interesting that the ref had felt the need to flee. Had such a situation arisen on a football pitch then his actions would have made perfect sense. On a rugby pitch, less so.

The reason for that is partly why I find myself asking the question, is rugby better than football? On the issue of respect for referees, it undoubtedly is. Would the Scottish players have confronted the referee at the end of the game if he hadn’t exited quicker than Usain Bolt in search of Chicken McNuggets? Possibly, but not aggressively, and they would still have shaken his hand.

At a football match, the ref could expect to find himself surrounded, jostled, sworn at, and generally treated with the sort of respect that Jeremy Kyle specialises in with the guests on his show.

Watch a football match this weekend and see how long it takes for the referee to be abused. And by abused I mean a level of intimidation that would probably warrant an arrest if it occurred on the street. My guess is it will happen before half time. You’re very unlikely to see such behaviour if you’re watching a rugby match.

The same is true off the field as Beckham correctly pointed out. Rugby’s lack of nastiness between rival sets of fans means that they don’t have to be segregated. Alcohol can be sold at the stadiums with little concern that it will fuel violence.

And don’t mistake a lack of nastiness for a lack of atmosphere. Rugby crowds are every bit as partisan and noisy as football ones, they just don’t feel the urge to throw coins at each other for example. They attend matches with some sort of strange notion of enjoying the game rather than revelling in a confected hatred of the opposition support.

Beckham is surely right that a rugby match is generally a better environment to take kids into than a football match. That’s not to say I haven’t seen a few idiots in attendance at rugby games, but they are certainly fewer and further between than those I’ve encountered at the football.

It’s always a remarkable sight to see grown men, beer bellies straining against their replica ‘performance’ tops, shouting obscenities at one of their own players to suggest that said player may have been a little over-enthusiastic in the pie shop and consequently a touch short of pace. There’s usually a profusion of pie being ejected from their own mouths as this tirade proceeds in between bites.

Respect in rugby also applies between players on the field. This is most evident in the lack of the biggest scourge of modern football – diving. Rugby players simply don’t do it, they don’t feign injury, they don’t go in for that sort of gamesmanship. They are, in short (though often very tall), real men.

They would be thoroughly embarrassed to roll around like Robben, swoon like Suarez, or fall like Fabregas. Rugby players apparently retain a sense of shame. It’s something that’s almost entirely absent in football these days. Watch a football match this weekend and you will almost certainly witness at least one blatant dive.

Given all of this, you’d be forgiven for wondering why I bother with football at all. Rugby is a great game and I’m a big fan for the reasons described above and many more. It’s probably 50/50 as to whether the next sporting event I take Toma to is rugby or football.

But I still prefer football. It remains my first and true sporting love. I once took part in a debate at school. The proposition was ‘football requires more skill than rugby.’ I, as captain of the school football team, was arguing in favour of the motion. The captain of the rugby team (a somewhat sturdier schoolboy than I) was my opponent.

I think I won although that may have been largely the result of football being more popular at my school than rugby rather than any particular oratorical brilliance on my part. I remember arguing that it was much easier and more natural for us to use our hands than our feet. We use our hands for writing and for eating (mind you, anyone who’s been in the general vicinity of my attempts to use chopsticks will realise that manipulating things with our hands can still go badly wrong).

I should confess at this point that I’ve never played much rugby, a matter of some regret in all honesty, but it’s always been a healthy sense of self-preservation that has prevented me. I therefore don’t have a full appreciation of the skill that the game involves.

The scrum for instance remains entirely mysterious to me: I’m not sure who thought the best way to restart a game following certain infringements was to require the insertion of heads between rows of buttocks and then have the respective front rows grasp each other as though about to commence a sumo contest before invariably collapsing on top of each other and having to do it all over again.

Football is a simpler game and that is the primary reason for its universal appeal. Anywhere I’ve travelled in the world I’ve seen kids kicking (not throwing) a ball around. In dark alleys in Mumbai, on beaches in Bali, at the edge of the Malaysian jungle, I’ve seen makeshift goalposts and games in progress. It is the global game and anyone can play.

Ultimately, today, I think of rugby v football as a tale of two number 10s. I enjoyed the Rugby World Cup and marvelled at some of the play, especially by the All Blacks. Dan Carter, the New Zealand 10, was the star of the tournament and cemented his position as one of the greatest players (some have argued the case that he’s the greatest) of all time.

Football has its own number 10 who is indisputably the greatest of the current era and quite probably the greatest of all time: Lionel Messi. To watch Carter and Messi is to watch two incredible sportsmen extending the boundaries of their sport. They are both marvels, professionals, and remarkably humble given their talent.

Carter is stronger, faster. Both are immensely quick witted and stunningly intelligent in the way that they play. Both can leave you shaking your head in wonder. But Messi produces that reaction more often and the disbelief is of a different magnitude.

Despite not having played much rugby I could just about conceive of doing what Carter does if I had hours and hours and hours of practice. I have spent hours playing football yet still Messi’s ability remains something that seems to belong to a different realm altogether.

One of Carter’s tackles would probably break my jaw; Messi makes my jaw drop, almost every time he takes to the pitch.

Rugby is a glorious, riotous, and heroic game. But you can’t watch Messi and tell me that football isn’t better.

Leo Messi

Leo Messi: photo by Marc Puig i Perez