If you think that the standard of British rugby league is one of the best around, you would be right. Yet the very greatest country for the sport is just a little further from home. Australian rugby league, displayed most brilliantly via the NRL, remains of the very finest quality and the envy of the rest of the world.
The recent instalment of the annual World Club Challenge was testimony to that. In the revamped 2015 version, including three clubs from each of the Super League and the Southern Hemisphere Rugby League, Australian sides completed a clean sweep of the competition, triumphing in all three games despite their domestic seasons having yet to have started. After St George Illawarra overcame Warrington Wolves and Brisbane Broncos fought past Wigan Warriors following a golden-point extra-time penalty, NRL Champions South Sydney Rabbitohs destroyed this year’s Super League Champions St Helens with a record margin 39-0 win. In the last five years only Leeds Rhinos of the Super League have managed to defeat one of their Australian counterparts. The three contests showed again that right now there is no better place to play the game than in Australia – and why rugby league enthusiasts should head there for a Sport Lived gap year in Brisbane.
So what characteristics define the game down-under? Why is the standard there so high and difficult to play against? And why is it therefore so beneficial for young players to further their respective games in the country?
Rugby League is without doubt one of the most physically taxing and high intensity sports. Yet Australian rugby league takes it to another level. Physicality, as well as quality, defines the Australian way of playing, from the intensity of their training sessions to the big collisions and astonishingly athletic passages of play during matches. The speed and power in which the likes of South Sydney, a club currently standing as the best on the planet, approach a match from start to finish can simply blow opponents away. It’s why Warrington and Wigan, despite matching their opponents for so long, still couldn’t find that little bit extra to get over the line. This attitude seeps down into all levels, helping those at lower Australian clubs to enhance their power, durability and fitness. Warrington Coach Tony Smith revealed the benefits for his own side, “It was a good experience for us to come up against an Australian team and learn about how you've got to cope with the physicality...it's been a great learning curve for us and we'll take plenty from it." You can imagine the physical benefits you will gain from spending a full season of six months there with Sport Lived.
We all know about the ferocious hits that can be found at top-level rugby league. However, Australian clubs do not just tackle hard but work as impressive, drilled defensive units that are so difficult to find a way past. For all of the attacking flair that understandably first springs to mind, the committed defences these sides play with are equally as notable and important. A rush defence working in perfect unison, closing down spaces and acting as an almost impenetrable wall of resistance. Training and playing with an Australian club and comprehending the tactics of the defensive side of the game is extremely beneficial to anyone heading to bring on their games. You could even be doing it with teams that play just one tier below the NRL.
The standard played in the NRL is often compared to that of test match rugby league. A major reason for this is the tremendous way in which their teams attack and move the ball in the unrelenting hunt for tries. In a blink of an eye a quick switch, an intelligent dummy or a superb running line can pierce an opponent’s defence. The sleight of hand and pace in which teams’ transition from defence to attack is breathtaking. They are clinical. Your handling, passing, running lines and understanding of different attacking moves will all augment, be it through a mini or full gap year programme. Shaun Wane, the coach of Wigan Warriors, heaped praise on the manner in which NRL sides play and attack and the good it will have done for his side. Immersing yourself in Australia’s attacking approach week in, week out is a fantastic opportunity.
If you want any additional evidence for why you should go there to increase your ability and knowledge of the game, the profile of rugby league in Australia should seal the deal. The game has an enormously elevated profile there – not just through the passion and love for the sport found in every fan and player but the technical and physical advantages that are on offer for foreign imports. Many are now going there to push themselves and take in the Australian rugby league experience. Take Sam Burgess as an example. He spent four successful years with South Sydney and is without doubt a finer player for it, despite his move over to the Union format. Indeed six of the England squad for last year’s Four Nations tournament currently ply their trade in the NRL.
Sport is an unpredictable undertaking with few certainties. One that does exist right now is that Australia is the best place to be playing rugby league. Through a gap programme with Sport Lived you can do just that. What are you waiting for?
“This is going to be a great education for my players, especially the young ones” (St Helens head coach Keiron Cunningham)