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Paul Cooke: MOM!
Paul Cooke: MOM!

The Ball Is Round

By: Nathan Baxter
Date: 30/06/2007

FOLLOWING close behind the fact that Grimsby is not in Yorkshire, another widespread misapprehension must be that natives of Grimsby are keen followers of Rugby League. Rugby League might be big in Hull, but in Grimsby I should think it's about as popular as professional Badminton.

Home > Features > 2007 Features > The Ball Is Round

However in my quest to sample summer sport what will probably be my final trip to a sporting occasion before Town v Notts County saw me travel to the Stoop in Twickenham to watch Harlequins RL v Hull KR.

Let me say first and foremost I knew very little about Rugby League before arriving at the Stoop. I had always regarded it as a minor sport played in small towns with non-league football sides, something that used to be on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon, memories of Eddie Waring and his "up n unders". I knew it had moved to being a summer sport in recent years, but proudly took this to be a sign on its innate inferiority to the Beautiful Game of football. In short it was to be totally disregarded, but this summer I had agreed to banish all my preconceptions so here I was! I had no idea how many people would be there, whether there would be crowd segregation, or what the rules of the game were (beyond the bare basics).

The answer when I arrived in the ground was it was roughly comparable to football at the level we are used to. But for the goal posts and the funny shaped balls I'd have thought it was a football game. Around 3500 people assembled in the ground, around 300 Hull fans were gathered in a sort of unofficial away end, although a few were dotted amongst the home supporters. They were wearing red and white replica shirts with Lloyds TSB as their shirt sponsor and they had squad numbers too. "Who Are You?" they chanted at in our direction. It was not a question I was able to answer.

Clearly I am not alone in my lack of understanding of Rugby League. On page 18 of the programme was a 2 page spread entitled "Beginners Guide to Rugby League Rules". I devoured every word while the cheerleaders strutted their stuff in the pre-match entertainment. Perhaps the Mariners could introduce a guide to the rules of football in their programme, there's bound to be an American tourist or two somewhere in the Findus.

There were some other familiar elements as well. Crap overpriced burgers (as opposed to the gourmet overpriced burgers at Lords) made a welcome return to my Saturday afternoon, proper chants (the referee's an unspeakable, shall we sign a song for you, Harlequins to the tune of Mariners [how dare they!]), and committed fans (none of the polite applause for the opposition here) were all on show.

The only problem was the game itself. It got off to a great start with four tries in the first 20 minutes and I was starting to enjoy it. But gradually the referee began to get more involved and the match stopped flowing from end to end. Although I had assimilated some of the "Beginners Guide to Rugby League Rules", I wasn't sure why the referee had blown half the time and what was going to happen next in the game when he did. People around me were (in the usual manner) gesticulating wildly in the general direction of the referee and then denouncing his failure to give some decision in their team's favour. Most of the time I wasn't sure what they were appealing for: a forward pass perhaps, holding down (there was a section about that in the programme) maybe, or some infringement not covered in the basic guide I had read. When they cheered sometimes it was a penalty, sometimes a scrum, and sometimes it was something altogether beyond my comprehension.

Then there were the substitutions. A bewildering number of changes were made by both teams, with (I think) players who had already come off going on again! All this happened without a break in play, even the physios seemed to come on the pitch while play was going on. It was like musical chairs. I cannot tell you who played, scored a try or anything, the only player who really stood out was Hull KR's Paul Cooke who looked much better than the rest of his team. But then I was supporting Harlequins today.

All in all I felt like my missus must do when I bring her along to the footie. No matter how often I explain the difference between a goal kick and a corner, and what offside's all about, it never seems to sink in. But she knows what a goal is and the basic objectives of the game. I was starting at her level. It was a terrifying thought.

Harlequins won fairly convincingly in the end (32-18), although Hull KR were not far behind them for most of the game. The Hull fans looked suitably devastated after the game, I even felt a bit sorry for some of them as the result left them in relegation trouble and it's a feeling I know only too well. But then I remembered that they were Yorkies and I was meant to hate them.

All in all I feel I could get to like Rugby League but it might take me a year of regularly attending games to start to appreciate it. It has potential as it's exciting at times and the supporters are true fans not people going for a day out (watching football is normally torture, it is rarely enjoyable!) but as nobody I know is even slightly interested in it I cannot see me making the effort to follow it. Of all the sports I have been to this summer only cricket really has the potential to fill the vacuum between May and August when a vital part of life is taken away from us.

Verdict: 6/10

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