Leeds Grammar taste success in first season

Two junior games played 12,000 miles apart may hold a glimpse of the future.

At Manly’s Brookvale Oval, over 4,000 people – including notaries such as Peter Sterling, Benji Marshall and Phil Gould – witnessed the local St Augustine’s College beat Keebra Park High from the Gold Coast 16-12 in what was generally accepted to be an entertaining, breathless encounter.

The match was part-organised by Mark Ella and streamed by Fox Sports, the interest centring around St Augustine’s being from a rugby union background with Keebra a league outfit. It was an unsanctioned ‘hybrid’ contest with, 13 a side; a 60 second time limit on attack in the opposition half under predominantly union rules – including rucks, mauls and line outs – or the ball was turned over; contested scrums and a play the ball if sides were in their own half. Irrespective of its conceptual merits, the elements chosen are roughly those that would maintain some integrity for both sports with a key element being the number of players.

It was a tacit acknowledgement that in the modern professional era, with fitness levels so high, 13 is the magic number with two spoiling players from the scrum ditched. That determined the space available and, thereby, put the focus on moving rather than kicking the ball, on spectacle as opposed to technicality. It was as unpredictable as it was exciting, as confusing as its outcome was uncertain until the last. Ella maintained that its rationale was to produce an alternative form of ‘rugby’ rather than a replacement for either but, more likely, it was the first concerted shot across the bows of creating something visually attractive that would interest sponsors and broadcasters and might attract a crowd from both oval ball spheres. Fanciful novelty, probably, it raised more questions than answers but if, say, rugby union moved to summer it could be seen as a ‘soccer equivalent’ in a global market. As all sports know, the piper playing the anthem rather than the tune these days is not the governing body but the funding media conglomerate.

Around the same time here and with a much lesser spotlight the under 14s, ostensibly union, boys from the Grammar School at Leeds won the Leeds Schools Rugby League Cup in fine style beating Priesthorpe – alma mater of luminaries such as Jamie Jones Buchanan and Champion Schools national finalists – 32-24 at Headingley Carnegie Stadium. It was only their eighth full 13-a-side game and they came from behind late on to win it, drawing admiration and turning heads, not least because of the way they played.

With a superb wide pass from acting half back, they sought to spread the ball to fast wingers, dispelling an assumption that youngsters playing union have a lesser skills base. If their indication is anything to go by, young rugby players just want to have the ball in the hands, the rest comes naturally. That an independent school should make such impressive, quick strides on and off the field may open another vitally important market for league, not only for players but potential spectators, future sponsors and administrators. It could be the start of an epiphany as significant as that seen in the student ranks and forces.

What the two events show is that there is some common ground and the dovetailing could be furthered in a shortened form of the game – either 7s which has a reputation and now an Olympic platform or, better in terms of the skills required, 9s which is now on the cusp of Commonwealth recognition. 

Professionally, they have made no secret of envying our licencing system and quotas. We can examine our deficiencies, a lack of international profile and an element of predictability on the sixth tackle. What it also proves is that our best advert is to find more ways for youngsters to see and play the game at a formative age, to put it in front of them and have the confidence in our product for it to sell itself. The Grammar school lads have not been coerced.