TORONTO â€” Brian Noble calls rugby league “the NFL with MMA.”
“I think it’s the best game in the world,” said Noble, a former Great Britain player and coach who now serves as the Toronto Wolfpack’s director of rugby.
The 13-man rugby code is both brutal and beautiful. It’s a hard game for hard men.
“You’ll see some tremendous skill from our players, tremendous bravery,” said Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley, a former England hooker.
“I once got told that soccer players spend the whole game pretending to be injured and rugby players spend the whole game pretending they’re not injured.”
Rugby union, the 15-man code, is better known and has a bigger presence around the globe.
Australia, England and New Zealand are the powerhouses in rugby league, with a huge gap between them and anyone else. England’s Super League and the Southern Hemisphere’s NRL (National Rugby League) are the top circuits.
A rugby league game is played over two 40-minute halves.
Each team has 13 men on the field â€” six forwards and seven backs â€” with four replacements on the bench. Teams can use a maximum of 10 interchanges during the game, with players subbed to the bench allowed to go back.
In moving the ball down the field on offence, teams can’t pass the ball forward. Attacking teams are allowed six so-called “play the balls” â€” think downs â€” to go the length of the field.
Play stops when a player is tackled. It restarts with the tackled player playing the ball backwards with his foot to a teammate behind him who starts a new attack with the team on defence 10 metres back from the ball.
The ball is turned over after six tackles, so attacking teams usually kick after five tackles in a bid to pin the other team deep in its half.
A try is worth four points and occurs when a player crosses the goal-line and touches the ball down. A conversion, taken in line from where the ball was touched down, is worth another two.
A penalty kick is worth two points with a drop goal worth one.
Ball-carriers in rugby league are often swallowed up by a gang of tacklers, who looks to slow the next play-the-ball so their defence can be set. But slow the play down too much and the tacklers will be penalized.
The ball cannot be stripped in a gang tackle. A solo tackler can dislodge the ball however.
The team awarded a penalty will kick to touch and start a new set of six from where the ball goes out.
Scrums are awarded when a player knocks the ball forward or makes a forward pass. Unlike the 15-man rugby union game, a rugby league scrum features six players on each side and little pushing. It is more a method to restart the game, including when the ball goes into touch.
Giant forwards are used as battering rams, to soften up the defence â€” often targeting a smaller back. Offloading the ball to a teammate before a tackle is finalized allows the attack to keep going.
The two halfbacks often direct play, quarterbacking the offence with passes or kicks.
Wingers can be like Exocet missiles, launching themselves at the goal-line while defenders strive to knock them out of play.
While there are big collisions, there is also plenty of strategy. Rugby league teams use dummy runners in sophisticated set plays to confuse the defence.
Rugby union has mined rugby league extensively on both its defensive strategies and attacking plays.
Rugby league requires “bravery and somewhat psychotic behaviour,” says Rowley.
“They’re players with aggressive and nasty nature but they’re gentleman as well.”
Noble says the best way to see the game is from the stands.
“I think Torontonians will love the game,” he said. “So come and see it and experience the atmosphere, and experience the collisions.
“Because there’s no padding with these blokes. They just going to get stuck into each and throw each other around the field like men. You’re going to see blistering speed and a quality of passing skills that we hope are of the highest order.”
The Wolfpack, who have already played eight competitive games in Britain, host Oxford RLFC in their home opener Saturday.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press