Hybrid rugby union-league experiment

GAME OF TWO HALVES: schoolboy players take to the air at Brookvale Oval last night in an experimental mix of league and union.
GAME OF TWO HALVES: schoolboy players take to the air at Brookvale Oval last night in an experimental mix of league and union.

Those who wandered into Sydney's Brookvale Oval last night must have wondered if they had entered the Twilight Zone. One minute there were two teams playing rugby league; the next it was rugby union.

But no, it wasn't a prank or a trick of the light. It was instead the historic first Hybrid Code match, with schoolboy sides from St Augustine's College, Brookvale, and Keebra Park State High on the Gold Coast playing under a new set of laws that are aimed at using the best elements of each game.

In front of a crowd of over 4000, which included a host of league and union identities, including Tim Sheens, Matthew Johns, Phil Blake, David Wilson and Scott Gourley, the 13-a-side teams were one minute playing the ball league-style, the next they were involved in a scrum that actually meant something, and then later they were rucking and mauling away at anything in their path.

The pace was frenetic. The outcome unpredictable. And there weren't the usual interruptions that particularly infuriate union followers and make the code the butt of numerous jokes by leaguies.

Although the codes have been bickering brothers since the 1908 split, for some time entrepreneurs have been eager to get the two together and produce something that would appeal to both spectator groups.

At first the split personality of last night's hybrid game made it bewildering to follow, but gradually it sunk in. It all depends on what half of the field the game is being played in. If the attacking team is in its own half, the teams play to rugby league laws, but as soon as play crosses the halfway line, the rugby union laws take over. The spectator, like the player, just has to keep thinking.

The hybrid also involves interesting innovations such as a basket-ball-style shot clock, where teams have 60 seconds to do something with the ball or turn it over. This helps avoid the many dead spots that mar rugby union.

One of the game's organisers was former Wallabies skipper Mark Ella, who admitted being initially apprehensive about a league and union mix but now believes it can successfully showcase the best attributes of both codes. Ella likes how the game eliminates the predictability of the sixth tackle in league, which provides an abundance of up-and-unders near the opposition try line, and curbs the bane of union - defensive kicking.

The scrums have also lost part of their power through the elimination of the two breakaways, making it a six-on-six forward battle. Also, with two fewer players on the field there is more space to attack from a ruck or maul.

Ella argues the hybrid game is not aimed at replacing the codes but becoming an alternative.

The aim is to one day use it to bring Wallabies and Kangaroos together in a cross-code spectacular, which organisers believe would fill ANZ Stadium.

But that bold move would depend on the support of the Australian Rugby Union and the NRL - and the response so far has hardly been in the back-slapping category.

But for those who braved the cold Brookvale Oval terraces last night, the hybrid game certainly showed promise. For the record, St Augustine's won 16-12.

THE EXPERIMENT - HOW IT WORKED

- 13 players a side.

- A basketball-like 'shot clock' is used. Instead of a set number of tackles or unlimited possession, each team has 60 seconds with the ball to attack. Ruck and mauls are also part of the shot clock and so teams must either score or kick in that minute or the ball is turned over.

- Teams 'play the ball' like rugby league when attacking from their own half, and as soon as the team in possession crosses the halfway mark, they play rugby union - including rucks and mauls.

- Two refs - one league, one union.

- Tries worth four points. Conversions and penalty goals two points. Field goals one point.

- Competitive scrums involving six players - no flankers. Rugby union laws apply at scrum time.

Sydney Morning Herald