Take England, New Zealand and Australia, and no matter whether it’s rugby union or league that they are playing at an international level, they’ll all like as not be prominent contenders to win tournaments. Yet that cross-codes strength in depth just doesn’t prevail in Ireland and its provinces like Ulster.
If you want evidence of this, then look no further than the betting on the two sports’ upcoming World Cups. Whether you’re into league or union, the familiar nations are up there.
Australia, stronger in league than union at this juncture, are odds-on favourites for another Rugby League World Cup triumph in 2021 and a bigger price as they rebuild their union side in time for 2023. New Zealand and England, meanwhile, are right up there as challengers in either code.
Not so with Ireland. The disparity is huge. They are 10/1 to win the 2023 Rugby Union World Cup, yet the latest rugby league odds have them down as major outsiders at 250/1 to win the 13-a-side global crown.
They are 25 times the price in one code compared to the other. They draw their rugby league international roster, known as the Wolfhounds, mainly from Super League and lower division clubs in England, plus the occasional All-Ireland Rugby League Championship player.
This is in stark contrast to the rugby union scene and the PRO 14 competition where the four Irish provinces all test themselves regularly against the best from fellow Celtic nations Scotland and Wales. There are even longer distance trips to Italy and South Africa as part of this league in union.
It is simply designed better rather than the provincial conferences of the All-Ireland Rugby League Championship. Ulster has four teams representing it in rugby league, spreading quality far thinner than the single union province competing in effect on an international basis most of the time.
Ireland’s union side has drawn plenty of its forward pack from Ulstermen of late. Recently retired hooker Rory Best was an icon for both province and country, helping the national team to four Six Nations Grand Slams.
The tradition of Ulster players continues to this very day through the likes of Rob Herring, who has replaced Best in the national setup, prop Jack McGrath and lock Iain Henderson. New Ireland coach Andy Farrell has also given a nod to the future by including as yet uncapped pair Tom O’Toole and Billy Burns.
Jacob Stockdale, meanwhile, is one of the key backs for Ireland but it was his exploits on the wing at Ulster that helped him rise to prominence in the first place. There is no rugby league equivalent for Wolfhounds head coach Stuart Littler to work with.
For a nation and region that is rugby mad, how can it be that the cupboard is so bare in one code compared to the other? Yet Ireland’s league side gave a good account of themselves at the last Rugby League World Cup and have qualified for the next despite a far shallower pool to choose from.
Whatever the Wolfhounds achieve in rugby league, it will always be regarded as second best to the exploits of Ireland’s union side that has illuminated the Emerald Isle throughout the 21st century.