In the evolution of sport, one stands out as the most brutally exciting game devised by humankind: rugby league football. At a time when many men lament the metrosexualisation of society, it is a refreshingly physical code. As the legendary coach and commentator Roy Masters once said, ballroom dancing is a contact sport, rugby league is a collision sport.

It started in Australia in 1908 as a breakaway from the toffee-nosed, tweed-coated amateur code of rugby union. Like most aspects of the industrial society, this was a class-laden event. A group of tough-minded, hard-bodied working-class men in Sydney resented the elitist and parsimonious values of the rugby union establishment. They saw a code flush with money, yet too mean to pay them travelling expenses or compensation for time lost at work on match days. So they created their own professional league.

History has recorded the class tensions at play. Herbert Moran, captain of the Australian Wallabies in 1908-09, wrote of how, after the split, rugby union ‘became cleaner because we lost some of the rougher elements’. In a paper reviewing the period, the academic Murray Smith has argued, ‘the development of rugby league as a rival code must be understood as the failure of the upper-middle class in Sydney to negotiate with lower-middle class and working men who wished to share their game.’

In the century since its formation, rugby league has not only maintained its working-class fan base, but developed new constituencies to become the pre-eminent winter sporting code in New South Wales and Queensland. Its appeal is fascinating. With the rise of labour-saving technologies, the working class in Australia has shrunk. Yet league remains popular, pointing to its capacity to re-invent itself and keep pace with social and economic change.

Two factors have been fundamental to its success. The first is rule changes. When league broke away from rugby union it adopted rules that promoted ball movement and limited the amount of kicking. The number of players per team was reduced from 15 to 13 and the dreary spectacle of a rugby ruck was replaced with a much faster play-the-ball. These changes made the game fan-friendly, inviting the possibility of skilful chain passing and open field running. The ruggedness of man-on-man tackling was matched by the excitement of plays that swept from one end of the field to the other.

Whenever rugby league was threatened by monotony, such as when the mighty St George Dragons won 11 consecutive premierships in the Sydney competition between 1956 and 1966, its administrators found ways of enlivening the code. The Dragons had a roster of champion players but also a determination to exploit the unlimited tackle rule, using their big forwards to bash other teams into submission through lengthy periods of ball retention. Two new rules restored the free-flowing purpose of the game. The number of tackles was restricted to four and then six, while the zero-metre defensive line was extended to five and then 10 metres, giving creative players greater space in the ruck area.

Increasingly, society demands a faster pace and greater intensity in its recreational activities. Traditional sports are now competing against computer-generated games and other electronic novelties in attracting the attention of young people. The globalisation of sporting coverage has also increased the level of competition for domestic codes. Rugby league’s achievement has been to stay alive in this tough environment. While attempts to expand the code into AFL-obsessed Melbourne and outlying centres such as Perth and Adelaide have not been successful, it remains strong in its states of origin.

In the battle of the rugby codes, league is supreme. Even though union has now turned professional, its standards have fallen away. Ironically, it resembles the way in which league was played in the 1950s: a pointless series of rucks from which the forwards barge the ball forward and the backs kick it away. Rugby union is locked in a time warp of unlimited tackles, zero-metre defensive lines and spectator boredom. Even worse, at an international level, the game is plagued by overly officious referees who mistakenly believe the fans have paid good money to watch them blow the pea out of their whistle. Twenty years ago, I was a keen rugby union fan. Today, along with many others, I would rather watch paint dry than endure the tedium of a union test match.

The second factor in league’s success is the way in which it helps men deal with the repression of masculinity in modern society. One of the saddest things I have witnessed has been the decline in Australian male culture, whereby men have become reluctant to express themselves in traditional ways, such as through physical strength. This has been squeezed out of society by a number of powerful influences: the crisis in male identity brought about by changes in the workplace and family unit; the rise of Left-feminism, with its sanitising impact on public culture; and the moralising of the mass media, hypocritically narrowing the spectrum of so-called socially acceptable behaviour.

Men across the class divide enjoy the physicality of rugby league. Its power athletes are among the best in international sport and, with changes in the ethnicity of the game, they are getting even better. Ten years ago it was rare to see a Polynesian or Aboriginal player in first grade. Now they are the predominant ethnic groups at the game’s elite level. To give one example, rival fans have taken to calling the South Sydney Rabbitohs, one of the grand old inner-city foundation clubs, the All Browns.

The Polynesians, in particular, were born to play rugby league, with their stocky physiques and explosive power and pace over short distances. They have taken the code to a new level, leaving it unsurpassed for the strength of its tackling and running skills. Rugby league has become the game they play in Heaven, Hell and all manly places in between.

Mark Latham, a former federal Labor leader, has followed the St George Dragons since 1968.