We have a similar background and opinion gabby.
Coming from a soccer region where rugby of either code was almost alien, I was lucky enough to go to what was then, Wath Grammar School! A big tall lad with some weight I was never going to get a game of that soccer thingy that everyone was after playing. So cometh games lessons and they chuck a rugby ball at me and showed me where a big lad could get a game along side all the fast lads! What a sport! Brilliant.
Then of course I saw the league game and that changed y whole outlook.
Did you see the history of the north on BBC4 in Sept? Rugby league at it's best played with skills by ball handlers, big props and backs with pace and creativity. It looked awesome and evoke some passionate memories.
Union has improved no end in recent years. League's committment to athleticism as you point out, in my opinion, has done it no favours.