Comparison of rugby league and rugby union

Comparison of rugby league and rugby union

A comparison of rugby league and rugby union is possible because of the games' similarities and shared origins. In English rugby football, towards the end of the 19th century, a schism developed over the way the sport was run; one of the major disputes was between those who favoured strict amateurism and those who felt that players should be compensated for missing work. In 1895, this resulted in the breakaway of several leading clubs and their formation of a new governing body, the Northern Rugby Football Union, and in time a new sport, rugby league football.

Since the 1895 schism, changes have taken place to the laws of both rugby union and rugby league football so that now they are distinct sports.[1] The laws of rugby league football have been gradually changed with the express intention of creating a faster, more entertaining and spectator-friendly sport.[2][3] A distinction often cited is that rugby league has shed from its laws several opportunities for possession to be contested that rugby union has retained: contesting the ball after the tackle, on the ground in rucks and in mauls.[4] As a result of the absence of the aforementioned mauls, rucks and line-outs, there are fewer stoppages of play in rugby league,[5] with the ball typically in play for 50 out of the 80 minutes, compared with around 35 for professional rugby union.[6] This, combined with the fact that thirteen rugby league players must cover the field of play as opposed to union's fifteen, implies that rugby league is the more physically demanding of the two sports.[7][8] Rather than focusing on contests for possession of the ball, rugby league's rules have become oriented to promoting the contests of player against player and team against team with good passing, angles of running and organised defences the focus.[4] Rugby league is also simpler and easier for spectators to understand than rugby union.[9] The laws of rugby league are consequently fewer, comprising 21,000 words compared to 35,000 for union.[10][11] The inherent similarities in the sports however have led to the possibility of a merger being mooted.[12]

According to The New York Times:

"Thirteen-man rugby league has shown itself to be a faster, more open game of better athletes than the other code. Rugby union is trying to negotiate its own escape from amateurism, with some officials admitting that the game is too slow, the laws too convoluted to attract a larger TV following."
—Ian Thomsen, The New York Times, 28 October 1995, [13]



In Australia, both sports are most popular in Queensland, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory. Either sport might be referred to simply as "football" or "footy". Rugby union is usually referred to simply as "rugby" by its followers, who generally refer to rugby league as "league". In other states people refer to both codes as "rugby".

In the United Kingdom, rugby union or rugby league fans rarely refer to their sport as "football" as in most cases this would refer to association football. Across the UK, rugby union is usually referred to simply as 'rugby' but in and around the rugby league heartlands in the North of England, the word 'rugby' could refer to either sport but usually means 'rugby league'. The nickname "rugger", which developed in England's elite schools, almost always refers to rugby union.

In New Zealand, "football" usually refers to either rugby union or association football, but depending on context could refer to rugby league. "Rugby", which almost universally refers to rugby union, is mostly used without any existing context. Rugby league is usually called "rugby league" or simply "league".

In France, rugby union is called rugby à quinze (rugby with 15) or simply "rugby" whilst rugby league is known as rugby à treize (rugby with 13) or jeu à treize (game with 13) or treize (13).[14][15]

In Italy the term "rugby" defines generally rugby union which is governed by the Italian Rugby Federation (Federazione Italiana Rugby); in the rare cases in which a distintion is needed rugby union is called rugby a 15 (15-a-side rugby) whereas rugby league, which is far less widespread, is called rugby a 13; the latter's governing body is the Rugby League Italian Federation.

In South Africa, Georgia, Japan, Romania and Argentina rugby league is not very well known and rugby union is simply called "rugby".

In countries such as the United States, where neither code of rugby football is very well known, the two forms of the game are rarely distinguished between and "rugby" could refer to either, although American collegiate club play is usually rugby union, so this may have contributed to the term "rugby" being more frequently defined in the US as rugby union.[citation needed]

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia the term 'ragbi' is used to refer to all forms of the game, including American football (Americki ragbi). However, the recent re-emergence of rugby league in Serbia has led to the distinction "trinestica" (number 13) for league and "petnestica" (number 15) for union.


A rugby union field
A rugby league field

A rugby league field is between 112 and 122 metres long by 68m wide. The distance between try-lines is always 100 metres. There are lines going across the field which mark every ten metres. An in-goal area extends six to eleven metres beyond each goal-line. At the goal line is a set of goal posts in the shape of the letter 'H', used for other forms of point scoring: field goal, penalty goal and conversion.

A rugby union field is a maximum of 144 metres long by 70m wide. The length from try line to try line is always 100 metres: the only varying distances on a rugby field are the width of the playing field, and the distance from try line to the dead ball line. Lines are painted at the dead ball line, try line, 22 metre line, 10 metre line (broken line) and half way. Lines are also located 5 metres away from the try line and touch line and 15 metres away from the touch line. At the goal line is a set of goal posts in the shape of the letter 'H', used for other forms of point scoring: field goal, penalty goal and conversion.


A distinction between the two games often cited is that rugby league has shed from its laws several opportunities for possession to be contested that rugby union has retained: contesting the ball after the tackle, on the ground in rucks and in mauls.[4] Additionally, rugby league uses a scrum to restart the game in those situations where rugby union uses a line-out. Though rugby league scrums are sometimes claimed to be uncontested, the laws provide for contested scrums should the non-feeding team attempt to contest the ball, though for several reasons a convention of lenient enforcement is in practice.

Rugby union has a greater scope for the contest of possession[16] however a greater contest for possession doesn't necessarily result in greater turn over of possession or a more even division of possession. A statistical study of international rugby union matches between 1982-4 and 2002-4 commissioned by rugby union's world governing body, the IRB, entitled Changes in the Playing of International Rugby over a Twenty Year Period,[16] concluded that "the contest for possession is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed".[16] The report also found that while in the 1980s teams in possession lost the ball to their opposition on average once every six breakdowns, by the 2000s possession was won by the defending team on average once every twenty-three breakdowns.[16]

It has been argued that rugby league's six tackle rule results in a more even division of possession despite fewer opportunities to contest it.[16]

Advancing the ball

Rugby league has a six-tackle rule (somewhat similar to "downs" in American and Canadian football). The team in possession has a "set of six" tackles before having to hand over possession. Thus, after being tackled five times, the attacking team will almost always tactically kick the football to the sideline, the in-goal, or to an area of the field deemed advantageous to the attacking team and not so to the defending team.

Play stops when the player in possession of the ball is tackled; play restarts with a play-the-ball by the other team that were previously defending. Teams can only obtain a consecutive set of tackles in specific circumstances (by forcing a goal-line drop out, through a 40/20 kick, by being awarded a penalty, if the defending team deliberately touches the football while not in possession, or defensive errors such as playing for the ball but not securing possession).

Rugby union is quite different, being based on the 'right to contest possession'. A team in possession does not need to surrender possession whilst they are able to keep the ball. Whilst rugby league players are not allowed to try to dispossess the ball carrier between tackles, unless the tackle committed is a one on one tackle, rugby union players are allowed to win possession during open play.

Possession remains contested in rugby union following a tackle, for instance if a ruck (in which the ball is on the ground) or maul (in which it is held off the ground) forms. The side in possession before the tackle can lose the ball to more aggressive play from their opponents, yielding what is known as a turnover. In rugby league, possession cannot be contested at this point: play either restarts with a play-the-ball or a handover.

While in rugby league both possession and field position are important, in rugby union field position takes precedence. In league, possession is usually considered more important than territory, as a player cannot score without the ball. In rugby league the primary method of scoring points is with tries, whereas in union point-scoring from kicks is often a more significant factor as players often prefer to infringe union's Laws at the tackle and risk a penalty kick to prevent the higher scoring Try. Rugby union is more a game of territory and players often kick possession away to the opposition to move play nearer the opposition goal line and posts as getting tackled in a bad position with no team members to help hold possession would lead to an easy try for the opposing team. However, in rugby league players will do everything possible to limit the amount of time the opposition has in possession of the rugby ball, which usually leads to 'no risk' play for as many tackles as possible before attempts at passing/kicking the ball for a try.

Possession may change in different ways in both games:

  1. When the ball is kicked to the opposing team, this can be done at any time but it is normal to punt on the last tackle in rugby league.
  2. Following an unsuccessful kick at goal in Union however in League when a kick at goal is missed and goes dead, play is restarted with a 20 metre drop out.
  3. When an opposing player intercepts a pass.
  4. When the player in possession drops the ball and it is recovered by an opposition player.
  5. The opposition are awarded a scrum if the player in possession drops the ball forwards or makes the ball go forwards with any part of his body other than their feet. This is called a knock-on. In rugby league, it is uncommon for scrums to be contested. The side awarded the scrum almost always gains possession from it; the purpose is to restart the game with a good chance for open play as nearly half the players are concentrated in one spot. In rugby union, scrums are contested (i.e. each pack pushes against the other), and it is possible for the side awarded the scrum to lose possession.
  6. In rugby league if the ball goes out of play, the opposition are awarded a scrum. If this is from a kick going into touch on the full this is called ball back and the scrum is formed where contact with the ball was made. Otherwise, under recent rule changes, the scrum is formed 20 metres from the point of touch. Penalties and 40/20 kicks are exceptions to this rule. In rugby union a line-out takes place instead.
  7. In rugby league, an automatic handover takes place when the team in possession runs out of tackles.

In both codes, tactical kicking is an important aspect of play.[citation needed] So is tackling.


In both games it is permitted to bring down the player in possession of the ball and prevent them making forward progress. Tackling or interfering with a player who is not in possession of the ball is not permitted. In rugby union, charging or pushing an opponent in possession (e.g. by using the shoulder only) is not permitted. Tacklers must try to grasp the ball-carrier and bring them to ground.

In rugby league a play the ball takes place after each tackle. In rugby union, play does not stop when a player is forced to the ground in a tackle, as the tackled player must immediately play the ball, and the tackler must roll away, which will generally mean a ruck will form. Rugby league allows an opponent to be charged (e.g. by using the shoulder only). Using the shoulder in rugby league is often considered a 'big hit'.

Tripping with the leg is not allowed in either code. However, in rugby league, if a tackling player has both hands on the ball carrier, he is allowed to use his legs to bring him to ground.


Union and league have the same ways of scoring, but there are significant differences in the points awarded, and few minor differences in the laws governing the scoring of tries.

The try is the main way of scoring in both codes; there are some subtle differences between the two codes, but the most obvious difference is that a try is worth 5 points in rugby union and 4 points in rugby league. In both games, a conversion following a try is worth 2 points.

A drop goal is worth 3 points in union and 1 in league. A penalty goal is worth 3 points in union and 2 points in league.

Other minor differences in the rules

The laws of rugby league specifically outlaw the so-called 'voluntary tackle': players are not allowed to go to ground unless they are effectively tackled by an opponent, though in practice this rule is rarely applied. There was no equivalent law in rugby union, in the past going to ground with the ball and protecting it was practised, but in the modern game deliberately falling on the ground to gain an advantage is outlawed by Law 14: "The game is to be played by players who are on their feet. A player must not make the ball unplayable by falling down." A player who falls to ground with the ball or on it must immediately release or pass the ball, or get up with it. However, nowadays in the NRL competition, players are allowed to go to ground without any particular reason, with the referees calling "surrender" tackle when a player who voluntarily go to ground is touched by an opposing player. The defending player is more than likely to be penalised if he/she carries back the attacking player with the ball who's already on the ground.

In rugby league the ball may be thrown or knocked out of play deliberately while in union those are penalty offences. Kicking the ball out of play is legal in both codes.

In rugby league, a tackle is deemed to be complete when the elbow of the arm holding the ball touches the ground, or the player is held in an upright tackle. The ball cannot be further advanced and a play-the-ball or handover must take place. In rugby union, a tackle is deemed to be complete when the player in possession is held on the ground; that player must play the ball (either releasing it, passing it, or if over the try line grounding the ball) immediately.

A player tackled just short of the try-line in rugby union can legitimately reach across it and place the ball down for a try. This is not allowed in rugby league unless the momentum of the player continues to take him over the line in one continuous movement. If the tackle is complete, such a move would constitute a 'double movement' and the try would be disallowed.

When taking free or penalty kicks with a 'tap and go' option, rugby league permits a stylised kick with the ball being tapped against the foot or lower leg while union requires the ball to leave the hands of the kicker. This difference in emphasis on a relatively trivial phase of play can be seen as indicative of the core differences between the games. In league, the kick is stylised as its purpose is to restart the game and to move to the run and tackle main play as quickly as possible. In union, where every phase of play has some element of competition, the trivial need to release the ball at any kick can result in a fumble that may give the opposition a chance to either contest possession or, if 'knocked-on', will cause them to be awarded a scrum.


See also Rugby league positions, Rugby union positions, Players who have converted from one football code to another

A maximum of 15 players can play rugby union at any one time whereas rugby league permits 13 players.

Rugby league position names (shirt numbers)
Prop forwards (8 & 10)
Hooker (9)
Second row forwards (11 & 12)
Lock or loose-forward (13)
Halfback or Scrum-half (7)
Five-eighth or Stand-off (6)
Centres (3 & 4)
Wings (2 & 5)
Fullback (1)
Rugby union position names (shirt numbers)
Loose head Prop (1) and tight head prop (3)
Hooker (2)
Second row / Locks (4 & 5)
Flankers or Break-aways or loose-forwards (6 & 7)
Number-eight or eight man(8)
Scrum-half or Half-back (9)
Fly-half or Five-eighth (10)
Centres (12 & 13)
Wings (11 & 14)
Fullback (15)

Many of the positions have similar names but in practice are very different. The position known as 'flanker' has no equivalent in rugby league; rugby league centres are split into left and right centre rather than inside and outside centres.

Until the professionalisation of rugby union, rugby league players have sometimes been regarded as more adept at a range of skills or roles in the game, whereas rugby union players are more specialised. For instance, props and hookers in rugby union tend to be among the physically strongest players with high levels of scrummaging and mauling skills, but (traditionally) with limited speed and ball-handling skills. In rugby league, props and hookers may be no slower or less adept at handling the ball than other players because they are not required to perform the physical aspects of scrummaging or contesting possession after a tackle and subsequently they are not required to perform the specialist skills of their rugby union counterparts where size is an advantage. Similarly, locks in union tend to be very tall, as this helps at lineouts; while this is not a necessity for league second rows and may even be a disadvantage. Scrum-half is also a more specialised position in rugby union: the number 9 initiates most moves by his or her team and must be an excellent passer of the ball, whereas in rugby league it is common for any player acting as 'dummy half' to do so. However, since professionalisation, the fitness and skills of all players in all field positions in rugby union has increased greatly, so that top-class props and second-row forwards must now show considerable athleticism.

During the amateur era, many rugby union players crossed over and played professional rugby league. These days the flow at the top-flight is usually league to union. There has been some expansion of rugby league at lower levels with small numbers of union players converting to league but, with the exception of Crusaders (based in Wrexham, Wales), there are no major top-flight rugby league clubs in Wales, Ireland or Scotland, and Harlequins Rugby League (London) is the only top-flight English club outside the heartland of rugby league in the North. Players who achieve the feat of international rugby in both codes are known as dual-code internationals.

Both rugby union and league have club competitions and internationals, but international rugby union is on a much larger scale. The Six Nations, in which the home countries plus Ireland, France and Italy compete, is a huge television and commercial attraction, with cumulative crowds of over 700,000 per annum and an international TV audience measured in hundreds of millions. The Heineken Cup, involving French, British, Irish and Italian clubs, is extremely popular. The Rugby World Cup is now one of the biggest sporting events in the world, after the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and Cricket world cup. In addition, the English Premiership, French Top 14 and the RaboDirect PRO12 (with clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy) are popular in their respective countries. The Southern Hemisphere nations of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa compete annually in the Tri-Nations. Argentina, another powerhouse of the game, is planning to join the Tri-Nations in 2012. The club game in the Southern Hemisphere consists of national competitions in all New Zealand and South Africa, along with Super Rugby, a franchise based competition which is competed in the Tri-Nation countries, with five teams per country. The smaller Southern Hemisphere states, of the Pacific Islands, play their own tournaments, the Pacific Rugby Cup for clubs, with two franchises from Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa each; and the Pacific Nations Cup, between Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Japan, and sometimes the Junior All Blacks (the New Zealand 2nd XV), The New Zealand Maori (a team of New Zealanders of Maori descent), or Australia A (the Australian 2nd XV). Argentina does not participate in any annual competition at either club or international level.

Rugby league international competitions are generally on a smaller scale, and attract smaller global interest, and unlike in union, most competitions are dominated by Australia. Nevertheless, within their heartlands, rugby league continues to remain popular and forms part of the culture of Australia, Northern England, the North Island of New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and parts of southern France. In response to rugby union's successful Six Nations tournament,[citation needed] rugby league established, in 2005, originally a Tri-Nations and now an annual Four Nations tournament (with the exception of World Cup years). This post-club season competition rotates between northern and southern hemispheres and automatically includes Australia, England and New Zealand. Since 2009, the southern hemisphere Four Nations includes the winner of the Pacific Cup, and the alternating northern hemisphere competition includes the winner of the European Nations Cup. The most recent fourth nations to qualify for this tournament in the northern and southern hemisphers, have been France (2009) and Papua New Guinea (2010) and Wales (2011).

Rugby league's World Cup, most recently played in Australia in 2008, in fact pre-dates the rugby union World Cup. The next Rugby League World Cup is scheduled to be played in the United Kingdom in 2013, with at least 16 nations set to qualify. Rugby league, while globally well behind rugby union in terms of player registrations, is growing, and is considered to be the fastest growing sport in France, Wales, and outside of its heartland areas in Australia, England and New Zealand.

Cross-code games

In Australia in 1909, when the new "Northern Union" code was still in its infancy, a match between the Kangaroos and the Wallabies was played before a crowd of around 20,000, with the rugby league side winning 29-26.[17]

With the wartime Emergency League suspended, Leeds Rugby League reverted to rugby union during World War one to play a one-off challenge game against the Royal Navy Depot from Plymouth in 1917. This was pre-cursor to the following Christmas when two Challenge games were organised between the two sides but this time with one of each code. The Navy won the union game 9-3 on Christmas Eve but proved equally adept at league recording a 24-3 win on 28th December.

During World War two, the RFU relaxed its restrictions on rugby league players playing rugby union. In 1943, a Northern Command army rugby league side defeated a Northern Command union side 18-11 at Headingley under rugby union laws. The following year a Combined Services rugby league side beat a Combined Services union side 15-10 at Bradford again at rugby union. These were the only league v union matches played until 1996. [1]

In 1995, rugby union voted to become a professional sport which opened further the possibility of matches between union and league teams.

In May 1996, Bath Rugby and Wigan RLFC, who were then England's top union and league sides respectively, made history by playing against each other at both codes of rugby. The first match was at Maine Road, Manchester and was played under league rules. Wigan beat Bath 82-6; then two weeks later the return match was held at Twickenham Stadium under union rules. The result this time: Bath 44, Wigan 19. Since then many games have been played between union and league teams using the laws of one of the codes. Games have even been played under union laws during one half and league laws during the second, but the result is often the same, with teams representing the code which is being played being the winners. However, the lessons from the Wigan-Bath games changed many aspects, mostly tactical, of rugby union. In particular, dummy runners and one-line defences are now widespread in union, whereas they were not in the amateur era.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Hamilton, Garth (2007-06-18). "Black and White and Grey". Archived from the original on 2010-07-25. 
  2. ^ Cunneen, Chris (2001). The best ever Australian Sports Writing. Australia: Black Inc.. p. 314. ISBN 1 86395 266 7. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  3. ^ Gibson, Barry (2008-10-08). "A super sport, but no prima donnas". The Huddersfield Daily Examiner (UK: Trinity Mirror North West & North Wales Limited). Retrieved 2010-01-02. 
  4. ^ a b c Telfer, Jim (2010-05-05). "It’s Le Crunch for Magners League". STV. Archived from the original on 2010-07-25. Retrieved 2010-07-25. 
  5. ^ George Caplan, Mark Adams (2007). BTEC National: Sport. Heinemann. pp. 99. ISBN 0435465147, 9780435465148. 
  6. ^ Cleary, Mick (2000-10-05). "Talking Rugby: No code like the old code". (Telegraph Media Group Limited). Archived from the original on 2010-07-25. Retrieved 2009-11-21. 
  7. ^ Breivik, Simon L.; British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (2007). Sport And Exercise Physiology Testing Guidelines: The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences Guide. Taylor & Francis. pp. 257. ISBN 0415361419, 9780415361415. 
  8. ^ Hey, Stan (1994-09-25). "Stevo's fight against a league of stereotypes". The Independent (UK: Independent News and Media Limited). Retrieved 2010-01-06. 
  9. ^ Howell, Andy (2007-05-07). "R League: Sport can flourish in Wales". Western Mail (Media Wales Ltd.). Retrieved 2009-11-21. 
  10. ^ "Laws of the Game: Rugby Union 2007." International Rugby Board, Dublin, 2007. Online version retrieved 22 October 2007.
  11. ^ The ARL Laws of the Game, 2007. The Australian Rugby Football League. Online version retrieved 22 October 2007.
  12. ^ Jones, Chris (9 October 2000). "It's all a code merger mystery". London Evening Standard (UK: ES London Limited). Retrieved 21 September 2010. 
  13. ^ Ian, Thomsen (28 October 1995). "Australia Faces England at Wembley : A Final of Rugby Favorites". The New York Times ( Archived from the original on 2011-02-06. Retrieved 2009-11-05. 
  14. ^ Règles du rugby à XV par
  15. ^ Régles du Rugby à XIII, codification empruntée au site de la Ligue régionale de Midi-Pyrénées
  16. ^ a b c d e Collins, Tony (2010-05-06). "Mythbusters: The 'Contest for Possession'". Rugby Reloaded. Archived from the original on 2010-07-25. Retrieved 2010-07-25. 
  17. ^ "Kangaroos v. Wallabies". West Coast Times (New Zealand): pp. 4. 1909-09-06. Retrieved 2009-12-03. 
  18. ^ "Wigan v Bath: The lessons rugby learned when League took on Union" (in English). Sportingo (England): pp. 3. 2007-04-28. Retrieved 2010-12-23. 

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