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A comparison of rugby league and rugby union is possible because of the games' similarities and shared origins.

In English rugby, a schism developed between those who favoured strict amateurism and those who felt that players should be compensated for time taken off work to play rugby. In 1895 this resulted in the formation of a break-away body, the Northern Union.

Since 1906 the laws of rugby league have been gradually changed to encourage a more spectator-friendly sport. Further changes have taken place to the laws of both rugby union and rugby league over the years, so that now they are distinctly different. The principal distinction is that league has shed most aspects of the contest for possession of the ball, while rugby union retains it: contesting the ball after the tackle, on the ground in rucks and in contested scrums, in mauls and line-outs. The laws of league are consequently fewer, comprising 21,000 words compared to 35,000 for union. Rugby league is thus simpler and easier for spectators to understand than rugby union. As a result of the absence of the aforementioned mauls, rucks and lineouts, there are fewer stoppages of play in rugby league, with the ball typically in play for 50 out of the 80 minutes, compared with around 35 for professional rugby union. 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.


See also Football

In Australia, both sports are most popular in Queenslandmarker, New South Walesmarker, the Northern Territorymarker, and the Australian Capital Territorymarker. 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, or soccer. 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).

In South Africa, Romaniamarker, the Republic of Irelandmarker, Japan and Canada 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.

The field

A rugby league field
A rugby union 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.

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. 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 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 in order 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. However rugby league players will do everything possible to limit the amount of time the opposition has in possession of the football.

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.
  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 his feet. This is called a knock-on. In rugby league, scrums are not contested and 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 (ie each pack pushes against the other), and it is possible (but unusual) for the side awarded the scrum to lose possession. This is becoming rarer and rarer as union referees are starting to ape their league counterparts in turning a blind eye to crooked put-ins.
  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, the scrum is formed 20m from the point of touch. Penalties and 40/20 kicks are exceptions to this rule. In rugby union a line-out (another static but hard-contested set piece) 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. 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.

In rugby league a play the ball takes place after each tackle.

In rugby union, play does not stop as the tackled player must immediately make the ball available for play which will generally mean a ruck will form.

In both games, 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 (eg by using the shoulder only) is not permitted. Tacklers must try to grasp the ball-carrier and bring them to ground.

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.


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

The try (see the linked article for differences in the detailed laws applicable to scoring tries) is the main way of scoring in both codes, but 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.

There is a perception that more drop goals are scored in rugby union, but in 2007 the rates were very similar: 0.2 per game in Super 14 and 0.19 per game in the NRL. However, it is worth noting that these statistics are for Southern Hemisphere competition only. In Northern Hemisphere rugby union competitions such as the Heineken Cup and the Guinness Premiership, drop goals are a far more frequent occurrence than in their rugby league counterpart. This can be explained by the greater emphasis on defence in Northern Hemisphere rugby union coupled with the threat of relegation - drop goals have come to be viewed as "easy points" against defences that are increasingly harder to unlock.

Many more penalty goals are scored in union. The 2007 Super 14 season averaged 4.4 penalty goals per game, equivalent figures for the NRL are not available, but an estimate yields less than 1 penalty goal per game. In rugby union, a common tactic of the defensive side is to give away a penalty on their defensive tryline, to prevent a try from being scored. This means that the attacking side will often shoot for a penalty goal, as points are rare and should be taken at every opportunity. In rugby league, the defensive side must avoid a penalty, as this is likely to result in a repeat set for the attack and a greater chance of a try being scored.

Many more tries are scored in rugby league. Comparisons would tend to suggest rugby league games tend to involve an average of around 7-8 tries per game, whereas this number rarely occurs in rugby union. This is because of the rule changes which have occurred in rugby league to encourage open running and passing with the ball and the scoring of tries over goals.

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 a 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 can still place the ball in any direction provided it is done 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 (shirt numbers)
Prop forwards (8 and 10)
Hooker (9)
Second row forwards (11 and 12)
Loose forward / Lock (13)
Scrum half / Halfback (7)
Stand-off / Five-eighth (6)
Centres (3 and 4)
Wings (2 and 5)
Fullback (1)
Rugby union position (shirt numbers)
Props (1 and 3)
Hooker (2)
Locks (4 and 5)
Flankers (6 and 7)
Number eight (8)
Scrum half or Half back (NZ) (9)
Fly half or 1st Five-eighth (NZ) (10)
Centres or 2nd Five-eighth and Centre (NZ) (12 and 13)
Wings (11 and 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, but would not have the specialist skills of their rugby union counterparts. 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 kicker 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 are converting to league, but, with the exception of Celtic Crusaders (Bridgend, 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 and the FIFA World Cup. 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 and Northern England.

Cross-code games

At first, there were no games played between union and league sides as any union player playing rugby league even at an amateur level would be "professionalised" and not allowed to play rugby union again.

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. [347752]

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 Roadmarker, Manchester and was played under league rules. Wigan beat Bath 82-6; then two weeks later the return match was held at Twickenham Stadiummarker 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.

See also


Further reading

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