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Rugby league football (or simply rugby league) is a full-contact form of football, played with a prolate spheroid ball by two teams of thirteen players on a rectangular grass field. Rugby league is one of the two codes of rugby football, the other being rugby union. Over the decades following the 1895 birth of rugby league, the rules of both forms of rugby were gradually changed, with rugby league's deliberately resulting in a faster and more open spectator sport, and now it and rugby union are distinctly different games. Rugby league is frequently cited as the toughest and most physically demanding of any team sport in the world.

The primary aim is to carry or kick the ball towards the opponent's goal line where points can be scored by grounding the ball; this is called a try. After scoring a try, the team is allowed the chance to try at goal with a conversion - a kick for further points. The opposing team will attempt to stop the attacking side gaining points by preventing their progress up the field by tackling the player carrying the ball.

Rugby league is most prominent in Australia, England, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, being the national sport in the latter. France and Wales also have professional clubs. New Zealand are the current World Cup holders as of 2008.

The game is played at a semi-professional and amateur level in several other countries, such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, Lebanon, Germany, Japan, the United States, Malta and Jamaica.


Rugby league takes its name from the Rugby Football League, which was established in 1895 as the 'Northern Rugby Football Union', a breakaway faction of England's Rugby Football Union (RFU). Both organisations played the game under the same rules at first, though the Northern Union began to modify rules almost immediately, thus creating a new form of rugby football. Similar breakaway factions occurred from RFU-affiliated rugby football unions in Australia and New Zealand in 1907 and 1908, renaming themselves "rugby football leagues" and introducing Northern Union rules. The Northern Union later changed its name to the Northern Rugby Football League in 1922 (later dropping the 'Northern') and thus, over time the sport itself became known as "rugby league" football.


The roots of rugby league can be traced to early football history, through the playing of ball games which bear little resemblance to modern sports. It is then important to acknowledge the development of the modern football codes and two separate schisms in football history.

In 19th century England, football was most prominently played in private schools. Each school had its own rules based on whatever playing field was available to them. The rules could be categorised as either handling or kicking forms of football. The kicking and handling forms were later codified by The Football Association and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) respectively. Rugby football had its origins at Rugby Schoolmarker, Warwickshire, England.

In 1895, a schism in Rugby football resulted in the formation of the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU). Although many factors played a part in the split, including the success of working class northern teams, the main division was caused by the RFU decision to enforce the amateur principle of the sport, preventing "broken time payments" to players who had taken time off work to play rugby. Northern teams typically had more working class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle. There were similar movements in other countries. In 1895 a decree by the RFU banning the playing of rugby at grounds where entrance fees were charged led to the famous meeting on 29 August 1895. Twenty-two clubs (plus Stockport who negotiated by telephone) met at The George Hotel, Huddersfieldmarker in the West Riding of Yorkshire and formed the "Northern Rugby Football Union". Within fifteen years of that first meeting in Huddersfield, more than 200 RFU clubs had left to join the rugby revolution.

In 1897, the line-out was abolished and in 1898 professionalism introduced.

In 1906, the Northern Union changed its rules, reducing teams from 15 to 13 a side and replacing the scrum formed after every tackle with the play the ball.

A similar schism occurred in Sydney, Australia. There on the 8th August 1907 the New South Wales Rugby Football League was founded at Bateman's Hotel in George St. Rugby league then went on to displace rugby union as the primary football code in New South Wales and Queensland.

In 1954 over 120,000 spectators watched the Challenge Cup final, setting a new record for attendance at a rugby football match of either code. Also in 1954 the Rugby League World Cup, the first for either code of rugby, was formed at the instigation of the French.

In 1966, the International Board introduced a rule that a team in possession was allowed three play-the-balls and on the fourth tackle a scrum was to be formed. This was increased to six tackles in 1972 and in 1983 the scrum was replaced by a handover.

1967 saw the first professional Sunday matches of rugby league played.

The first sponsors entered the game, Joshua Tetley and John Player, for Britain's 1971-72 Northern Rugby Football League season.

Television would have an enormous impact on the sport of rugby league in the 1990s when Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation sought worldwide broadcasting rights and refused to take no for an answer. The media giant's "Super League" movement saw big changes for the traditional administrators of the game. In Europe it resulted in a move from a winter sport to a summer one as the new Super League competition tried to expand its market. In Australasia, the Super League war resulted: long and costly legal battles and changing loyalties, causing significant damage to the code in an extremely competitive sporting market. In 1997 two competitions were run alongside each other in Australia, after which a peace deal in the form of the National Rugby League was formed. The NRL has since become recognised the sport's flagship competition.


The rules of the sport have changed significantly over the decades since rugby football split into the league and union codes. The objective in rugby league is to score more points through tries, goals and field goals (also known as drop goals) than the opposition within the 80 minutes of play. The try is the most common form of scoring, and a team will usually attempt to score one by running and kicking the ball further upfield, or passing from player-to-player in order to manoeuvre around the opposition's defence and is worth four points. A goal is worth two points and may be gained from a conversion or a penalty. A field goal is only worth one point, and is gained by drop kicking the ball between the uprights in open play. If after two halves of play, each consisting of forty minutes, the two teams are drawing, a draw may be declared, or the game may enter extra time under the golden point rule, depending on the relevant competition's format.


Players on the field are divided into forwards and backs, although the game's rules apply to all players the same way. Each position has a designated number to identify himself from other players. These numbers help to identify which position a person is playing. The system of numbering players is different depending on which country the match is played in. In Australia and New Zealand, each player is usually given a number corresponding to their playing position on the field. However, since 1996 European teams have been able to grant players specific squad numbers, which they keep in irrelevance to the position they play, similarly to association football. This can mean that although only seventeen players can be announced in any rugby league squad, shirt numbers of 18 or higher are also used.

Interchanges (generally referred to as "The Bench") are allowed in the sport, and are typically used when a player gets tired or injured, although they can also be used tactically. Each team is currently allowed four substitutes, and in Australia and New Zealand, these players occupy shirt numbers 14 to 17. There are no limitations on what players must occupy these interchangeable slots, and interchanged players may re-enter the field of play again following a second interchange. Generally, twelve interchanges are allowed in any game from each team, although in the National Rugby League, this was reduced to ten prior to the 2008 season. If a team has to interchange a player due to the Blood Bin rule or due to injury, and this was the result of misconduct from the opposing team, the compromised team does not have to use one of its allocated interchanges to take the player in question off the field.


The backs are generally smaller, faster and more agile than the forwards. They are often the most creative and evasive players on the field, relying on running, kicking and handling skills, as well as tactics and set plays, to break the defensive line, instead of brute force. Generally forwards do the majority of the work (hit-ups/tackling). They help to create advantages for the backs by winning the ball in rucks and scrums. Since there is no blocking in rugby like in American Football, the forwards are the back-up support and are the ones who "win" the ball back.
  • The title of fullback (numbered 1) comes from the fullback's defensive position where the player drops out of the defensive line to cover the rear from kicks and runners breaking the line. They therefore usually are good ball catchers and clinical tacklers. In attack the fullback will typically make runs into the attack or support a runner in anticipation of a pass out of the tackle. Fullbacks can play a role in attack similar to a halfback or 5/8th and the fact that the fullback does not have to defend in the first defensive line means that a coach can keep a playmaker from the tackling responsibilities of the first line whilst allowing them to retain their attacking role.
  • The wings or "wing three quarters" (numbered 2 and 5) are normally the fastest players in a team and play on the far left and right fringes of the field (the wings). Their main task is to receive passes and score tries. The wingers also drop back on the last tackle to cover the left and right sides of the field for kicks while the fullback covers the middle.
  • The centres or "centre three-quarters" (numbered 3 and 4) are positioned one in from the wings and together complete what is known as the three-quarter line. Usually the best mixture of power and vision, their main role is to try to create attacking opportunities for their team and defend those of the opposition. Along with the wingers, the centres score plenty of tries throughout a season.

Usually, the stand-off-half and scrum-half, are a team's creative-unit or 'playmakers'. During the interactions between a team's 'key' players (stand-off-half, scrum-half, full-back, loose forward, and hooker), the stand-off-half and scrum-half will usually be involved in most passing moves.
  • The stand-off-half or 'pivot' or '5/8th' (numbered 6): There is not much difference between the stand-off-half and the scrum-half, in that both players may operate in front of the pack during 'Forward-Play' (as Prime Receiver [7] and Shadow Receiver [6], one on each side of the ruck, or both on same side of the ruck), and both players may operate in front of the backs during 'Back-Play' (as Prime Pivot [6] and Shadow Pivot [7], one on each side of the ruck / pack, or both on same side of the ruck / pack). The stand-off-half position is named with regard to the role / location of the player in respect to the scrum.
  • The scrum-half or 'half-back' (numbered 7): There is not much difference between the scrum-half and the stand-off-half, in that both players may operate in front of the pack during 'Forward-Play' (as Prime Receiver [7] and Shadow Receiver [6], one on each side of the ruck, or both on same side of the ruck). Both players may operate in front of the backs during 'Back-Play' (as Prime Pivot [6] and Shadow Pivot [7], one on each side of the ruck / pack, or both on same side of the ruck / pack). The scrum-half position is named with regard to the role / location of the player in respect to the scrum.


Rugby league is notable for its hard physical play
The forwards' two responsibilities can be broken into "normal play" and "scrum play". For information on a forward's role in the scrum see rugby league scrummage. Forward positions are traditionally named after the player's position in the scrum yet are equal with respect to "normal play" with the exception of the hooker. Forward positions are traditionally broken into:
  • The props or front-row forwards (numbered 8 and 10) are normally the largest players on field (male props typically weigh over in the open age/senior game). They are positioned in the centre of the line. The prop will be an "enforcer", dissuading the opposition from attacking the centre of the defensive line and in attack give the team momentum by taking the ball up to the defence aggressively.
  • The hooker (numbered 9) is most likely to play the role of dummy-half. In defence the hooker usually defends in the middle of the line against the opposition's props and second-rowers. The hooker will be responsible for organising the defence in the middle of the field. In attack as dummy-half this player is responsible for starting the play from every play-the-ball by either passing the ball to the right player, or, at opportune moments, running from dummy-half. It is vital that the hooker can pass very well. Traditionally, hookers "hooked" the ball in the scrum. Hookers also make probably more tackles than any other player on the field. The hooker is always involved in the play and needs to be very fit. They need to have a very good knowledge of the game and the players around them.
  • The second row forwards (numbered 11 and 12) The modern day second row is very similar to a centre and is expected to be faster, more mobile and have more skills than the prop and will play amongst the three-quarters, providing strength in attack and defence when the ball is passed out to the wings. Good second-rowers combine the skills and responsibilities of props and centres in the course of the game.
  • The loose forward or the lock (numbered 13) is the only forward in the third (last) row of the scrum. They are usually one of the fittest players on the field, covering the entire field on both attacking and defending duties. Typically they are big ball-runners who can occasionally slot in as a passing link or kick option; it is not uncommon for loose forwards/locks to have the skills of a Stand-off/five eighth and to play a similar role in the team.

Rugby league worldwide

The 2006 NRL Grand Final between Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm at Olympic Stadium, Sydney
league is played in more than 50 countries worldwide. The strongest rugby league nations are England, Australia and New Zealand, who contest the Rugby League Tri-Nations most years. Rugby league is the national sport of Papua New Guinea, and is also played professionally in France, and Wales. It is due to be played professionally in the United Statesmarker by 2010.

The current World Champions are New Zealand, who won the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. Prior to this, Australia had won every world cup since 1975.

In Australia, rugby league is the dominant sport in Queensland and New South Wales, as well as being popular in the Australian Capital Territory and having footholds in Victoria and the Northern Territory; the other states have low participation.

In England, rugby league has traditionally been associated with the northern counties of Yorkshiremarker, Lancashiremarker and Cumbriamarker where the game originated although its popularity has also increased elsewhere. Figures published by the Rugby Football League showed an 81% increase in women playing the sport in the twelve months prior to October 2008, as well as an increase in juniors of both genders. Despite this, all but two of the thirteen British Super League teams originate from the sport's traditional counties. No professional team currently exists in either Scotland or Northern Ireland, although the Challenge Cup final has been held in Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadiummarker twice, as well as the 2009 Magic Weekend. Over 40,000 players were registered by the RFL as of October 2008.

France first played rugby league as late as 1934, where in the five years prior to World War II, the sport's popularity increased as Frenchmen became disenchanted with the state of French rugby union in the 1930s. However, after the Allied Forces were defeated by Germany in June 1940 following the Battle of France, the Vichy regime in the south seized assets belonging to rugby league authorities and clubs, and banned the sport for its association with the left-wing Popular Front government that had governed France before the War. The sport was unbanned after the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 initiated the collapse of the Vichy regime, although it was still actively marginalised by the French authorities until the 1990s. Despite this, the national side appeared in both finals of the 1954 and 1968 World Cups, and the country hosted in 1954 event. In 1996, a French team, Paris St-Germain was one of eleven teams which formed the new European Super League, although the club was dissolved in 1997 due to its failure to run at a profit and poor attendances. In 2006, the Super League admitted the Catalans Dragons, a team from Perpignanmarker in the southern Languedoc-Roussillonmarker region. They have subsequently reached the 2007 Challenge Cup Final, and made the play-offs of the 2008 Super League season. The success of the 'Dragons' in Super League has initiated a renaissance in French rugby league, with new-found enthusiasm for the sport in the south of the country where most of the Elite One Championship teams are based.

Early 21st century developments have seen countries such as Germany, Lebanon, Malta, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, and take up the game and compete in international rugby league tournaments or matches, with efforts being made by the Rugby League European Federation to expand the game to new areas. 2008-09 has seen development of teams in northern Europe, especially Scandinavia. Initial plans for this Nordic group of countries will see these teams establish a regional playing platform. The first specific example of a rugby league tournament in this area of Europe came in 2009, when a rugby league nines tournament was held in Norway featuring teams from the host country, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as three rugby union teams.

In the United Statesmarker, the country's first fully professional league, the National Rugby League USA, is due to be launched in 2010, with the aim of building the sport's profile in the country, and providing more talent for the national team.

Domestic competitions

Each country has its own governing body which runs and regulates its rugby league competitions, such as round-robin leagues or cup tournaments. The two most prominent fully professional leagues in the rugby league world are the Australian National Rugby League, in which a professional New Zealand team also play, and the engage Super League, which consists of mostly professional teams from England, plus one from France and another from Wales. Domestic leagues exist below the NRL and Super League, especially on a state or county level, and semi-professional and amateur leagues exist in many other countries most notably the Co-operative Championship which is a semi professional rugby league competition that involves mostly English teams and one team from France. The AMNRL , which is an amateur/semi professional rugby league competition in the United States. The Elite One Championship which is a semi professional rugby league competition in France and the Russian Championship which features a team in the Challenge Cup.

A full-time professional domestic league – the National Rugby League USA – is also being planned for the United States of Americamarker. It is due to start its first professional season in 2010, with a hope of tapping into the country's already well-established support for American football, which is generally similar to rugby league in principle.

Both Australia and Europe have their own domestic cup tournaments, the most prominent of which is the Rugby Football League's Challenge Cup, contested by amateur and professional teams across Europe. In Australia, the State of Origin series is a domestic tournament, played between New South Wales and Queensland teams. Australia also has a one-match City vs Country Origin annually.

See also



  1. * * * * * *
  2. RLIF, 2004: 51
  3. RLIF, 2004: 8
  4. * * * * *
  5. Tony Collins, Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain (2006), p.6
  6. Tony Collins, Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain, p.5 (2006)
  7. Tony Collins, Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain (2006), p.6, quote:"in 1906 the number of players in a team was reduced to thirteen and an orderly play-the-ball, whereby a tackled player had to get to his feet and roll the ball behind him with his foot, was introduced. These two changes completed the break from the playing rules of rugby union and marked the birth of rugby league as a distinct sport with its own unique rules".
  8. Tony Collins, Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain (2006), pp. 113-114


Further reading

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