Rugby League vs Union: What’s the Difference?

Ever wondered quite how different between two ostensibly similar sports? What separates rugby union and rugby league and makes them both unique?

Quite a lot, in fact, not least in terms of rules, tactics, playing styles, and popularity. Let’s get into the rugby union vs rugby league debate, look at exactly what the differences are between the two, and discuss whether one can be considered ‘better’ than the other:

What is the Difference Between Rugby League and Rugby Union?

Rugby union came first, initially known as ‘rugby football’. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) was formed in 1871 by English clubs, before the game spread further to Australia and New Zealand during the 19th century.

In 1892, a proposal to pay players up to six shillings when they missed work for a rugby union match was voted down. As a result, in 1895, Lancashire’s leading clubs offered their support for the Yorkshire sides leading the formation of a professional organisation – the Northern Rugby Football Union, or Northern Union (NU) for short.

The authorities issued sanctions against clubs, players and officials in the offshoot group, which led to separate codes being formed – ‘rugby union’ for the RFU code, and ‘rugby league’ for the NU code. Essentially, then, that’s how the difference in laws between the two sports started – by being written into their own codes.

In terms of differences today, there is a slight disparity between the two balls used, for instance. They are of similar size to one another, but rugby league balls have more pointed edges than that of rugby union.

A rugby league also boasts the bigger of the two pitch sizes, measuring at between 112 and 122 metres long by 68 metres wide, with the distance between try-lines always 100 metres. Comparatively, a rugby union pitch is between 106 and 144 metres long by 68 to 70 metres wide, with the distance between try-lines varying between 94 and 100 metres.

Another important difference between the two is how similar position names can have wildly contrasting meanings. For example, a ‘flanker’ does not exist in rugby league, but the second row in rugby league are loose, just like the flankers in union. Meanwhile, the lock / loose forward in rugby league has a similar job to a rugby union’s number eight. And in the backs, centres in rugby league are divided into left and right centre rather than rugby union’s inside and outside centres.

Rugby Union vs League: Rule Differences

The most noticeable difference between the two is that a game of rugby league is contested by two sides of 13 players each, whereas in rugby union, this is increased to 15 players on both teams. You are also allowed ten substitutions in rugby league, as opposed to just eight in rugby union. That rugby league has fewer players on the pitch also explains why their pitches are smaller.

The awarding of points also differs between the two sports, as you’ll see in the table below:

Rugby UnionRugby League
Try5 points4 points
Conversion2 points2 points
Penalty3 points2 points
Drop Goal3 points1 point

The two sports also vary in regards to rules over tackling. In rugby union, when a player is tackled, a ruck forms when a player from each team joins in to challenge for the ball. This does not happen at all in rugby league, though.

Instead, in rugby league, a tackled player has to roll the ball back with his feet and a ‘chicken scratch’ takes place, whereby a player from each side then competes for this rolling ball.

Also, when a ball is kicked off the pitch in rugby league, a scrum occurs involving eight players, whereas if this happens in rugby union, a lineout takes place from where the ball crossed the touchline.

A team can only be tackled a maximum of six times in rugby league before that team must give ball possession to the opponent, often by kicking it to them. This is limitless in rugby union, by contrast.

Rugby League vs Rugby Union: Popularity

As we discussed in a previous post here, rugby league appears to be lagging behind its closest counterpart in the popularity stakes, at least.

Perhaps this is because, in truth, it is only really a major sport in England, New Zealand and in particular Australia, where the ‘working class’ roots of the game seem to especially resonate.

Rugby union, however, has garnered a far more global appeal, partly because of its reach across commonwealth countries, aided by the British armed forces’ decision to ban rugby league in the early 20th century.

Rugby League vs Rugby Union: Which is Better?

Without wanting to offer the most bland, on-the-fence answer as possible, that really depends on personal preference.

If you want a more all-action, end-to-end spectacle, rugby union is probably your ‘rugby of choice’, with more exciting runs and passes and varied, hectic kicking plays. But if you prefer something more old-school, where tackling, kicking and sheer force of will is the cornerstone, you’re likely to be more of a rugby league man.

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One thought on “Rugby League vs Union: What’s the Difference?

  1. Matthew,

    I have read a number of union vs league posts and yours is probably the most balanced of all of them. Thank you for that. I think there are deeper sociological reasons why union has become more popular which are always missed in these kind of briefs and I think there are interpretations of ‘faster-paced’ which are perspective based, rather than empirical – the more regularity of scrums and line-outs in union provide for more space opportunities for backs to run, but they often don’t (which is disappointing); but the advantages of putting the ball out of play in union mean that there are far more stoppages in play and much more time spent watching scrums form and fall or a goal kicker lining up a penalty kick than there are in league, so I think there is a balance there. For me the major difference in the games are the collision in the tackles, the cardio differences and the uniformity of roles in league when compared to union. All
    League players look pretty much the same (5:10 to 6:1, 14 to 16 stone), lean, fast, fit. The variety of plays (scrums and line outs particularly) in union allow for a much broader body shape and fitness level. And some of the pretty boys in the backs (and yes I was a forward) can get through games of union having made single figure or even zero tackles in a game; whereas there is a much more uniform spread of defensive effort in league and more of the tackles to be done (because of the more limited variety in play). But they can both be tremendous spectacles of skill and physicality. I think the difference in popularity is due in recent years to some basic socioeconomics – posh schools play union for historic (and possibly slightly snobbish) reasons. Much more of their students end up in charge of media companies and those who large companies with the capital to sponsor sport, and so union always gets the preference of coverage and money, which fuels a re-establishment of its dominance with every news cycle. England at Twickenham or Wales at the Millenium Stadium are now ‘social calendar’ events with pretty ridiculous prices for tickets when compared to 30 years ago. Those grounds used to be full of ex-players; there now full of corporate parties concluding multi-million pound deals in the exec lounges. They still enjoy the game, but perhaps more from the event than the game itself. League just doesn’t have those foundations; it still seem as a northern game for thick northerners. That socioeconomic head start might sound like an excuse from years gone by but the truth is that it is still as apparent today as it has ever been. I hope both find ways to thrive, but, in a world that is trying to ban kids playing football from heading the ball for fear of brain injury, we may be in danger of losing both codes of rugby to the Health and Safety band wagon before too long.

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