What's the difference between rugby league and rugby union?

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One Game, Two Codes – The Differences Between Rugby League & Rugby Union

1 Feb , 2018  

To a non-fan, rugby is rugby, and so the realisation that there are two entirely different versions of one sport can often cause confusion. Here we provide all the answers you’ll ever need to know about how one sport became two codes.

A Brief History:

Rugby League Kevin BrownThe game of rugby was rumoured to have been started by 16-year-old William Webb Ellis. During a game of football at his school in Rugby, he is believed to have caught the ball and ran with it toward the opposition’s goal line – and as they say, the rest is history.

The emergence of two codes of the game came in Huddersfield in 1895. Unsatisfied with the RFU and with differing opinions on compensating players for loss of wages due to rugby commitments, 22 clubs met to form the Northern Rugby Football Union.

Due to the fact that players in the NRFU were often being referred to as the ones who ‘played in a league’ in 1922 the Northern Rugby Football Union was re-named to the Northern Rugby Football League.

Since then a number of rule changes have come into place, making the two codes distinctly different games.


What Are The Main Differences Between The Two Codes?


  1. The Number Of Players – In union a maximum of 15 players can be on the field at any given time, whereas in league it’s 13. With league being played at a faster pace, a Wales Six Nations Rugby Unionlesser amount of players allows for more space to run into. Whereas union’s physical, possession based game play is more suited to 15-a-side.
  2. The Tackle Count – One of the notable differences is the tackle count which features in rugby league. Each team has a set of six tackles after which possession is handed over to the opposing team. This often leads to the ball being kicked following the fifth tackle in order to gain more ground.
  3. Points For A Try – The best way to score in both forms of the sport is a try, the difference separating the two codes is how many points a try is worth. In union you are awarded five points for a try whereas in league you are get four. However, both codes carry the same amount of points (two) for a successful conversion.
  4. Points For A Drop Goal – Another notable difference in the scoring is that a drop goal is worth three points in union, but only one in league.
  5. Points For A Penalty Kick – Converting a penalty is worth three points in union and two points in league, perhaps why the former can often become a ‘battle of the place-kickers’.
  6. Play-The-Ball – Following a tackle in rugby league you’ll see a player roll the ball back with his foot, this is referred to as playing the ball. However, in union the ball can be contested for via rucks and mauls by the opposing packs of forwards – competing for the ball and successfully turning it over is seen as a great way to launch counter-attacks.
  7. The Scrum – Whilst the two codes share the same name for the play the similarities end there. In union a greater number of players from each side ‘contest’ a scrum with a chance for the opposition to win the ball. However, in league it is seen as a means to get the ball back into play, so a lesser number of players form a scrum and once the ball has been fed in you’ll rarely see any contest from the opposing side to win it.


What Are The Differences Between Rugby League & Union Players?

Both codes feature examples of exceptions to the rule in this area but the general consensus is that there is a difference in what it takes to be a good player in one code opposed to another.

In an interview with the BBC, Jonathan Davies said that in league he “found [that his] fitness levels were tested more” and that “the handling skills in league are higher generally”. However, that in union “the standard of goal-kicking is far higher”.

League proves to be a test of player’s fitness and stamina whereas union will test your strength and aggression. Union is also perceived as a more tactical game – though rugby league coaches may not agree!

St Helens Sale Sharks

CLASH OF CODES: Super League side St. Helens tackled union side Sale Sharks back in 2003.

Have Any Rugby Players Successfully Switched Codes?

With the two codes still sharing some similarities thought, there is a pretty long list of players that have converted from union to league, league to union, and sometimes back again!

Scroll through our slide show of five notable converts, do you agree with our selections or have we missed anyone in particular out?

Sonny Bill Williams
Jonathan Davies
Iestyn Harris
Chris Ashton
Andy Farrell
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Both codes have definitely benefited from taking ideas from each another and who’s to say that in the future we won’t see the return of a contested scrum in league or rugby 7’s increase in popularity.

This week sees action in major competitions in both codes as the 2017 Super League gets underway in St. Helens and the international teams battle it out in the second round of the RBS Six Nations.

Will you be watching any of the games? Which version of the two codes do you prefer? Or do you appreciate the subtleties of both sports? Let us know your thoughts and predictions in the comments below or via Twitter or Facebook.

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