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The Difference Between Rugby Union and Rugby League

Difference between Rugby Union and Rugby League

Rugby is a sport steeped in tradition and history, with a fervent following spanning continents. To the uninitiated, it might just appear as a singular game involving burly men or women running with an egg-shaped ball. But delve deeper, and you’ll find that rugby is divided at its core into two main types: Rugby Union and Rugby League. Both have shared origins but have evolved with distinct rules, gameplay, and strategies.

Historical Background

The story of the split begins in the late 19th century. The bone of contention? Player payments. The Rugby Football Union, staunch in its stand against player remuneration, found itself at odds with northern clubs in England. These clubs, feeling the strain of losing players to other sports due to financial concerns, formed the Northern Rugby Football Union, later renamed the Rugby Football League. Thus, the divide between Rugby Union and Rugby League was born.

1. Team Composition and Players

A glance at the field, and you’ll notice one immediate difference. In Rugby Union, each side fields 15 players, broadly categorized into forwards (numbers 1-8) and backs (numbers 9-15). Contrast this with Rugby League, where each team comprises 13 players. Though both have forwards and backs, the numbering and specific roles shift subtly.

2. Game Duration and Structure

In both codes, fans enjoy 80 minutes of thrilling action, divided into two 40-minute halves. However, while Rugby Union players get a 10-minute breather at halftime, Rugby League players have a tad shorter interval.

3. Scoring System

Here’s where the divergence becomes more pronounced. Scoring a try in Rugby Union will get your team 5 points, with an additional 2 for a conversion. Penalty and drop goals each contribute 3 points. In Rugby League, tries are worth 4 points, conversions add another 2, but penalty goals only give 2 points, and a drop goal brings a single point.

4. Tackling and Play-the-ball

In Rugby Union, a tackled player sets the stage for a ruck, where both teams can contest for the ball. It brings in an element of strategy and physical dominance. Rugby League, on the other hand, has a more streamlined process. Following a tackle, the attacking team retains the ball and has six tackles to try and score or advance as much as possible.

5. Set Pieces: Scrums and Lineouts

The scrum in Rugby Union is a massive contest of strength and technique, involving 8 players from each side. Lineouts, with players hoisted into the air to catch a thrown ball, can be both aesthetic and strategic. Rugby League offers a different flavor. Scrums involve 6 players and are less contested, acting more as a method to restart play. Lineouts? You won’t find them here.

6. Equipment and Attire

Minor yet noticeable, Rugby Union balls tend to be slightly larger and rounder compared to their Rugby League counterparts. As for attire, because of the differences in tackling and gameplay, protective gear varies subtly between the two codes.

7. Global Popularity and Competitions

Rugby Union boasts of grand stages like the Rugby World Cup, intense regional competitions such as the Six Nations in Europe, and The Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere. Club enthusiasts revel in the European Champions Cup and Super Rugby tournaments. Rugby League, though smaller in global footprint, has its crown jewel in the Rugby League World Cup. Club-wise, Australia’s NRL and Europe’s Super League stand out.

8. Cultural and Geographical Influence

Certain regions and countries have gravitated towards one code. New Zealand, South Africa, and England, for instance, have a pronounced Rugby Union following. Conversely, parts of Australia, Northern England, and the intriguing inclusion of Papua New Guinea have a deep-rooted Rugby League culture.

9. Playing Strategies and Tactics

In Rugby Union, set pieces can be game-changers, influencing territory and momentum. Tactical kicking, player formations, and ruck strategies can define matches. Rugby League, with its emphasis on territory gained during the set of six tackles, often sees a more direct approach, with strategic kicks and player runs paramount to breaking defensive lines.


While both Rugby Union and Rugby League stem from the same historical seed, their evolution, driven by societal factors, rule changes, and regional preferences, has rendered them distinct. To the fans, however, the heart of the matter remains unchanged: a love for the game, the thrill of the chase, and the sheer joy of watching their team cross the line.

Hi there! I'm Jake Steinberg, a passionate sports journalist with a knack for diving deep into the stories of inspiring sportsmen and sportswomen. Every athlete has a tale, and it's my mission to bring theirs to light. Join me on this journey through the highs and lows of the sporting world!

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