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




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With shared origins, the sports of rugby league and union have many similarities, but also some very important and distinct differences. In this blog post, we will take a look at the history of both codes of rugby and examine the main differences in terms of rules and gameplay.

A Brief History:

Rugby League Kevin Brown

The game of rugby was rumoured to have been started by 16-year-old William Webb Ellis in 1823. 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. 

In 1871 members of leading rugby clubs met to discuss a universal set of rugby rules and formed the Rugby Football Union (RFU) which became the sports’ governing body.

The emergence of two codes of the game came about 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 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 Rugby Union & Rugby League?

  1. The Number Of Players – In union, a maximum of 15 players can be on the field at any given time, whereas in rugby league it’s 13. League is typically played at a faster pace and fewer players allows for more space to run into. Whereas union’s physical, possession-based gameplay is more suited to 15-a-side.Wales Six Nations Rugby Union
  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 with 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 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 8 players from each side ‘contest’ a scrum with a chance for the opposition to win the ball by collectively pushing the opposing scrum back. However, in league it is seen as a means to get the ball back into play, and only 6 players from each side are involved. The scrum is not contested so the team feeding into the scrum always gets the ball back.

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 as 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, in union “the standard of goal-kicking is far higher”.

League is often said to be a test of a player’s fitness and stamina, whereas other pundits say that 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, there is a pretty long list of players that have converted from union to league, league to union, and sometimes back again!

Rugby’s most successful cross-code converts include Sonny Bill Williams, Chris Ashton, Jonathan Davies and Jason Robinson. After switching from rugby league to union Jason Robinson scored England’s only try in their 2003 world cup final victory against Australia, whilst after winning rugby union’s triple crown, Wales’ Jonathan Davies switched to league in the 1989/90 season, and won the 1989 World Club Challenge with Widnes.

Both codes have definitely benefited from taking ideas from each other and who’s to say that in the future we won’t see the return of a contested scrum in league or an increase in rugby 7’s popularity?

If you’re looking to further develop your knowledge of rugby union, you may be interested in our comprehensive rugby point scoring and rugby scrum-explained blog posts.

 By: Andrew Griffiths

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