Home Rugby Rugby Union vs. Rugby League: What’s the Difference?

Rugby Union vs. Rugby League: What’s the Difference?

Introduction Rugby, known for its rugged intensity and strategic gameplay, has evolved into two distinct forms: Rugby Union and Rugby League. Though both share a common origin, they have diverged over time, each developing unique rules, playing styles, and cultures. This article delves into the nuances of these two versions of the sport, examining their histories, rule differentiations, and notable characteristics.


A Brief History

Rugby originated in England during the early 19th century and quickly gained popularity across the globe. As the sport spread, differing interpretations of its rules emerged, leading to the formal establishment of two separate codes: Rugby Union and Rugby League.


Rugby Union

Rugby Union, the older of the two codes, is widely played internationally and is recognized as the traditional form of rugby. The sport is governed by World Rugby (formerly known as the International Rugby Board) and is characterized by its scrums, lineouts, and intricate set-piece plays. Rugby Union is played with 15 players per team and is known for its emphasis on endurance, strategy, and technical skills.


Key Features of Rugby Union:

Set Pieces: Rugby Union features set-piece plays like scrums, lineouts, and mauls, which require coordinated teamwork and technique.


Point System: Teams can score points through tries (touchdowns), conversions, penalty kicks, and drop goals.

Rucking and Mauling: These techniques involve players contesting for possession of the ball after a tackle and require strength and skill.

General Play: Rugby Union allows for more continuous play compared to Rugby League, with fewer stoppages.

Rugby League

Rugby League, on the other hand, emerged in the late 19th century as a breakaway from Rugby Union. It is governed by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) and is characterized by its faster pace, emphasis on attacking gameplay, and simplified rules. Rugby League is played with 13 players per team and is known for its focus on athleticism, speed, and quick decision-making.

Key Features of Rugby League:

Six-Tackle Rule: In Rugby League, each team has six tackles (downs) to advance the ball before possession is turned over to the opposition.

Play-the-Ball: After a tackle, the player with the ball plays it backward with their foot to a teammate, promoting continuous gameplay.

No Lineouts or Mauls: Rugby League omits certain set-piece plays like lineouts and mauls, streamlining the game and reducing stoppages.

Point System: Scoring in Rugby League includes tries, conversions, penalty goals, and drop goals, similar to Rugby Union but with slight variations in point values.

Key Differences Between Rugby Union and Rugby League

Player Numbers: Rugby Union teams consist of 15 players, while Rugby League teams have 13 players.

Scrums and Set Pieces: Rugby Union utilizes scrums, lineouts, and mauls, whereas Rugby League focuses more on continuous play and does not have scrums or lineouts.

Tackles and Possession: Rugby League features a six-tackle rule, which dictates possession changes after a set number of tackles, encouraging more dynamic gameplay.

Gameplay Style: Rugby Union emphasizes set-piece plays, territorial kicking, and possession retention, whereas Rugby League prioritizes open, attacking play with faster ball movement.

Cultural and Regional Variances

The choice between Rugby Union and Rugby League often reflects cultural and regional preferences. Rugby Union has a more extensive global footprint, with strongholds in countries like New Zealand, South Africa, England, and Australia. It is often associated with tradition, amateur club culture, and prestigious international competitions like the Rugby World Cup.

On the other hand, Rugby League has a particularly strong following in regions like Northern England, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. It is perceived as a working-class sport with a focus on entertainment, speed, and accessibility. Rugby League’s club competitions, such as the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia and the Super League in the UK, are highly popular and contribute to the sport’s unique identity.

See also  Mastering the Basics: A Step-by-Step Guide to Playing Rugby


In conclusion, Rugby Union and Rugby League, though originating from the same sport, have evolved into distinct entities with their own rules, styles, and fan bases. Whether one prefers the strategic complexity of Rugby Union or the fast-paced action of Rugby League, both codes offer thrilling displays of athleticism and teamwork. Understanding the differences between these two versions of rugby enriches the appreciation of this dynamic sport and underscores its global appeal.


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