Difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union

Updated on February 24, 2018

If you ever experienced a sudden peak in interest for rugby and you followed a few random games, you may have been confused about how some of the rules varied, although you thought you got them right the first time. This may be because you have watched a rugby league and a rugby union match and they are not one and the same thing. So what is the difference between rugby league and rugby union?


Rugby League

Rugby league is a full contact sport played by two teams made up of thirteen players divided into forwards and backs. The game originated in England in 1895 and was played in colleges. Initially, there were no rules regarding the number of team members and the game was a large squabble over kicking the ball. After one student introduced the notion of carrying the ball, the rules of modern day rugby started to be coined.

In rugby league, points are scored by carrying the ball and touching it to the ground beyond the opposing team’s goal line. This is called a try. In order to stop a goal from being scored, the opposing team can tackle the player with the ball. Points can also be scored by field goals, kicks at goal which can be awarded as penalties or after a try from the opposing team. Rugby league is played in over 70 countries, 36 of which are ranked in the RFU (Rugby Football Union).

Rugby union is a contact sport originating from England in 1895. It is played by two teams made out of fifteen players. Originally, the people who made up the teams were workers from local factories, which were excused from work to play. After a while, the owners of the factories started to cut the hours the players were not at work. In time, compensation was introduced when players from other factories joined one team when the stakes were high, and this is how they started to get paid to play. This was the reason why the rugby league, mainly played in colleges, and the rugby union separated.

Rugby union is played in 100 countries in the world. The biggest competition in rugby union is the Rugby World Cup, which takes place once every four years and which awards the Webb Ellis Cup.

Rugby League vs Rugby Union

So what is the difference between rugby league and rugby union?

Apart from the century old split, there are differences between the two games. Rugby union has two extra players: the blindside flanker and the opposite flanker. On the other hand, the players of rugby league take advantage of the lack of these two players and have a faster flowing game. The numbers of the shirts of the players vary from rugby league to rugby union as well. Apart from the numbers, the names of the players may sound the same, but in fact they refer to different field responsibilities.

Many of the laws for scoring points are similar. However, there are numerous small differences which have widened the gap between the two games through the years. For example, a drop goal is worth 3 points in union rugby and 1 point in league rugby. Also, a penalty score is worth 3 points in union and 2 in league. Tackling is permitted in both cases, but the voluntary tackle (going to ground without actually having been tackled) is not allowed in rugby league. The size of the pitch is different, too, as the league pitch is between 112 and 122 meters long, whereas the union pitch is 144 meters long.

The two forms of rugby have a lot of similarities. In both cases the match lasts for 80 minutes, and the goals are scored by tries, conversions penalty goals and drop goals. Both teams are divided into backs and forwards.

Comparison Chart

Rugby leagueRugby union
Created in England in 1895Created in England in 1895
Was played in collegesWas played by factory workers
Has 13 playersHas 15 players
The team is divided between backs and forwardsThe team is divided between backs and forwards
A match lasts for 80 minutesA match lasts for 80 minutes
A pitch is 112 to 122 meters longA pitch is 144 meters long
A penalty is 2 pointsA penalty is 3 points
A drop goal is 1 point A drop goal is 3 points
Is played in 70 countriesIs played in 100 countries
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