Rugby Union Vs Rugby League What’s the difference?

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Written By Hutch

To the uninitiated, both rugby union and rugby league may mean the same thing. Perhaps a variation in name, but to the dedicated regulars of this beautiful game, there’s more to this game that’s unique to both codes. Despite sharing a common origin, these two forms of rugby have evolved, setting aside unique rules, structures, and even fanbases.

For instance, both rugby union and rugby league vary in terms of the number of players that take part in this game, and that’s just one of the distinctions between both codes. So, Stick around as we explore the exciting ways in which these two versions differ.

Difference Between Rugby League And Rugby Union

  • Formation and Team Structure

Starting from the most obvious aspect of the game, the team structure and formation vary in both codes. Eight forwards and seven backs make up a rugby union team’s fifteen players. However, rugby league uses a more simplified 12-player system, with six forwards and seven backs. Because of this difference in player count, the game’s general dynamics are different in the two versions.

  • Tackling Rules

In rugby, tackling is a fundamental part, but the rules vary between rugby union and rugby league. In rugby union, a ruck happens after a tackle, leading to a contest for the ball. In rugby league, a tackle leads to a play-the-ball scenario, where the tackled player rolls the ball backward with their foot for a teammate to pick up.

  • Set Pieces and Scrum

One of the things that makes Rugby Union so strategic is its use of set pieces like scrums and lineouts. On the other hand, set pieces are not used very often in rugby league; in fact, scrums are the only type of tackle that is contested following specific stoppages. Rugby League streamlines the game and emphasizes continuous play by doing away with lineouts.

  • Tries, Conversions, and Points System

Both versions score tries and conversions, but the values and methods differ. A Rugby Union try is worth five points, while a conversion adds two points. Conversely, a Rugby League try is worth four points, and a conversion is worth two. In addition, the Rugby League also introduced the one-point drop goal, an alternative scoring system to the Rugby Union.

  • Playing Time

The duration of a match also sets the two versions apart. Consists of two halves, each lasting 40 minutes of actual playing time, while Rugby League matches are shorter, lasting 35 minutes. This is due to the lesser emphasis on contesting possession. Again, extra time may be added for stoppages.

  • Substitution

In Rugby Union, substitutions are more flexible, permitting replaced players to re-enter the field under specific conditions. In contrast, Rugby League does not allow a substituted player to return during the same game.

  • Player Specialization

The structural differences in team composition influence player specialization. Rugby Union forwards are often larger and more robust, focusing on set pieces and scrummaging. On the other hand, Rugby League forwards, while still powerful, need to maintain a balance of speed and agility due to the faster pace of the game.

Table: A Side-by-Side Comparison

AspectRugby LeagueRugby Union
Number of Players1315
Playing Field SizeSmallerLarger
Tackle LimitSix tackles before turnoverUnlimited
Ball MovementQuick and dynamicStrategic and varied
Restart after TacklePlay-the-ballScrum
Set Pieces None (no rucks or maulsScrums, lineouts, rucks, and mauls
Alternative scoring methodDrop goalNo drop goal
Substitution rules Substituted players can return under specific conditions.Substituted players cannot re-enter the game.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are scoring rules the same in the Rugby League and Rugby Union?

Yes, both share the fundamental objective of scoring tries, conversions, penalties, and drop goals.

Can players switch between the two codes?

Yes, though playing style and rule differences require adaptation.

 Why do these variations exist?

Historical factors and disagreements over player compensation caused the split in the early 20th century.

Are player positions specific to each code?

While many positions have equivalents, nuances exist. For example, the role of a “hooker” differs, influencing playing styles.

Final Word

In summary, the differences between the Rugby League and the Rugby Union bring complexity and excitement to rugby. Both have rich histories and devoted fans, with unique features appealing to different preferences in gameplay and strategy. Whether you prefer the fast pace of the Rugby League or the strategic details of Rugby Union, rugby’s essence lies in providing diverse experiences for players and fans.

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