Rugby: Union Vs League – What Is The Difference?

Despite rugby having grown in popularity dramatically over recent years, with the game having now been professional for over 20 years, there is still some confusion when it comes to the two forms of the game. Rugby is divided into two codes, Union and League. Although the main principles of the games are the same, the differences between the duo are large enough that the two codes are very much regarded as two separate games. With the split between the two codes having first come about back in the 1890’s, major rule changes have occurred right up until the present day, giving us the games in which we see today. Let’s take a closer look at the two forms of the game, as well as some of the major forces from around the world.

Rugby Union

A Rugby Union match is comprised of 30 active players, 15 on each team, with seven substitutes allowed during the course of a game. The main objective is to score points by touching the ball down within the opponent’s try line, however points are also commonly scored via penalty kicks or drop goals. Within Rugby Union, when a player is tackled, the ball can then be picked up by any player on the field, as long as they remain on their feet and come from an onside position. The game does not stop until the ball is knocked-on, a penalty, line-out or try is awarded, or if the television match officials are needed to review an on-field incident. Within Rugby Union, a try is worth five points, a penalty or drop goal worth three, and conversions just two.

Meanwhile, minor mistakes or infringements are resolved with a scrum, where the forward pack aims to regain possession of the ball for their team. Rugby Union became a professional sport back in 1995, following the success of the World Cup in South Africa.

Rugby League

When it comes to Rugby League, each team is made up of 13 players, with 10 substitutions also allowed during the course of a match. As in Rugby Union, the main aim of the game is to score tries by touching the ball down in the opposing team’s try line. Opposing players will be aiming to stop the opposition by tackling them to the ground, with tackled players then required to drop the ball and roll it behind them with their foot, before it is picked up by a team mate.

Teams have a tackle limit of six, and upon reaching this number, the ball must be handed over to the other team, with kicking often coming into play at this point in the game. Should the ball go out of play, the opposing team will be awarded a scrum, rather than a line-out as used in Rugby Union. Scrums also consist of fewer players than in Union, at just six. A try in a Rugby League match is worth just 4 points, with a goal worth two and a drop-goal worth 1.

Moving Between Codes

Over the years, any number of players have moved between the two forms of the game, each to varying levels of success. The likes of Jason Robinson, Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams are among the biggest names to have converted from League to Union, while Gareth Thomas and Lesley Vainikolo made the opposite journey. The debate as to which is the best game will undoubtedly never be resolved, although Union has substantially gained in popularity over recent years, despite League players maintaining that their game is more physically demanding.

Who Plays What?

Throughout different regions, the popularity between Rugby Union and League wavers. Having once been divided by social classes, with working classes not being able to afford the time to take off work, the two forms of the game are now more commonly separated by location. Within the UK, Rugby League is more prominent in the north of England, whereas Rugby Union dominates the south of the country. Across Europe, Union is also the more commonly played code, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere there is a close battle between the two.

In the Northern Hemisphere, teams such as Saracens, Racing Metro 92 and Leicester Tigers have been among the most successful in recent history, while the likes of the Leeds Rhinos, St Helens and the Wigan Warriors have all enjoyed success of late. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Canterbury Crusaders and Auckland Blues are two of New Zealand’s major forces in Union, while the Brisbane Broncos and Sydney Roosters have dominated the League scene in Australia of late.