The differences between Rugby Union and Rugby League (and a whole lot more) But first: a history lesson. Back in 1823, at a local football match in the town of Rugby, an English school-boy named William Webb-Ellis supposedly picked up the ball and ran with it. Pretty soon, this became a popular game and in 1871 lead to the creation of the governing body known as the RFU, the Rugby Football Union of which still exists today. That’s nice and all, but why are there two different kinds? Back then, there were two kinds of players. Firstly, there were the Amateurs. These were public schoolboys or people rich enough to play the game for free, and who didn’t need to be paid. Secondly, there were the professionals. These people who were so poor that they needed to be paid to play a child’s game because they couldn’t afford the time off work. Nowadays, being a professional sportsman is quite a good job, but back then it was seen as worse than prostitution.
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Professionals were usually from the north of England, particularly Lancashire and Yorkshire. Pretty soon though, they realised that being paid money to play a game wasn’t such a bad idea and started formed fully professional teams. The RFU not happy that these Northern Professionals were beating the Southern Amateurs at their own game and being paid quite well for it, decided to ban professionals, professional teams and anyone playing professionals or professional teams. The Professionals not liking this, set up their own league in 1895 and called themselves the Northern Rugby Football Union, later to be renamed ‘Rugby League’ whilst the RFU named their sport ‘Rugby Union’. These two sports have been separate ever since 1895 and to this day you’ll find most of the professional rugby league teams in the North of England and most of the professional Rugby union teams are located in the south. Okay, so what IS the difference? In general, both kinds of rugby have the same idea: you have to run with the ball and touch it down onto your opponent’s in-goal area to score. You can pass the ball sideways or backwards, but not forwards. The opponents have to stop you by grabbing the ball carrier and pulling him to the floor. The main difference between the two sports is what happens after the tackle. In Rugby Union, the tackle is ‘contested’. This means that as soon as a tackle has been made, the ball carrier MUST let go of the ball. This also means in theory, either team can pick it up and run with it. This is known as the ruck. It looks like a giant mess of bodies pushing each other and lying on the floor a lot. And it is: sort of. They’re trying to get the ball. In Rugby League however, the tackle is uncontested. After the ball carrier is tackled – the opponent must let go of him and his team must retreat 10 metres. The ball carrier then kicks the ball back to a teammate and they try and run forward with the ball again. The team is allowed up to 6 tackles to score before the referee gives the ball to the other team so that they can have their six tackles. This might seem like a minor rule change, but this has resulted in two almost completely different sports. Other differences include: 15 men are in a Union team, as opposed to 13 men in Rugby League. 5 points for a try in Union, 4 points for a try in League. 3 points for a penalty kick in Union, 2 points in League. 3 points for a drop goal in Union, but it’s only worth 1 point in League. In Rugby Union, the key emphasis is on tactics, retaining possession and kicking for better field position in Rugby League it’s all about being able to hit your way through a brick wall full of men, moving the ball quickly and scoring within the six tackles. There are many other rules that differ between the two codes of rugby, but those are the main ones you need to know about. American Football fans who watch Rugby League for the first time generally understand it very quickly, as these two sports are very similar. That same cannot be said about Rugby Union, which will forever confuse our American friends for years to come. So why did Rugby League change the rules? If you remember the professionals of 1895, they needed to be paid. To make more money from spectators, they had to change the rules of the game to make it more exciting for spectators to watch. This includes reducing the scoring, reducing the number of men, and include an even amount of possession by limiting the tackles per team. This is why some people say that Rugby League is more exciting to watch. Unionists would argue that they dumbed down the rules because their tiny little Northern monkey brains couldn’t understand Rugby Union, but this is certainly not the reason. Unionists usually refer to Rugby League players as ‘idiots’, whereas League fans think of Union players as ‘fat public schoolboys who can’t take a hit’. So what’s more popular? Rugby Union is the more popular sport as it has been around for longer. It’s also the defacto code of rugby that you’ll probably learn in school. Only a handful of countries play Rugby League. In fact, the only country where Rugby League is more popular than Rugby Union is … (of all places) … Australia! But in reality, when most people say ‘Rugby’, they’re usually referring to Rugby Union. So which is better? To answer that question: let’s use the analogy of chess and checkers. Checkers, like Rugby League is a very simple game to understand. Every piece is the same, and they all have an equal role. It’s a fast game and you really don’t need to be a genius to understand what’s going on. Chess (like Rugby Union) is an infinitely more complicated game to understand. Some pieces are different than others and perform different roles. It’s a much slower game and it’s all about strategy and tactics. You have to be more tactically aware to play Rugby Union. But you have to be fitter to play Rugby League, as your job mainly consists of running with the ball and being smashed in the face for 80 minutes. So the question is, which do you prefer? Chess or Checkers? Rugby League or Rugby Union. The only way you’ll truly know is to watch or play both kinds of games and deciding for yourself. A, www.ninh.co.uk, @NinhLyUK