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How is Rugby Union different to Rugby League?

How is Rugby Union different to Rugby League? - Absolute Rugby

Matthew Buckland |

In a year when the Rugby League World Cup is taking place, hosted here in the UK, the sport is gaining more media traction than ever. 

Clearly, the event has piqued the public's interest. The number of times “what is rugby league” was searched for on Google increased by 126% on the tournament's first day. 

Despite the growing profile of rugby league, rugby union is the more popular game, and receiving more funding allows its tournaments to be bigger and more widely televised. 

But why is there two different types of rugby, and what’s the difference?  

At Absolute Rugby, we’ve put together your ultimate guide. 

a very muddy rugby player holding the ball in front of their stomach

The Union vs League schism

Following the initial invention at Rugby School, the game started to take off at several clubs and schools. The first governing body, the Rugby Football Union (the RFU), was formed in 1870, and the first official laws were approved the following year. Disagreements about these laws ultimately led to the invention of rugby league. 

In 1892, Yorkshire-based rugby clubs began paying players who had missed work to play in games. A lengthy dispute began between the clubs and the governing body, RFU, as this was in direct contravention of RFU laws. 

After three years of disagreement, there was no chance of reconciliation. Therefore, with the support of Lancashire clubs, the Yorkshire clubs broke away from the RFU permanently. The two neighbouring counties went on to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, while the RFU continued to govern the sport that would eventually become rugby union. 

Clubs operating under the Northern Rugby Football Union played with the same rules as the RFU for a short while but soon created a new kind of game that would eventually be known as rugby league. 

an old image / drawing of rugby players in a maul. the players are wearing old rugby kits with very high waisted trousers

Differences in rules

Differences at a glance:




Number of players



Number of substitutions per game



Points given for a try



Points given for a conversion



Points given for a drop goal



Points given for a penalty 





In terms of tacking, there are a few ways that league differs from union. 

When a player is tackled in rugby union, they must release the ball. It’s legal for any player to pick it up, providing they’re on their feet and onside. This is why rugby union players compete for the ball on the ground in rucks or try and keep tackled players off the ground in mauls. In rugby union, if the ball is kicked out of play, the match is restarted with a lineout. 

However, in rugby league, when a player is tackled, they have to place the ball between their legs and use their foot to roll it back to a teammate. This move is sometimes known as a “chicken scratch”. Each team can do this six times per possession of the ball. If no try has been scored after six attempts, the ball must be kicked away towards the opposition. If the ball goes out of play due to this kick, the game restarts with a six-player scrum. 


In rugby league, players tend to be less concerned with contesting possession, and there are fewer stoppages. The ball tends to be in play for 50 minutes of 80 in league games, as opposed to 35 minutes in rugby union. With the ball in play more often and fewer players per team, it's often thought that rugby league is the more tiring rugby variant. 


Regarding laws, rugby league and rugby union have some differences. Some are subtle, and some are more noticeable throughout the game. 

Both league and union use the “sin bin”. League introduced the concept first in 1980. Rugby union had been experimenting with it since 1979; however, it was only formally introduced in the game in 2001. 

Video referee technology, known as TMO (television match official), was first introduced to rugby league in 1996, with rugby union following suit in 2001. 

One difference in gameplay laws is that in rugby league, the ball can be thrown or knocked out of play deliberately, whereas this is a penalty offence in rugby union. 

There’s even a difference between the balls used in each variant. The ball used for rugby union is slightly more rounded, whereas rugby league balls are more pointy, owing to the quicker pace of the game. 

one rugby player struggles to keep moving as they are tackled from the right hand side by an opponent

International competitions

Rugby union

Six Nations - the Six Nations is the oldest international rugby union competition, played between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy. 

World Cup - contested by countries worldwide, the rugby union world cup is held every four years. The Rugby World Cup 2023 will be hosted by France.

Rugby Union Sevens at the Summer Olympics and Commonwealth Games - rugby union was an Olympic sport in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924. It didn’t appear again until 2016 when it returned in the form of rugby sevens.

Rugby league 

Four Nations - this was rugby league’s major annual competition, first played in 1999. The Four Nations was contested between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and another invited nation. However, the tournament hasn’t taken place since 2016. 

World Cup - first held in 1954, the rugby league world cup has been held intermittently since. The tournament is now settling into a four-yearly routine. 

Rugby League Nines - a relatively new format which launched in 2019, with Australia taking the men’s title and New Zealand winning the women’s version. 

Hopefully, you now understand better how rugby league differs from rugby union and how the two variants came to be. 

It’s great to see rugby in all its forms getting more attention!

For more from us at Absolute Rugby, make sure you visit our blog

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