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What Is Rugby Union and How Does It Differ from Rugby League?

Rugby ball on a field at sunset with stadium lights in the background.

Confused about the difference between Rugby Union and League? You’re not alone. Our guide will clear up the differences, from player numbers to scoring systems. Discover which code might be your favourite sport to watch or play.

Dive in for a rough and tumble journey!

Key Takeaways

  • Rugby Union teams have 15 players, while Rugby League has 13, impacting the pace and strategies of each game.
  • The scoring in Rugby Union awards 5 points for a try, unlike Rugby League’s 4 points; matches also differ with Union having potentially more points on offer from kicks.
  • In possession rules, Rugby Union uses scrums and lineouts after tackles to contest ball control, whereas Rugby League allows six tackles before turnover.
  • The physical demands of both games are high, but the style of play varies due to different tackling rules and pitch sizes.
  • International competitions like the Six Nations showcase top – level Rugby Union talent, while the Rugby League World Cup highlights the best in its code.

History of Rugby Union and Rugby League

The history of rugby union and rugby league dates back to the split between the two codes in 1895. This led to the naming of rugby union and rugby league as separate sports, each with their own set of rules and regulations.

Initial split between the two codes

Rugby’s divide into Union and League began in 1895. At the heart of the split was a fierce debate over player compensation. Northern English clubs supported paying players for missed work due to matches, but others strongly opposed this idea.

This disagreement sparked a major rift in the rugby world, leading to two distinct codes.

As time passed, each code evolved its own set of rules and gameplay styles. Rugby Union maintained an amateur status for longer, focusing on traditional values of sportsmanship and teamwork.

In contrast, Rugby League professionalised more rapidly, adapting rules that encouraged a faster-paced game with fewer players on the field – just 13 compared to Union’s 15. These changes shaped not only how each game is played but also their respective cultures and fan bases around the globe.

Naming of rugby union and rugby league

Rugby Union and Rugby League are named after the distinct sets of rules they follow. The term ‘rugby’ in both cases refers to the sport’s origin in Rugby School, where it was established.

However, the two codes were officially separated when the Northern Rugby Football Union (now known as Rugby League) split from the Rugby Football Union (now called Rugby Union) in 1895 due to disputes over player compensation for missed work.

Rugby League is also sometimes referred to as “league football” or simply “league,” while Rugby Union tends to be more formally addressed by its full name or just called “union.” These names reflect their unique histories and rule variations that set them apart in gameplay.

Similarities between Rugby Union and Rugby League

Both Rugby Union and Rugby League share similarities in terms of possession, tackling, scoring, laws, pitch dimensions, and the number of players on the field. Despite their differences, both codes still maintain a deep connection to the original form of rugby football.


In Rugby Union, possession is contested through set-piece plays such as scrums and lineouts. These set-piece plays break up the flow of the game and provide opportunities for teams to regain possession or launch attacking moves.

Meanwhile, in Rugby League, possession is more fluid with fewer contested set-pieces. The game allows for quicker play-the-balls after tackles, ensuring a faster pace compared to Rugby Union.

This means that in Rugby League, maintaining possession and controlling the ball becomes key to gaining ground and scoring opportunities.


Rugby Union and Rugby League have different rules when it comes to tackling. In Rugby League, a player is allowed 6 tackles before the opposing team gains possession. Conversely, in Rugby Union, there is no set limit on the number of tackles a team can make before turning over possession.

This difference in tackling rules impacts the strategy and flow of the game in each code.

The tackling style also varies between Rugby Union and Rugby League. While both codes emphasise strong, effective tackles, the technique differs due to each code’s unique rules and gameplay style.


After understanding the differences in tackling between Rugby Union and Rugby League, it’s important to note that the scoring system also varies between the two forms of rugby. In Rugby Union, a try is worth 5 points, while a goal (also known as a conversion) is worth 3 points.

Additionally, penalty goals and drop goals are valued at 3 points each. On the other hand, in Rugby League, a try is worth 4 points and a goal contributes 2 points to the scoreboard.

Similar to Rugby Union, penalty goals and drop goals are also worth 1 point each.


Rugby Union and Rugby League have distinct sets of laws governing gameplay. In Rugby Union, a try is worth 5 points, while a successful conversion adds 2 points, and a penalty or drop goal rewards 3 points each.

On the other hand, in Rugby League, tries are valued at 4 points, conversions contribute an additional 2 points, and goals give the team 1 point each. Additionally, in Rugby Union matches can see up to 8 substitutions during a game whereas there are up to10 allowed in rugby league.

Furthermore, physically imposing tackles are characteristic of both games; however, they differ in approach with Rugby League allowing only six tackles before possession turnover while Rugby Union has no set limit on tackles.

In addition to these distinctions between the two codes lies differing rules regarding scrums and lineouts. In Rugby Union’s contested scrums provide restarting play opportunities after minor stoppages compared to fewer opportunities within rugby league’s format for this type of play restarts.


Moving on from the laws of Rugby, let’s delve into the specifics of the pitch. In Rugby Union, a standard pitch size is a maximum of 144m x 70m, while in Rugby League, pitches can be a maximum size of 122m x 68m.

The difference in size is reflective of each code’s emphasis on different aspects of gameplay and strategy. Additionally, with these variations in pitch dimensions come adjustments in player positioning and tactical approaches to maximise playing space effectively.

In terms of defending and attacking strategies due to the differences in field sizes between Rugby Union and Rugby League, teams need to adapt their movements and formations accordingly.


Transitioning from the discussion about the pitch, let’s now turn our attention to the players in Rugby Union and Rugby League. In Rugby Union, a team is made up of 15 players on the field at any given time, each with specific positions such as props, locks, flankers, scrum-halves, fly-halves, centres, wingers and full-backs.

Additionally in rugby union matches it’s not uncommon to have up to eight substitutions throughout a game. Conversely in Rugby League matches consist of 13 players on each team with positions like forwards and backs; for those games up to ten substitutions are allowed.

Rugby Union features more set-piece plays including scrums and lineouts which provide contested possession opportunities during play. There are no set limits on tackles during a rugby union match compared to Rugby League where there are six tackles allowed before turnover of possession occurs.

Differences in Gameplay

Rugby Union and Rugby League differ in gameplay, with variations in the number of players on the field, size of the pitch, possession rules, rugby balls used, and physicality of the game.

Understanding these differences can help fans appreciate both codes as distinct sports.

Number of players on the field

Rugby Union allows 15 players per team on the field, while Rugby League has 13 players. This difference in team size can impact gameplay strategies, as well as the intensity and physicality of the game.

With two fewer players on each side, Rugby League matches may see more open space and faster-paced action compared to Rugby Union.

In addition to fewer players, a smaller team in rugby league may also result in more individual responsibility for defensive and offensive duties. This dynamic creates a unique playing experience and presents distinct challenges for both teams involved.

Size of the pitch

Rugby Union pitches can measure up to 144 metres by 70 metres, while Rugby League pitches are slightly smaller, with a maximum size of 122 by 68 metres. The larger playing area in Rugby Union allows for more open play and strategic manoeuvring, whereas the comparatively smaller pitch in Rugby League often results in more intense and physical gameplay.

These differences in pitch size contribute significantly to the distinct styles of play seen across both codes.

In Rugby Union, the spacious pitch caters to the game’s emphasis on expansive and fluid movement, enabling teams to exploit gaps and create scoring opportunities through dynamic ball-handling skills.

Possession rules

Rugby Union and Rugby League differ in possession rules. In Rugby Union, after a tackle or when the ball goes out of play, there is a contest for possession through scrums and lineouts.

This means that there are more contested possession opportunities throughout the game compared to Rugby League. On the other hand, in Rugby League, possession changes occur after six tackles by the defending team or if an error is made during play.

As a result, this creates fewer contested possessions than in Rugby Union.

Rugby balls used

Rugby Union and Rugby League use slightly different balls. A Rugby Union ball is oval-shaped and larger than a Rugby League ball, with a circumference of around 58-62 centimetres. In contrast, a Rugby League ball is also oval-shaped but slightly smaller, usually with a circumference of about 56-59 centimetres.

The size difference in the balls reflects the variations in gameplay between the two codes, contributing to differences in passing, kicking, and handling techniques for players.

Moreover, the construction of the balls varies as well. A standard Rugby Union ball has four panels stitched together to form its distinctive shape, while a traditional Rugby League ball consists of fewer panels but retains its characteristic appearance.

Physicality of the game

The physicality of rugby is a defining aspect of the game, with players requiring strength, endurance, and athleticism to excel. Tackling in both Rugby Union and Rugby League demands robust physicality, as players aim to overpower opponents within the rules of the game.

The dynamic nature of rugby matches showcases the intense physical demands placed on players as they engage in scrums, lineouts, and strategic plays that rely on sheer power and determination.

The collision-based nature of rugby often leads to impactful tackles and powerful runs that highlight the sport’s rugged physicality. Players need to be adaptable and resilient in response to the vigorous challenges posed by their opponents across each phase of play.

Popularity and Competition

Rugby Union and Rugby League both have dedicated fan bases and are played at an international level. Both codes have their own unique competitions, like the Six Nations for Rugby Union and the Rugby League World Cup for Rugby League, attracting fans from all over the world.

Demographics of fans and players

Rugby Union and Rugby League both attract a diverse fan base, with a wide range of demographics supporting the sport. Rugby Union generally has a broader international following, particularly in countries like New Zealand, England, South Africa, and Australia.

On the other hand, Rugby League tends to have strong support in regions such as Northern England and areas of Australia. Both sports appeal to fans who appreciate high-intensity physical competition and strategic gameplay.

In terms of players, both forms of rugby attract individuals from various backgrounds who possess a love for the game’s intensity and teamwork.

International competitions such as the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship

Inclusion in events like the Summer Olympics and Commonwealth Games

Both Rugby Union and Rugby League have gained increased recognition with their inclusion in prestigious events like the Summer Olympics and Commonwealth Games. This has provided a platform for both forms of rugby to showcase their unique gameplay, attracting new fans and players to the sport.

The global stage offered by these events has significantly boosted the popularity of rugby, contributing to its widespread appeal worldwide.

Rugby’s participation in such international competitions has been instrumental in solidifying its status as a dynamic and competitive sport, captivating audiences from diverse backgrounds.

Rugby League World Cup and Rugby Union World Cup

The Rugby League World Cup and Rugby Union World Cup are the pinnacle of international competition in each code. These tournaments showcase the best teams from around the world competing for the ultimate prize.

  1. The Rugby League World Cup is contested by men’s national rugby league teams from across the globe, including powerhouses like Australia, New Zealand, and England.
  2. In contrast, the Rugby Union World Cup features national teams from both men’s and women’s categories, with famous battles between traditional rugby powers such as New Zealand, South Africa, and England.
  3. Both tournaments occur every four years and draw massive global audiences, with fervent support for their respective nations.
  4. The Rugby League World Cup has a rich history spanning back to 1954 when France hosted the inaugural tournament.
  5. On the other hand, the Rugby Union World Cup began in 1987 with New Zealand as its first host nation.
  6. These events serve as platforms for players to showcase their skills on an international stage and bring exciting matches to fans worldwide.

Conclusion: Which is the Better Game and Final Thoughts.

Rugby Union and Rugby League are distinct forms of rugby, each with its own set of rules and gameplay. Rugby Union allows 15 players per team, while Rugby League has 13. The size of the pitch, number of substitutions allowed, scoring system, and tackling rules all differ between the two games.

Both have their own international tournaments and leagues that attract diverse fan bases.


1. What is Rugby Union?

Rugby Union is a type of rugby where teams of fifteen players compete on a rugby pitch, with matches consisting of two halves and various rules that define the game.

2. How does Rugby League differ from Rugby Union?

Rugby League differs from Rugby Union mainly in the number of players, as league teams have thirteen players instead of fifteen, and in aspects such as tackling rules and how possessions are contested during play.

3. Can you tell me about a variant of Rugby Union?

Certainly! A popular variant called Rugby Sevens has teams with only seven players each, resulting in faster games played on the same-sized pitch but often with shorter match durations.

4. What’s important for every rugby player to know when switching between leagues?

Every rugby player should learn the distinct rules and strategies for their specific team positions since these can vary significantly between Rugby Union and Rugby League gameplay.

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