The distinction between ‘Rugby Union’ and ‘Rugby League’ is one that has created a fair amount of confusion over the years. In this section, we will give you more information about the inception of the two codes and their differences.
The debate over how different they are, whether they are reconcilable and which is better is likely to continue forever. Once upon a time, however, there was only one rugby code, and some purists would like to see a return to those days. That said, the trend in recent years has been for ‘Union’ and ‘League’ to drift further apart.
History of Rugby League
Originally only one form of rugby existed, but in the late 19th century a lot of problems and differences of opinion arose. In 1895 some leading Northern clubs decided to form a breakaway. They wanted to be able to compensate players for time missed from ‘work’, but became frustrated by the attitude of those in power down south. The result was the ‘Northern Rugby Football Union’.
This was then renamed ‘Rugby League’ in 1922. Rugby League clubs were then able to pay their players. This cost had to be offset against ticket sales, however, and thus clubs were forced to make changes to the game in order to draw in more spectators. This led to a number of big changes to the rules and differences developing between ‘League’ and ‘Union’.
Rule Differences Between Union & League
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two is the number of players on a side. A ‘Union’ side will consist of 15 players, whereas a ‘League’ side only has 13. Broadly speaking, fewer players on the pitch should lead to more space, and so it is considered games should be more exciting. Reducing the number of players was not the only change that ‘League’ made to make their game more exciting. Firstly, they got rid of line-outs and also phased out rucks and mauls. To a large extent, scrums have also been removed from the game. These changes were made in a bid to keep the ball in play for as long as possible. The replacement in ‘League’ is the play-the-ball restart – something which has become synonymous with the game. This is where a player, once tackled, must roll the ball backwards with his foot through his legs to a teammate.
One of the other major differences in rules is the tackle limit. In ‘Union’ there is no limit to the number of tackles that can be made on each possession, and one team will keep the ball for as long as they can before the opposition recover it. ‘Rugby League’, however, has a six-tackle rule – similar to the ‘downs’ rule of American Football. Once a team has been tackled six times, they must give up possession of the ball. That said, typically after five tackles, the team with possession will always kick the ball to the sideline or another area deemed advantageous for them.
Further differences between the codes exist in other areas, such as the scoring system and the ball. In ‘League’ a try is worth 4 points, and a conversion is worth 2. In ‘Union’ they are worth 5 and 2 respectively. A drop goal is also worth 3 points in ‘Union’, whereas it is only worth 1 in ‘League’, and a penalty goal is worth 3 in ‘Union’ and 2 in ‘League’. The size and shape of the ball are also slightly different between the two games.
What difference do all these rule variances actually make to the way the game plays though?! In short, it would appear that the statistics suggest that they do. Firstly, ‘League’ is a far simpler game for the spectator to understand. ‘Union’ has far more complex rules, and so can often get quite confusing. ‘League’ is thus arguably far more suitable for a TV audience. The six-tackle rule in ‘League’ also seems to lead to a better division of possession – despite the fact that in ‘Union’ there are more chances to contest it.
Statistics also show that the ball is in play more in ‘Rugby League’, and that there are fewer breaks in play. Studies have shown that in ‘Union’ the ball is actually in play for only about 35 minutes per match, whereas in ‘League’ the figure is around the 50-minute mark. There also seem to be more tries scored in ‘League’. ‘Rugby Union’ Premiership stats suggest there are an average of 4.5 tries per game in their code – the figure being around 7-8 per game in ‘League’. There are however more drop goals in ‘Union’ – at least in the Northern Hemisphere – which may have something to do with the aforementioned scoring variances.
The question has often been posed – could we ever go back to just one code of rugby? Recent years have seen an increasing number of players switching from one code to another, and various cross-code matches, suggesting that perhaps there would be scope for combining the two games. There are some major similarities in the game, and some people are fans of both codes.
Whilst it is a very interesting question, I would suggest any form of reconciliation becomes increasingly unlikely. As time has progressed these two games have drifted further apart and become more different, with largely different fanbases. Ultimately any merger would likely leave everybody dissatisfied now, and so the chances of it one day happening are growing weaker all the time. When both sports are so popular and successful in their own right, who would benefit from a merger anyway?