Rugby Union vs Rugby League – What’s the Difference?

Rugby Union vs Rugby League – What’s the Difference?

If you’ve switched on the news, or taken a drive around town recently, you may well have seen that the world is going mad about the Six Nations Championship at the moment.

For those who are new to sport, or just starting to watch rugby union, this might be a little confusing. What’s the difference between the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship? Isn’t Super League, and the NRL just about to start as well? What are all these competitions?

Here’s the thing: Without a little explanation, rugby can be a little confusing. That’s because there are two types of rugby: Rugby union, and rugby league (and technically rugby sevens, but we won’t get into that now). On the surface, these may seem pretty similar—big men and fast men, smashing into each other in an attempt to get an oval ball over a white line.

However, there are plenty of differences between rugby union vs rugby league. And we’re here to explain them all.

Key Differences Between Rugby Union vs Rugby League

OK, so we won’t explain them all. That would take more time than we both have. However, below are five of the key difference between rugby union and rugby league, that separate the two games.

Rugby Union vs Rugby League: Possession

The way that possession is determined and maintained in rugby union differs to rugby league, creating a wildly different game overall.

In rugby union, when a player is tackled with the ball, they must release the ball. This is typically done by the player lying on their side, and placing the ball towards their own team. At this stage, members of both teams generally compete for possession of the ball in what is called a ruck—players use their bodies to push over the ball, without touching it with their hands.

Once the ball is available on one side of the ruck, a player will pick it up and pass or run, beginning open play again. This can continue indefinitely, meaning one team can be in possession of the ball for minutes at a time, provided they defend their rucks correctly.

In rugby league, however, possession unfolds very differently. When a player is tackled, the referee calls that a tackle has been made, and the defending players will release, giving the attacking player an opportunity to roll the ball under their legs. Teams are allowed six tackles, before the ball must be handed over to the opposition.

Therefore, possession typically changes hands much more frequently in rugby league, with teams kicking or trying risky attacking plays on their final tackle.

Rugby Union vs Rugby League: Tackles

Speaking of tackles, this is another difference between rugby union and rugby league.

In rugby union, a player is tackled when they are held on the ground—defined as the knee or back touching the ground while being held by a defending player. In rugby league, however, a tackle occurs when the attacking player is held stationary by defenders, or when the elbow of the arm holding the ball touches the ground.

Other players from the attacking team are not allowed to interfere with the process of a tackle occurring in rugby league, unless their player is going backwards; in rugby union, they are able to join in and form a maul.

In rugby league, legs can be used to bring an attacking player to the ground, whereas any use of the legs by a defender is illegal in rugby union.

Rugby League vs Rugby Union Rugby Union vs Rugby League: Number of Players

Another difference between the two types of rugby is simply the number of players involved. In rugby union, 15 players are on the field for a team at any given time, with eight reserves. These reserves can come on as one-time replacements (with the exception of concussion and blood substitutions).

In rugby league, there are less players, with 13 for each team and four reserves. These reserves can be interchanged multiple times, with eight interchanges available for the match.

Rugby Union vs Rugby League: Scoring

Another minor difference between rugby union vs rugby league is the scoring system.

In rugby union, tries are worth five points, with a further two points for a conversion, and three points each for a drop goal and penalty kick. In rugby league, tries are worth four points with a two point conversion, and drop goals are worth one point, while penalty kicks are worth two points.

Rugby Union vs Rugby League: Set Piece

Something else that separates the two games is the set piece.

In rugby union, when the ball goes out of bounds, it is returned to play via a lineout—a set piece where both teams stand in parallel lines and have the ball thrown down the middle, usually lifting players to compete for possession of the ball. This does not occur in rugby league, with the ball simply being returned to play by a tap and pass.

Scrums are another set piece difference between the two codes. In rugby union, scrums are contested, whereas they are uncontested in rugby league. This means that players do not push against each other in rugby league, and the ball is not fed in straight—the opposite is true in rugby union.

These difference in set pieces mean that rugby union has players who specialise in certain roles in set pieces, such as heavy set props or tall locks, while rugby league does not have this.

Which is Better – Rugby Union or Rugby League?

The result of these differences between rugby union and rugby league is two games which are similar, but also very different. The questions is, which is better?

That depends entirely on your preference. Rugby league is arguably faster paced, with teams incentivised to use their possession and make attacking plays. Rugby union, however, requires more control and strategy, with teams working their way up the field and managing territory and possession more carefully. There are nuances to each game which do not exist in the other as well.

Globally, rugby union is more popular, however in certain countries such as Australia, rugby league is more popular by far.

Top Rugby Union Competitions

  • Rugby Championship
  • Six Nations
  • Super Rugby
  • United Rugby Championship
  • Premiership Rugby

Top Rugby League Competitions

  • Super League
  • NRL

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