Rugby is divided into two main “codes”; Rugby League and Rugby Union. Although there are many similarities between the two variants of rugby, the differences are pronounced enough that the two codes can be considered to be two different games.
The split between the disciplines first occurred in the 1890’s, when some Northern clubs decided that they should begin to compensate players who had missed work in order to play. This move was not approved by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) who banned any payment for players, and therefore these Northern clubs decided to break away and form their own sporting body.
Although payments were permitted to players of Rugby League, Rugby Union was not openly professionalised until 100 years later. Payments are now permitted to athletes from both codes.
In Rugby League, each side has 13 active players, and 10 substitutions are allowed during the course of the game. The main aim is to score tries by advancing the ball down the length of the pitch. The opposing team hopes to prevent this by tackling. When a player is successfully tackled in Rugby League, they must drop the ball and roll it behind themselves with their foot, so that it can be picked up by someone else.
There is a finite tackle limit in Rugby League, and when this tackle limit is reached, the ball must be handed over to the opposing team. If the ball is out of play, the opposing team will be awarded a scrum, which almost always results in that team gaining possession of the ball. Scrums may also be used for other infringements. These scrums traditionally consist of a total of 6 people.
The scoring mechanism in the two codes is slightly different too. In Rugby League, a try is worth 4 points, a goal is worth 2 points and a field goal/drop goal is worth 1 point.
In Rugby Union, each side has 15 active players, and 7 substitutions are allowed by each side during the course of the day. Players aim to score points by touching the ball down past the opposing team’s try line. Points can also be scored by kicking the ball through the correct section of the goal posts.
When a player is tackled, the ball can then be picked up by any player from any team, so long as they are on their feet and they have come from an onside position. In theory, there is not a finite number of tackles. If the ball is out of play, a line-out will be awarded to restart the game.
Other minor infringements are solved with scrums. These scrums normally consist of 8 people. In Union, a try earns 5 points, a penalty kick or a drop goal is worth 3 points, and conversion kick is worth 2 points.
Swapping between the codes
Rugby players are not always constrained by the code in which they first learned how to play rugby. Many amateur and professional players have moved between the two (and back again) during the course of their careers. In fact, some showcase competitions have been played between teams who are actually famed for their success in opposing codes, to see how well they would perform against one another. Because there are fewer players to cover the field, and because the ball is in play more frequently, some rugby fans argue that rugby league is more physically demanding than union.
Who plays what?
In the first instance, rugby union and rugby league were often divided along class lines. Because working-class players could not afford to take time off from work in order to play sports, they were often unable to spend time training and playing Rugby Union. However, as players were able to gain remuneration when playing Rugby League, it was a more popular code amongst working-class sportsmen. In contrast, Rugby Union was often played in grammar schools, public schools and at university. This helped to create a strong class divide between the two codes. This class divide is also visible in Australia and New Zealand.
In the United Kingdom, Rugby League is more popular in the north of England, whereas Rugby Union is more popular in the South.