Ruck U Lesson 1: The difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union

Welcome to Ruck University!

Ruck U will be a new feature here at Layman’s Sports. I have always loved sports and history, so there are few subjects I enjoy more than sport history. Ruck U will be dedicated to telling the epic and historic tales of the great sport of rugby. As with any good school, Ruck U will aim to educate as well as entertain.

I don’t think there is a better city in the world to be a sports fan than here in Toronto. We just have everything. Hockey, baseball, football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, rugby league, and rugby union all have professional teams within the city. Most recently the Toronto Arrows will be joining Major League Rugby for the 2019 season. Since the announcement of the team, I have had plenty of conversations where people ask me “what about the Wolfpack” or “don’t we already have a rugby team”. I then go on to explain the difference between rugby league and rugby union. I have been having this conversation enough that I decided Ruck University’s first lesson will be exactly that: the difference between rugby league and rugby union.

To start, let’s clear up the difference between the two Toronto teams. The Toronto Wolfpack play rugby league and they compete in the English based Championship, the Rugby Football League’s 2nd division. The Toronto Arrows play rugby union and compete in the North American based Major League Rugby competition. The easiest way I can explain the difference between rugby league and rugby union is to think of the Canadian Football League and the National Football League. At quick glance the CFL and NFL appear to be the same sport. However, the longer you watch you will notice differences in the rules that alter the way the game is played. Rugby is the same way. From a distance rugby league and rugby union may appear to be the same sport, but it only takes watching one game of each to notice that there is plenty of differences.

The differences in the game date back to 1895 from what is known as “the split”. Up until 1895 rugby was played by one set of laws (in rugby the rules are referred to as “laws”). All the clubs across England were governed by the Rugby Football Union (RFU). However, there was a disconnect between the clubs in the North and the clubs in the South. The Northern clubs began to compensate players for their time since playing for the club meant they had to miss work. Bradford and Leeds were the first clubs to be sanctioned for paying players in 1892. Many Northern clubs then put together a proper plan for how to compensate the players on their teams. The plan was shot down by the RFU as tensions between the North and the South began to grow.

On August 27th 1895 the northern clubs broke away from the RFU and officially formed the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU). The NRFU would be a professional sport while the RFU remained amateur. In fact, rugby union would not become a professional sport until 1995! A full century after rugby league began to pay players, rugby union would do the same. The split still divides people today, especially in England. Many people will passionately love one code and openly despise the other. Of course, there are many people do enjoy both.

Initially, the NRFU, which would eventually come to be known as the Rugby Football League (RFL), played under the same laws as the RFU. However, the NRFU began to change many of the laws in an effort to make the game appealing to spectators.

The fundamental differences between rugby union and rugby league are:

The biggest difference between the two codes is the contested rucks and play the ball law. However, this law is directly tied into rugby union having unlimited tackles and rugby league having a 6 tackle limit. “Tackles” in rugby league work on the same idea as “downs” in football. However, unlike in football, you do not earn another set by simply moving 10 yards. Rugby league teams have 6 tackles to go the length of the field. If a player is tackled, they have to “play the ball”. The defending team allows the tackled player to get up and the players that did not make the tackle retreat 10 meters. The tackled player then rolls the ball under his foot to a teammate and play resumes. After the 6th tackle, the ball is turned over. As a result, in a strategy similar to football, when a team is on their 5th tackle you will often see them kick the ball away for field position or if they are close enough. The play the ball rule looks like this:

In rugby union, there is no limit to how many times your team can be tackled. As a result, the only way for the defending team to get the ball back is to take it back. When a player is tackled they must release the ball. A ruck will then form where the defending team will attempt to steal the ball and the offensive team will protect it. A ruck looks like this:

This is an exceptional sequence to illustrate the biggest difference between rugby league and rugby union. First, there is 41 rucks (referred to as phases instead of downs). France is actually playing some pretty good defence here, they just can’t find a way to steal the ball back and end the game. Ireland does a great job protecting the ball in the ruck. The players being tackled do a great job presenting the ball to the scrum half and there is plenty of support at every breakdown. Ireland slowly marches up the field until they are in Johnny Sexton’s range. Sexton makes no mistake on the drop-goal and Ireland win. In rugby league, that game would be over 35 tackles before Sexton gets a chance to kick. Having no limit on tackles can also lead to variations in strategy in the kicking game. In rugby league, kicks often only come on the 5th tackle play. In rugby union, a kick will come whenever the team wants including the moment possession is gained.

Many of the law changes that were made were done to make rugby league faster than rugby union. Two less players on the field opens up more space, and therefore more room for the offense to operate. In rugby union, teams may strategically utilize rucks to slow the game down. This especially happens toward the end of the game when the leading team has possession. You just want to eat the clock. Rugby league’s play the ball rule forces the game to be constantly moving. There is rarely a moment to rest or catch your breath in rugby league. It is truly one of the fastest paced sports in the world. Part of the reason for the pace is that rugby league eliminated a number of the big set piece plays from rugby union such as lineouts and scrums. When the ball goes out of bounds in rugby league, the game restarts simply by the team being awarded possession beginning their set of 6 tackles from the spot the ball went out of bounds. Rugby union use a lineout to restart the game. In a lineout, both teams line up their forward pack 5m away from the touch line. The offensive team’s hooker will then throw the ball between the two lines and both teams will compete for the ball. This is a more interesting way to restart the game and the thought that goes into each team’s lineout strategy is intriguing.

However, it takes longer to complete a lineout so rugby league eliminated it. Similarly, scrums are all but a formality in rugby league as they are uncontested. The players gather at the spot of the knock-on, loosely bind and the scrum-half plays the ball immediately back to his team.

Scrums in rugby union are contested. The defending team does have an opportunity to steal the ball. The scrum half must feed the ball down the middle. Each team’s hooker then attempts to hook the ball back to his team. The ball will then work its way to the back of the scrum and the team will run a play from there. The team that wins the scrum can also opt to continue to drive the scrum forward while retaining possession of the ball. This can be accomplished my having the No.8 kick the ball forward as the scrum continues to drive. The backs cannot come in to aid if it remains a scrum. If your team is really good at scrummaging, it can lead to plenty of points either through drawing a penalty or by just flat out destroying the other team.

By eliminating scrums, rucks, and lineouts rugby league created a much simpler game. World Rugby, rugby union’s governing body, has pages of laws dedicated to scrums, rucks, mauls, and lineouts. The simplified game can be advantageous to new rugby league fans in North America. Rugby league’s rules are significantly more closely related to Canadian or American football than rugby union.

The scoring system is another way the strategy between the games is altered. In rugby league, dropgoals are only worth one point and penalties just 2. This encourages teams to go for tries more often and maintains the pace of the game. For example, earlier in the article I showed a clip where Ireland marched up the field and Sexton made a dropgoal to defeat France. At the time France was winning 13-12. Ireland played masterfully to set up the drop goal, but in rugby league a team trailing by one must go for a try or draw a penalty to win. When a dropgoal or a penalty is not enough, you can get some pretty incredible finishes.

Of course, if a game is tied late, a drop goal is quite dramatic.

So which one is better? Well, neither one is inherently better than the other. They are both incredibly entertaining. It basically just comes down to individual preference. Rugby league is a simpler game, but it is also faster. Rugby union is a more strategic game and features more physicality. The rules of rugby league may leave players more vulnerable for bigger individual hits, but rugby union features rucks, scrums, lineouts and mauls that will be grueling. Those same rucks, scrums, lineouts, and mauls are also what adds significantly to the strategic elements of rugby union.

Ultimately, rugby union is the more globally popular code. In most places in the world if you say “rugby” people will think of rugby union first. At the Olympics the Rugby Sevens tournament is played under union rules. Here in Ontario (and the rest of Canada), rugby union is the code of rugby played in high schools and at the University\College level. If someone wanted to play rugby, there is significantly more rugby union clubs than rugby league clubs. Of course, the main reason for that is rugby union has been in Canada since the 1860s but rugby league is still quite new to Canadians. The Canadian Rugby League Association was only formed in 2010. However, there are still pockets of the world where rugby league is more popular than rugby union. Northern England still remains a hotbed for rugby league and most of the clubs in the RFL still reside there. Australia has been the dominant force in rugby league for nearly the entire existence of the sport. The Australian national team, known as the Kangaroos, has won an astonishing 11 out of 15 Rugby League World Cups. The NRL, rugby league’s best competition, is based out of Australia (with one team in New Zealand). Papua New Guinea and Cook Islands are the only two countries in the world where rugby league is considered the national sport. There are 7 nations consider rugby union their national sport; Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Georgia, Madagascar, Wales, and New Zealand. The New Zealand All Blacks are the most famous rugby union team in the world. The All Blacks have won a record 3 Rugby World Cups and dominate every major competition they compete in. The team’s iconic solid black jersey and the pregame Haka make them easily identifiable to casual fans as well. The team is sponsored by Adidas and is frequently featured in many advertising campaigns for the brand around the world.

I hope that the first lesson of Ruck U was a success and I was able to clear up any confusion between rugby league and rugby union. It is truly fantastic that Toronto now has both a rugby league and a rugby union team. None of the home games between the Arrows and the Wolfpack are going to overlap so everyone will have plenty of opportunities to experience both codes of this amazing sport. I hope you enjoyed lesson 1 of Ruck U. Stay tuned for Lesson 2.


Recent Posts