Difference Between League and Union

difference between league and union

A Basic Overview of Rugby League and Rugby Union

A common question asked by rugby enthusiasts is, ‘What is the difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union?

Different rules, different heritages and different sets of fans; rugby league and rugby union have evolved from the same origin to become vastly different sports today.

The question on my mind is whether, in this age of pure professionalism in sport where innovation is dictated by cash, do we need to compare the sport’s two codes any more?

Or has the pressures put upon them by the modern media and bureaucratic governing hierarchies turned them into purely different sports that should not be compared any more?

Rugby League and Rugby Union

On the surface, these two great games seem very similar, however, look a little deeper, and the differences are vast.

Rugby league is a more intensive, tackling-based game with fewer main rules. This results in an open structure with the ball in play for most of the game. Professional sport places incredible demands on athletes these days.

It results in sportspeople and teams that are physically highly specialised in a certain type of activity.

Rugby Union, however, is far more structured with a greater emphasis on set-piece and formulated play.

This is why it is a common observation that league players have very similar body shapes and physical attributes. Simply, because they all do a similar job on the field.

But this concept extends beyond the mere physical size or statistical information on speed or strength to team tactics also.

Main Objectives of Rugby Players on the Field

difference between league and union

The hooker, for example, will always throw the ball into the line-out. He, therefore ‘hooks’ the ball with his feet in the scrum to regain possession.

Rugby union teams have members with some particular roles. Likewise, the outside-half almost always kicks the points and lines up as the first receiver in the attack.

These two positions have very different physical demands and will be filled by very different players. There are numerous other examples of this throughout the union team also.

Second-rows are usually tall, wingers are generally very fast, and the scrum-half tends to be a shorter more agile player than the front-row forward.

Such characteristics are maximised in the professional sporting environment. To take a simple example, if being tall makes you an excellent second row, then the taller you are (within reason of course), the better second-row you are!

I know this is basic, but the idea holds throughout a union team. Therefore it can be seen as a team of specialists who each focus on a different (but related) job.

Compare this to rugby league where every player’s job is similar, the team is made up of similar players specialising in the same job.

Is it fair to compare Rugby League and Rugby Union?

It is for this reason that it is unfair to compare these sports in the modern era. They are too different!

In fact, they were different, to begin with, and professionalism, with its rigorous demanding for perfection, has maximised these differences. So do we really need to compare them? Aren’t they just too different as sports? You be the judge!

Differences in Teams Between League and Union

A standard rugby team consists of 15 men on the field at any given time, and seven reserve players on the sideline. Whilst a traditional league team consists of only 13 players and four reserves.

Rugby League operates an interchange system for reserve players with each team allowed to make up to 10 changes throughout the game.

Rugby Union is different as players cannot return to the field once they come off, with a few notable exceptions to this rule. For example, a player can return to the field after a successful HIA (Head Injury Assessment) test.

Similarly, a union player can return to the field after boom issued with a yellow card.


A try in rugby union is worth 5 points, a conversion 2 points, a penalty and field goal are both worth 3 points.

In rugby league a try is 4 points, the conversion is 2 points, a penalty is also 2 points, and a field goal is worth only 1 point.

Scrums and Lineouts

Both games have a scrum. However, in rugby league the scrum is not as contested as it is in rugby. The amount of players used in the league scrum is also less than that of rugby union.

Rugby league does not have line-outs like rugby. If the ball or player with the ball goes over the touch line, the opposing team is given the “put in” for a scrum.

The “put in” is then played in the centre of the field where the ball crossed the touch line. Hence the touch line is generally not used for possession as it is in rugby, with one or two exceptions.


While the tackling concept is similar in both games, they are handled differently.

As rugby league has a six tackle rule the opposing team generally commits minimal players (two or three) per tackle to keep the defensive line strengthened for the next running play.

In rugby union, a tackled player will attract several players from both teams to secure the ball. Rugby league also allows the use of a shoulder charge, which is not permitted in rugby, it is through the shoulder charge that many leagues ‘big hits’ are found.

Advancing the Ball

This is where one of the main differences between rugby league and rugby union takes place.

Rugby league has a ‘6 tackle’ rule in which they have six tackles to advance the ball as far as possible. A knock-on, forward pass or infringement generally results in possession being handed over to the opposing team.

Rugby adopts continuously contestable possession, with players contesting the ball through rucks and mauls as the game moves around the field.

At the fifth tackle, the ball is usually kicked to gain ground as possession will then be handed over. Kicking is more open in rugby union as ‘ball in hand’ or ball possession does not hold the same importance as it does in rugby league.

The Final Consensus

So, is there a main difference between league and union? Or, are there few little differences that make these two sports unique in their own ways?

In general, there is no one big difference that determines these two sports apart. However, with the combination of differences in both rugby league and rugby union, we can see that they are in fact two very similar sports played with slightly different rules.

But if there was one main difference, one could say that Rugby League is more of a fast paced game in comparison to Rugby Union. Rugby Union would be classed as more of a technically slower game.