What Is the Difference Between Rugby League and Rugby Union?

Rugby players

Rugby Union and Rugby League are both very popular games that are played all over the world. Originating in the UK, Rugby Union is the older of the two codes with the RFU (Rugby Football Union) formed in 1871.

However, the game of rugby split into two in 1895 when Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs wanted their players to be compensated for missing work. The RFU was against any form of professionalism and, therefore, the northern clubs formed the Northern Union and the amateur game of the RFU was known as rugby union and the Northern Union game was called rugby league. Over the years, both games developed separately with various rule and regulation changes. Finally, the Rugby Football Union embraced professionalism in 1995.

When discussing what the difference is between rugby league and rugby union, it’s important to point out that the two forms of rugby share a huge amount of similarities.


  • Aim of the Game: In both games, the aim for both teams is to win the game by scoring more points than their opponents through more tries, conversions, drop goals, and penalty goals.
  • Scoring: In both forms, a try is scored when a player touches the ball down beyond the defending team’s goal line. Teams are then allowed to attempt to gain two more points by kicking a conversion.
  • The Ball: The ovoid ball used in both codes is exactly the same and in both forms of rugby, it can be taken forward in three ways. By running with it, by kicking it or as the result of a set piece. It can also be passed in a sideways or backwards direction but not forward.
  • Tackling: In both rugby league and rugby union, only the player carrying the ball is allowed to be tackled and, in both codes, play restarts with the ball being transferred to another member of the team albeit in slightly different ways.


  • Pitch: Rugby union pitches are a maximum of 144 m x 70m, whereas rugby league pitches can have be a maximum size of 122 x 68m. Despite these slight differences, both league and union can generally be played on the same pitches with some league and union teams sharing stadiums. An example is Headingley Stadium in Leeds, which is shared by rugby league, Leeds Rhinos, and union’s, Leeds Carnegie.
  • Players: In rugby union, each team has 15 players on the pitch, whereas in rugby league, each team has just 13. In both codes, these players are divided between forwards and backs.
  • Possession: In rugby union, a team can hold on to the ball for as long as they want and are able to, whilst the other team attempt to take it from them. However, in rugby league, each team is only allowed to be tackled six times before handing possession over.
  • Tackling: Tackling is generally very similar in both codes but in rugby league players are allowed to use their legs to bring their opponent down too when they have both hands on them. Once a tackle has been made in league, a play the ball occurs, the play stopping for a moment to enable the tackled player to roll the ball back to a teammate. In union, however, the game flows and play does not stop with a ruck often forming to contest the ball.
  • Scoring: Although both rugby league and rugby union have the same ways of scoring, there are subtle differences in the points on offer.
    • Try: In rugby union, a try is worth five-points, whereas in league it is worth four
    • Conversion: Both codes are two points
    • Drop Goal: In rugby league, it is worth one-point, whereas in union it is worth three
    • Penalty Goal: Worth three points in union, yet just one in league
  • Demographic: Generally rugby union is seen as a more middle class game, whereas rugby league is seen more as a working class sport. This is particularly the case in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.