Prompted by popular demand, this is an explanatory post aimed at shedding light, as succinctly as possible, on the differences between the various types of rugby, but principally ‘Union’ and ‘League’.
You may want to read it in instalments!
By the early 18th century various forms of ‘football’ were being played across the British Isles, with differing local rules blah blah. Around 1870 the Rugby School in the town of Rugby became the first to write down its rules, which allowed it to spread and gain prominence.
With the exception of the ubiquitous 'soccer', All other modern forms of ‘football’ (rugby league/union football, American football, Gaelic football, Australian Rules football) are derived from either the rugby school or one of its contemporaries.
Rugby league and rugby union were one sport until 1895, when the southern Rugby Football Union opted to enforce a strict amateur policy, crippling the working class, yet highly successful, northern teams that relied on “broken time payments” to compensate players who lost earnings when playing. On 29th August 1895, 22 northern clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield and agreed to form a breakaway league. Professionalism was formally introduced a few years later and in less than two decades some 200 clubs had joined the rebels worldwide.
The southern-based RFU went on the warpath, issuing life bans to anyone playing for the mutinous northerners and using their positions of power and influence to ensure rugby league would be suppressed and contained, denied access to 'union' lands, 'union' media and 'union' sponsors wherever possible. Rugby league, thus, became the eternal struggler against the Institution.
Incidentally, rugby union officially became a professional sport (after, allegedly, many years of backhand payments to top players) in 1995 – a century after the split.
Evolution & Innovation
Professionalism forced rugby league to find ways of broadening its appeal to a wider audience. The game had to be quicker, crisper, more of a spectacle and less of a mystery. Thus, certain elements that remain embedded at the heart of rugby union to this day were abolished. The line-out (abolished 1897), the ruck and rolling maul (replaced with a ‘play-the-ball’ after every tackle in 1906), the two extra men making the others lazy (the number of players was reduced from 15 to 13 in 1906), the constant kicking for territory and marking fair catches etc., were all deemed factors slowing the game down, rendering it unappealing to non-enthusiasts of rugby, and were, consequently, all abolished.
Without the cumbersome periods of play where the ball is seemingly up the jumper of some fat bloke surrounded by his friends, or is being kicked out, kicked out and kicked out again (hence the derogatory nickname ‘kick & clap’ for rugby union), league was able to develop as a ball-in-hand, high octane collision sport relying on differing angles of run, slight of hand, in-field kicks in open play etc.
Though easier to watch, league is harder to play and it is fair to say that it is generally more physically demanding than rugby union, because: a.) there are two fewer players on the team than union to cover the same ground; b.) the distance of ten metres between attack and defence after each tackle ensures more, faster collision in tackle and; c.) the ball is in play and in-hand for longer (average 50 mins pro. league compared to 35 pro. union over the course of an 80-minute match).
Gradually rugby league achieved its goals and became faster, simpler and undoubtedly the better spectator sport of the two codes. Nevertheless, it was rugby union that became a global sport, played to the highest level in faraway places that rugby league could only dream of conquering, like Argentina or South Africa, while league remained largely confined to its ‘heartlands’: three ‘traditional’ counties of northern England (Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire); the two richest and most densely populated states of Australia (New South Wales & Queensland – where league is the number one sport!), the south of France (the northern hemisphere’s top UK-based competition, ‘Engage Super League Europe’, includes the Catalan Dragons club from Perpignan); Papua New Guinea, where it has replaced tribal warfare as the number one sport, and, largely as second fiddle to rugby union, in New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations.
As I’m sure you’ve fathomed by now, the rugby league identity is traditionally linked to the suppressed working classes and the underdog almost wherever it is played, while the rugby union image remains one of a well-educated ‘city player’ with cauliflower ears (it’s all the rubbing in the rucks & mauls).
To those of us born and raised in places like east Hull, whose granddads played professional rugby league in the 1940s, rugby union simply never existed (just as I’m sure rugby league is off the radar for many people elsewhere).
In Australia rugby league has achieved an enviable status and a benchmark level, attracting huge live audiences and viewing figures. In the UK, however, league has only really started making inroads beyond the heartlands since rugby union went professional 25 years ago, while rugby union is perhaps only now deciding whether it will also have to evolve, speed up and simplify to attract wider audiences or whether it will simply continue to rely on the vast wealth and influence of its loyal brethren.
League in Serbia
The enigmatic nature of Yugoslavia was also evident in the rugby realm, with the country being among the few in the world to embrace rugby league before rugby union – thanks to French soldiers and pioneering Yugoslav sportsmen in the early 1950s.
A league was formed and survived until the mid-60s, when suddenly (presumably after someone from the RFU in London caught wind of the rebel expansion and had a word with Tito) the entire league switched to rugby union overnight.
It remained that way until 2001, when some local Belgrade boys accidentally ended up at a rugby league match in the UK and realised they were playing the wrong version of the game. They returned to Serbia and set about establishing a new rugby league competition. Today the growing Serbian rugby league has eight functioning clubs: Dorćol, Red Star and Stari Grad (all Belgrade), Niš, Radnički Nova Pazova, Tsar Lazar from Kruševac, Soko from Vranje and Morava Leopards from Leskovac. Expansion projects in Vojvodina are currently underway and new clubs are expected in Beočin and Ruma, along with the revival of Novi Sad-based Podbara. There is also a growing university league and school presentations organised by the federation and individual clubs.
Recommended youtube viewing
To see elements of rugby union that don’t exist in rugby league, youtube search for ‘Scotland France 2006 22 Metre Maul’ – this includes non-rugby league elements such as a kick directly into touch immediately upon gaining possession, a contested line-out throw resulting from said kick and some archaic attacking form known as a rolling maul, where the ball is hidden from view and teammates obstruct the opposition from getting to the ball carrier as they drive forward.
To see the best of rugby league search youtube for:
Idiot’s guide to rugby league
The basic rules of rugby league are simple:
The team in possession of the ball has six attempts to attack, or six tackles, a set-of-six, before being forced to give the ball to the other team.
A tackle (stopping the attacking ball carrier) can be affected on any part of the body except the neck and head by any number of defensive players. Tackles deemed too dangerous (see ‘spear tackle’, ‘grapple tackle’, ‘chicken wing tackle’) are outlawed. Tripping is outlawed! Only the player in possession can be tackled (there is no blocking, obstructing or otherwise shielding the ball carrier from the defending players without incurring an obstruction or 'crossing' penalty).
A tackle is completed when the ball carrier is either held on the floor or held in an upright position with progress halted. The referee declares/shouts completion of a tackle, the tacklers immediately release the ball carrier and retreat ten metres (with the exception of two markers at the point of tackle), while the tackled player gets to his feet and rolls the ball between his legs, touching it with his foot to signal the start of the next attack.
The referee will penalise defenders if they do not release the tackled ball carrier quickly enough. Any defender not retreating ten metres, except the markers, will be penalised for off-side.
The ball cannot be passed forward from the hand. If passed or dropped forwards (forward pass/knock-on) possession is lost.
The ball can be kicked forward at any time in open play.
Any attacking player aiming to catch the kicked ball must be behind the attacking kicker at the moment the kick is made or he will be deemed off-side.
Kicks off the pitch (into ‘touch’) are used to gain territory and tend to occur towards the end of an attacking set (4th or 5th tackle) or when a penalty is awarded. If kicked in open play, the ball must bounce before leaving the pitch (it can only go out directly from a penalty). If the ball is kicked from behind the attacking team’s 40-metre line and goes into touch beyond the defending team’s 20-metre line after bouncing, the attacking team regains possession.
A drop-goal or field-goal can be attempted at any time during open play. The ball is dropped from the hands and must hit the ground before being immediately kicked on the half-volley towards the goal. A point is awarded if it goes over the crossbar and between the posts.
A penalty goal can be attempted whenever a penalty is awarded. Two points are awarded if the ball goes over the crossbar and between the posts.
A try is worth four points and is awarded when the ball carrier places the ball on the ground or an attacking player applies downward pressure to a loose ball hitting the ground in the opponent's in-goal area (a zone at each end of the field between the try line/goal line and the dead-ball line).
A conversion kick follows a try. It sees the ball placed on the ground and kicked from around 20 metres away from the try line, directly in front of the point where the try was scored. Two points are awarded if the ball goes over the crossbar and between the posts.