To start this post off on a slightly controversial note, it would be easy to distil the answer to this into two sweeping generalisations – that, in the UK at least, one is a northern game and the other predominantly southern, and one is played and followed by an overwhelmingly working class demographic, while the other has a following which is principally middle- and upper-class.
But this post will set out to be far more detailed than these sweeping views, which in any case, are often ill-conceived.
Rugby union was the original form of the game, and of course the story behind its accidental founding by Rugby School pupil William Webb Ellis in 1784, is well-known. Wind forward 111 years, however, and club officials and players based in northern England, finding it difficult to attract players because their employers would not compensate them for time spent away from their work while taking part in matches. This refusal was seen as a handicap to clubs comprising mainly working class players, who could not afford to lose any income, while those made up of more prosperous men could afford to take time out from their jobs to play their sport.
As a result, a breakaway league of 22 teams was formed out a meeting held in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, in 1895. They adopted the ‘rugby league’ name in 1922, but it wasn’t until three years after this that the clubs started to pay their players – even though, at that time, it was stipulated that their wages had to be covered by money coming through the turnstiles.
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The aim of rugby league administrators from the outset was to devise a game which was more free-flowing than union, and one of the first ways they tried to do this was to reduce the number of players in each team from 15 to 13, and to replace line-outs with kicks when the ball left the field of play.
League also eliminates rucks and mauls and, to a large extent, scrums as further ways to keep the game flowing. Instead of this last, play is restarted after it breaks down on the field with a play-the-ball, when an attacking team’s player backheels the ball to a team-mate.
And as opposed to union, in which a team can carry the ball through an unlimited number of phases, in league, once a team’s players have been tackled six times in succession while in possession of the ball, they must hand the ball over to their opponents wherever on the field of play it happens to be. Most often, in order to gain territorial advantage, after the fifth tackle, an attacking team’s player will aim to kick the ball into touch as close to his opponent’s try line as possible. Detractors of league argue that this often breaks up the flow of the game, which teams often having to hand over possession of the ball before they can advance significantly into their opponents’ half of the field.
In both codes, points are scored by a ‘try’ which is when a player carries the ball over the opponents’ goal line, and then an attempt is made to kick the ball between the posts from the angle on the pitch equal to where the ball crossed the try line – which are also identical in both codes – to gain extra points, with what’s called a conversion.
Recent times have seen probably the biggest difference between the codes – the amateur ethos of union against the professionalism of league – steadily eroded, and since 1995 players at the highest level of union, in the UK at least, are well rewarded for their commitment to the sport, which in turn has allowed many of them to play the game full-time.
Another recent distinction was made when union officials increased the number of points awarded for scoring a try from four to five, while in both codes, a conversion is worth two points. A try in a league game remains worth four points.
The fine details
Many other fine distinctions exist between the two games, and there is insufficient space to include these in this article. But in essence, the two codes have evolved into distinct games, each with their own strong adherents, although the basic similarities – along with increasing professionalism in union – have enabled many players to cross between them.
Whichever form is played, there’s little doubt that the fast, often high-contact nature of both games is what gives them both their enduring appeal.
James Southerland wrote this article. He is enthusiastic Rugby fanatic, who is careful to insure that his Rugby Player Insurance is kept up to date.