Rugby League VS Rugby Union What Is The Difference?

NRL- Rugby League For Dummies – A Union Comparison

What are the three things rugby union fans complain about the most? It’s got to be hands down:

  • Technicalities at the breakdown, which the fans nor the players understand, sometimes not even the referees.
  • Repeated reset scrums
  • and too much kicking.

What if I told you there exists a game called rugby without the controversial points above, would you watch it? You bet you would, that game is called rugby league. 

It’s time for me as a union boy to finally come out of the closet – I enjoy rugby league, just as much as I enjoy rugby union and even American Football for that matter.

Often a lack of understanding of the rules of rugby league and rugby union leads to the eternal debate amongst fans of both codes as to why their respective code is better. When truth be told there is very little merit to the debate since it is two completely different sports, league and union,  which require completely different skills.

While Rugby League requires players in all positions to have tremendous ball skills, being able to slot into any backline seamlessly, rugby union positions are more specialised focusing on specialising in certain areas of a match, think prop, hooker etc.

While there are many famous examples of League players who made a successful transition from League to Union there are few examples of Unions players who made a successful transition to League (Sonny Bill Williams aside since he is a freak of nature), perhaps this is due to the fact that Union salaries are generally much higher than that of league (source, which is not surprising as union enjoys a much bigger global following than that of league, which is kind of unfortunate) aswell as the fact that league generally requires more specialised skills on attack.

rugby league vs union


Rugby Union is rugby league’s older brother, and although we mentioned above it is two completely different sports, league shares much of the same rule sets as rugby union, that is the rule sets which make up the fundamental of the game we call rugby. League is generally regarded as a much easier to understand sport than rugby union, due to rugby union’s complexities in the scrum, ruck, maul and even lineout area.

In this post we will cover, the fundamental difference between rugby league and rugby union and hopefully manage to get fans of both codes to start respecting and even enjoying the other form. This will be a sort of rugby league for dummies post, enjoy!

Rugby League vs Rugby Union BASIC Rules Comparison

Rule Rugby League Rugby Union
Match Time 80 minutes ( 2*40min halves) 80 (2*40min halves)
Field Size Generally The Same Size – Bigger In Goal Area Generally Same Size But Smaller In Goal Area
Number Of Players 13-players (4 reserves) 15-players (7 reservers)
Passing Ball must be passed backwards Ball must be passed backwards
Ball Retention •Each Team has the Ball For 6 plays (phases) after which it gets turned over if the team fails to score.

•If attacking team makes a mistake (knock on, forward pass, ball gets turned over regardless of phase / play nr)

•Ball retention is unlimited (no limit on number of phases on attack) turnover happens when a team makes a mistake or decides to kick and fail to regather kick
Scrum •6-Players makes up a scrum, scrums are mostly uncontested.
•Scrum gets awarded upon a forward pass or knock on
•8 Players make up a scrum, scrum can be contested.
•Scrum gets awarded for a forward pass, knock on or if penalty gets awarded the captain can choose to scrum
Offside •If player Is in front of teammate which kicked the ball and then interferes with play.

•If you fail to retreat 10 metres (referred to as the gap maintained by the referee between attacking and defending team)

•If player Is in front of team mate which kicked the ball and then interferes with play.

•Player is offside if they fail to be behind the last man’s feet at scrum or ruck

•Player is offside if they fail to retreat 10 metres should team decide to take a quick penalty kick
A “quick throw in” is also permitted

Restarting game after ball goes out of bounds •Ball gets awarded to opposing team, play restarts by a 10-meter pass and a tap kick •Ball gets awarded to opposing team (except in a penalty situation where the captain elected to kick for touch)

•Play restarts via a lineout

Grounding ball behind your own goal line A goal line drop out occurs by team which grounded the ball behind their own goal line, thus ensuring team that was on attack gets the ball back with a new 6 set of plays If the ball got grounded by defending player behind their own goal line, an attacking scrum is awarded 5 metres out from defending team’s goal line, with scrum belonging to attacking team.
Rucks & Mauls •Non-existent in rugby league, thus when a player gets tackled he immediately needs to get released in order for him to present the ball backwards for his teammates to continue the attack.

•It is a penalty offense to deliberately pin the tackled player down in an attempt to slow down the process of him releasing the ball.

•A ruck occurs when an attacking player gets tackled, the opposing team (the team on defense) is allowed to contest the ruck in an attempt to steal / turnover the ball, there are many different rules governing rucks (which is a topic for a whole new post)

•A maul is formed when a player on attack is held up with the ball, a maul usually gets formed from a lineout with the team on attack trying to push their player forward, in an attempt to win field position.

Obstruction When a player, without the ball, is interfered with preventing him from participating in play. A penalty is then awarded against the team which caused the obstruction / the team which was obstructed. Largely the same as in league, with minimal difference being you get accidental en deliberate obstruction in rugby union. Accidental obstruction leads to a free kick, where obstruction leads to a full penalty
The 40/20 Kick When the attacking team is behind their own 40-meter line and they descide to kick and the kick bounces inside the opposition 20-meter line and then goes into touch (out of bounds) a scrum is awarded to the team who kicked the ball, who was on attack, and they have another 6 phases of plays to work with, in a very promising field position we may add. No such rule in rugby union.


Perhaps the biggest difference between Rugby league and Rugby Union is the lack of rucks and mauls combined with Rugby League’s “American Football downs style of ball retention”, where the attacking team has 6 chances of trying to break through the defense before, usually kicking the ball away, had they failed to penetrate the defense.


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