England’s rugby league team will take on New Zealand at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, November 7. But how much do you know about rugby’s “other” code? Here’s our handy cut-out-and-keep guide to avoid any confusion.


  • Possession: The main difference in the two sports is that rugby league offers several chances to keep the ball. Upon gaining possession, a team is allowed to have any player holding the ball tackled five times before they must hand it over. This is in contrast to union, whereby the ball must be released immediately, resulting in some of the dog-piles you see during matches

  • Players: Rugby league has only 13 players on each side, as opposed to 15 in union. It is because of this that league generally gets labelled as a quicker and more physically demanding sport.

  • Scoring: The most obvious differences in scoring is that a try is worth five points in union and only four in league. A drop goal is worth three in union and one in league, while a penalty goal is worth three in union and two in league. This may explain some of the outlandish scorelines normally seen in union games.


The history of the split between the two codes is a fascinating one which crystalised the social divides in Victorian England. During the rise of rugby’s popularity in the 19th century, players were banned from being paid for playing the sport. However, this was not always practical in northern industrial cities, where many of the players were required to work jobs on weekends.

In 1892 rugby clubs in Bradford and Leeds faced accusations of professionalism for compensating some of their players for missing work, which led to clubs forming the Northern Rugby Football Union, later the Rugby Football League.

This is why you will hear of towns like Castleford and Wakefield competing in Super League, yet no representation from London, Bristol or Birmingham.


Rugby league has some way to go before it reaches the popularity of its richer union counterpart, but inroads have been made. It’s main fanbases can be found in England, Australia and New Zealand, with many of the Pacific islands playing the sport too.

The Rugby League World Cup in 2013 proved a good PR exercise for the sport – the final was played Old Trafford in front of 74,468, the largest ever crowd to attend an international fixture.