Rugby League vs. Rugby Union
This article consists of a comparison between two of the toughest sports in the world, rugby league and rugby union. It's not about my personal opinions on which of the two sports is the best because to be honest (and I have experience of both) I don't really know!
Both have good points and bad points. In general I would rather watch a game of union but play a game of league. But that would depend on the weather, the quality of the game, the teams involved and a whole host of other factors!
In any case, on the page below I've detailed some of the key properties of each sport and compared them to each other.
Make no mistake, these are two of the fiercest, toughest and most competitive sports in the world. But which is the best? Read through and then make your decision! Let me know in the comments.
To decide which sport you think is best (and I really want you to decide you know) it is only fair that you know a bit more about each sport. In this section I will give a brief rundown of the rules and defining characteristics of each before mentioning some of the stand out features and occurrences below.
Rugby union is played between two teams of 15 for 80 minutes plus a 10 minute half-time break. The rugby ball may not be passed forward at any time during the game but can be kicked out of hand in any direction. There are 5 ways to score points in a union match. Firstly, if you cross your opponent's try-line and place the ball on the floor with downward pressure then you have scored a 5 point try. After a try has been scored there is the possibility of a conversion being kicked over the posts to earn a further 2 points.
Other than that, if awarded, penalties may be kicked for 3 points from any position on the field (though are only normally kick-able from in the opponent's half) and drop kicks maybe taken at any time during the game to score drop goals which also earn 3 points. The last method of scoring is the rarely seen penalty try which is given should the opposition break the rules to prevent a certain try from being scored.
Rugby union is overseen by a body called World Rugby, formerly the International Rugby Board (IRB), which manages the rules, international rankings and various other aspects of the sport.
Rugby union is a game that blends proactive, team-wide strategy with individual brilliance. Territory is precious and every yard is hard fought with a mixture of crashing runs taking on tacklers, lightning quick, evasive back play, ferocious struggles to hold on to possession or deft kicking skill that can win 60 metres in a stroke. It is a violent, dogged scrap of a sport but played with such rich passion, vital intensity and increasingly skillful razzledazzle that can be breathtaking.
Both sports require high levels of skill, fitness and strength - though due to it's nature training in rugby union can be more specialised than in rugby league. It is surprising how many players in rugby union are specialists. Most of the positions have particular roles and responsibilities in matches (such as the hooker throwing into the lineout or a full-back catching a kick) that need specific skills. There is also a lot of specialism in rugby league, but it is to a lesser degree in some positions, meaning that although some players don’t need to develop specialist skills to the same levels as others, everyone needs to be able to the basics in attack and defence. And do them well.
Rugby league is played between two teams of 13 players for 80 minutes just like union. The game is inherently a lot simpler than union as there is less emphasis on set-pieces and more on basic attack and defence. In league a try is worth 4 points, conversions and penalties are both worth 2 points and a drop goal is worth just 1.
Each team is allowed 6 tackles with which to attempt to score (note that it can be confusing for the casual viewer to work out exactly how many tackles in rugby league take place, because teams sometimes execute complex plays or kicking moves on the 4th, 5th or 6th), a tackle being defined as when the attacking player's motion is stopped or when they hit the floor. When this occurs the attacking player gets to their feet and rolls the ball backwards under one leg whilst the defending team must retreat 10 metres.
After the 6th tackle has been made the possession of the ball is turned over to the other team who begin their set of 6 from the point of the tackle. This does not generally happen however as teams prefer to kick the ball after the 5th tackle either to attempt to regain the ball and score a try or to make the opposition retreat down the field to recover it.
The old adage goes that rugby union is a contact sport whereas rugby league is a collision sport. There are a number of subtleties and stratagems that need to be brought together for a successful rugby league performance but there is little doubt that monstrous two-man tackles or destructive smashing runs bouncing off hapless defenders is the very soul of the sport. It requires highly developed handling skills, ruthless physicality and, above all, stalwart courage to be a successful league player and results in some of the greatest all-round athletes in the world.
Best competition or tournament
When we look at rugby league vs rugby union's popularity, it is union that clearly stands out globally as it is played in more countries. But the picture is a bit different in individual countries.
Both sports have a number of tournaments watched by various crowds throughout the year. Here I have picked what I believe to be the best individual competition to characterise each sport.
People often ask if the rugby world cup is union or league - and the answer is that there is a world cup in both codes, but it is likely that more people are familiar with the union competition due to the game's greater reach globally.
In consideration of rugby union, there are large number of competitions that could best represent it and selection was difficult. From the World Cup every 4 years to the annual tribulations of the 6 Nations, the Super 14, the Heineken Cup or the mighty Rugby Championship, rugby union abounds with quality competitions. However, in my opinion, the tournament that best captures the personality and ethos of rugby union is the British and Irish Lions Tour.
Occurring every four years, the most talented players from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (Both Eire and Northern Ireland rugby players form a combined national team) are selected and tour one of the southern hemisphere countries of Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. The tour is usually about 6 weeks long and involves games against regional and professional teams before a 3 test series against the national side. The tours are legendary, some classic games have come about as their result and the heady mix of travelling, gruelling match schedule, the combined talent on display and sheer down to earth rugby vibe make this the stand out competition in modern rugby union.
For rugby league the choice of a flagship event was an altogether simpler affair. The competition that most clearly and effectively represents the combative, defence-oriented style of the game is undoubtedly the Australian tournament State of Origin.
Basically, Australia dominates the rugby league world and nowhere on earth is it played with more passion, intensity and skill. And if Australia dominates the sport worldwide then the states of New South Wales and Queensland dominate it nationally and these are the teams that battle it out annually for the State of Origin crown.
The tournament is a three game series played out during the professional season by teams that are selected only from players who debuted for a club in one of these two states (regardless of who they play for now). Hence the name State of Origin. Such a format makes for a tantalising spectacle as friends, teammates and even family members play against each other on rugby league's highest stage. The tournament's setup, the sheer quality of the rugby played and the overall feeling a country's most breathtaking rivalry means that the State of Origin tournament is the best event in existence to truly embody the spirit of rugby league.
People also often ask how rugby league vs rugby union salary arrangements and contracts compare. Well, in general there is more money in union clubs in France and England, as well as increasingly in Japan, with some league players being tempted north. Contracts are often more coordinated between club and country in league teams, though central contracts are a key feature of union in some countries such as New Zealand, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Wales. In general however the financial might of the big French and English clubs is something that lots of the top tier players will consider at some point in their careers. They are only short after all!
I have already mentioned some of the basics rules and strategies of each sport and mentioned a tournament that best captures their ethos today. Here are a couple of stand-out idiosyncracies that exist in the modern form of both sports today.
The photo above shows one of union's most famous spectacles, the Haka, a traditional Maori war dance performed before matches to intimidate opponents and pump up the team. And that team is the famous All Blacks, the national side of New Zealand and one of the most successful around. The Haka is an amazing site being performed just before kick off to international matches by New Zealand and other Pacific Island countries (who have different dances). There is nothing else like it in the world of rugby union, it is violent, impressive and passionate and therefore has been chosen as my unique feature of rugby union.
For rugby league the choice is yet again simple. It is the collision that characterises the sport, the cataclysmic contact between muscle-bound athletes trying to smash each other backwards. Just look at the video below. Enough said!
Rugby league big tackles
So? Which is best?
After an introduction to both rugby codes and highlighting some of their stand out features I still might not have helped you decide which is the better sport. So, as a final attempt to get you to make a decision, here's a list of various aspects common to both sports and my opinion on which is the better sport for each consideration.
Tackling - Easy. Rugby league. See the video above. 'Nuff said.
Skill - I originally had this as union but, after watching more and reading some of the comments below think rugby league just edges this. Whilst players of he calibre of Shane Williams, Quade Cooper, Carlos Spencer and others do display outrageous skills in union, the general level of handling and off-loading in league is better. And when players like Shaun Johnson, Benji Marshall, Sonny-Bill Williams, Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess and Ben Barba continue to raise the bar whilst still being amazing athletes, it is clear to me that league deserves to win this category.
Strategy - I think that rugby union wins this one. Strategy is vital in league as well, but I think that in union a team with fewer game breakers can outfox their opposition through tactical kicking, playing to their set-piece strengths and trying to keep (or not keep) the ball as needed. In league it's much harder (if not impossible) to prevent the opposition from having significant possession - does this mean there is actually more strategy involved as you need tactics for both attack and defence? Maybe - but I think that the options available to a team in union and the different facets of the game give it the edge here.
Both sports definitely have a lot of differences, and this need to be reflected in training too. The training, athleticism and physicality of rugby league players vs rugby union players is different for a lot of the positions on the field. Training for rugby league or rugby union needs to be carried out in a way that is right for each sport, with drills, gym work, skills session and tactics all specific to the way each game is played. While the athletic work is similar, most things aren't.
Set-pieces - Set-pieces are prescribed actions such as scrums or lineouts necessary to restart the game after knock-ons, when the ball is kicked out etc. If you like set-pieces because they require players to acquire a multitude of abilities and factor in their effects to the overall strategy then, like me, you cannot help but pick rugby union. Set pieces are also often cited as a reason why players of all shapes and sizes can play union at all levels - and I think that's a fair assertion.
Athleticism - This is an interesting one. Whilst wingers in both codes are generally super-fit sprinting machines the front row union players can weigh upwards of 20 stone and (whilst certainly professional athletes) are not marathon runners. Therefore rugby league wins this one too as players are of similar build across the team and exhibit an amazing mixture of power, pace and fitness.
Banter - Which sport's players have the best chat, are the funniest, the most entertaining, the best laugh? This is too close to call I'm afraid. I think the best way is to show you some - so take a look at the two videos below, the first is a classic video of the aforementioned British and Irish Lions rugby union touring team, which is absolutely hilarious, and the second shows off some characteristic rugby league style banter from the Australian NRL Footy Show.
This is definitely a draw!
The British and Irish Lions on tour! (NSFW)
Best of the NRL Footy Show 2014 (NSFW)
So there you have it. Rugby union vs rugby league which is better?
This article gives a few random categories with my thoughts on the winner for each, hopefully this is plenty of information from which to draw your own opinions on rugby league vs. rugby union.
Please vote in the poll below and I'd love to hear your comments on which you think is the better sport. Thanks for reading!