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International Rugby League and Rugby Union Compared

Updated on December 11, 2017
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Lewis Churty is a writer based in the UK. He shares his thoughts, opinions, ideas, and research online on a range of topics.

One ball, two codes

The international game in rugby union and rugby league has quite a different structure and history.

In each case there is one team that stands out, for rugby union that is of course the mighty New Zealand All Blacks, and in Rugby League this is the all-conquering Australian Kangaroos.

However, do these teams stand out to the same extent? Although the All Blacks are consistently top of IRB rankings and have been the most dominant team over the years, they aren't considered invincible. They have won the World Cup three times since it started in 1987, more than any other team, although the time between winning the first World Cup and winning the 2nd in 2011 did lead many to believe that it was a constant banana skin for them-with that final against France in 1999 standing out in particular.

The All Blacks do consistently do well against teams from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres but they don't have everything their own way. When Australia and South Africa are in a rich vein of form they can topple the All Blacks, even beating them quite convincingly at times. France have also been a bit of a bogey team for New Zealand, though that has not been the case in recent years, England beat them in a rampant match at Twickenham in 2012, and the British and Irish Lions drew the series with them in 2017.

What about the league lads?

Although these examples do show that the All Blacks are beatable, the fact that there are relatively few of them does speak to the quality and consistency of a team synonymous with Rugby Union. And it is consistency that also characterizes the Kangaroos - in international rugby league the game is arguably more one-sided with they are playing.

The club game in Australia is the strongest in the world. Only the British Super League can come close to matching the intensity of NRL matches in Australia (and there is one team based in New Zealand of course) but the vast majority of the greatest players in the sport are also NRL Legends.

This club level dominance certainly translates to the international stage. Far fewer teams play international Rugby League at a competitive level than Union, and Australia have dominated the Rugby League World Cup standings for many years, aside from a 2008 loss to New Zealand in the final.

Of course arguments are made in Rugby League, just as they are in every sport, that the richer, more dominant nations can unfairly tilt the playing field against smaller countries, and those countries in which the sport is less popular, by attracting the best players and disincentivizing the development of a competitive club structure and deeper talent pool.

Perhaps the popularity and financial night of the NRL in Australia has something to do with this, or perhaps it doesn't and the argument can be made that the popularity of Rugby League in countries other than Australia is primarily down to the quality of the NRL and the entertainment, heritage, intrigue, and spectacle it provides.

In any case similar arguments are often made against the club game in Rugby Union in France, and to a lesser extent in England. Clubs in these countries have a lot of money and have been able to attract players from all over the world. Many players from Pacific Island Nations play in the French leagues, so too do retired international players from Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand - players who no longer have international aspirations and are looking to the end of their career.

In recent years this is also true of Union clubs in Japan where a lot of money is being invested in the game. Many players have moved to Japan late in their careers and made a larger club salary then they did at their peak.

Whatever the perceived or actual fairness of this system, money talks, players have a finite career and are only one big injury away from retirement - why shouldn't they cash in on the years of hard work that it has taken for them to build themselves into a valuable asset?

In any case, the facts are clear - even though there are some international Rugby League teams, such as New Zealand pictured above, that do beat Australia from time to time, the Kangaroos are still hugely dominant in the sport - to a greater extent than the All Blacks are in rugby.

Their consistency, passion, athleticism and, above all, ability to execute under pressure, make them a real joy to watch.


In general tours in Rugby Union are more prominent than in Rugby League. Again, this may be due to the fact that the centre of gravity of the sport is split between Australia and the UK. Representatives all of the two countries do play against each other annually in the world club challenge, however this is done at club level rather than internationally.

In Rugby Union things are a little different. We've already mentioned what is possibly the fourmost tour in the sport which is the British and Irish Lions. Every four years a team picked from the best players that are qualified to play for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, tours one of the big three Southern Hemisphere rugby-playing countries; New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.

The Lions usually tour for a number of weeks playing against club sides, regional or provincial teams, and International Development teams (such as the New Zealand Maori for example), before a three-match test series against the international side of the country in which they play.

With four years between tours and three countries to play against, in rotation, this means that any player based in one of the three Southern Hemisphere countries only get one opportunity to play against the Lions every 12 years-which is long wait 4 players, businesses, clubs and unions alike.

Another great touring edition in Rugby Union is that of the invitational side the Barbarians. This makeshift Club where is a traditional black and white striped kit and is made up of players from all over the world. each coach is temporary only, taking charge of their squad for short tours, or even individual matches, in different parts of the world.

The makeup of the squads depends on the timing; rugby union does not have real global calendar two align the different competitions around the world, a bone of contention to some fans and administrators of the game. This means that only players who are available for the Barbarians, due to there not being needed on club or country duties, get to play.

However the Barbarians is famous for being highly inclusive institution. They regularly pick uncapped players and encourage both emerging and, in some cases, semi life and retired players to take time out in order to test themselves against some of the best teams in the world on laughingly short preparation time.

For this reason the Barbarians are known for a loose, enterprising and swashbuckling style of play that favours attacking and open rugby, complex and entertaining moves and stratagems, and, although this is getting rarer in today's professional environment, a real touring culture including plenty of socialising.

The World Cup

Both codes have a popular World Cup. The rugby League World Cup is currently held every four years, though in the past the schedule has been a bit more sporadic, nevertheless they have been tournaments fairly regularly since 1954, dominated by Australia, New Zealand, and a team representing Great Britain.

The Rugby Union World Cup is a more recent affair dating back only to 1987. It has been held every four years in a variety of countries and his featuring winners from four different countries; New Zealand, Australia, South African and England.

It is fair to say that due to the game's more global nature and popularity, the Rugby Union World Cup is probably a bigger sporting occasion. There tends to be a number of competitive group games and even knockout stages, although the biggest countries in the game still dominate the semifinals and finals.

That's not to say that it is a better spectacle - there have been plenty of low quality Rugby Union matches played at even the later finals stages of Union World Cups, while some early group games in League have been full of excitement, drama and skill.

In some ways Rugby League at an international level is still a developing and expanding sport, though it has been professional for longer than Union. The most recent World Cup in Rugby League was held in 2017 with games being played in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. In all, 14 teams took part in the tournament with Australia being the eventual winners in a highly intense and competitive final that ended 6-0.

With a World Cup in both sports only every four years, there are other international competitions that have as big of a focus.

The next best comp

Aside from the World Cup and the aforementioned Lions Tour, there are two international competitions that stand out in Rugby Union: the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations:

The Rugby Championship is played every year by Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. The teams play each other twice, once at home and once away. Teams get varying amounts of points for winning or drawing, and the scoring tries or losing by less than 7 points. at the end of the tournament the team with the most points is the winner.

The Six Nations is also played annually and features England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. Held early in the year, in February and March, the competition features just one match between each team (for a total of 5 games each) with points awarded in a similar way to the Rugby Championship. At the end of tournament team with the most points wins. there are also other awards up for grabs; if a team wins all of their games they are giving the Grand Slam, and the so-called home Nations of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England also contest the Triple Crown, which any of these four teams may win if they beat the other three.

In international rugby league the biggest competition after the World Cup is the Four Nations.

The Four Nations is held almost every year and is a competition between the top three countries that play the sport, namely England, New Zealand, and Australia, and fourth country that changes regularly. The fourth country is the winner of a regional international competition, alternating between Europe and the competition held in the South Pacific (featuring teams such as Tonga and Fiji).

These second tier competitions enable the best players in both sports to compete every year and take the game around the world. Much is made in both sports of new markets for the games progression and teams are eager and willing to play international matches in different parts of the world as friendlies, while competing for the regular tournament honours detailed above to the delight of the home fans.

There we have it

These are the main similarities and differences that characterise Rugby League and Rugby Union at the international level.

For a more detailed look at the differences between the two sports, take a look at this article on Rugby League vs. Rubgy Union.

Otherwise, do you think there is anything particular about the international games that we have missed out? Let us know, of have your say on the topic in the comments below.


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