For those not familiar with rugby league and rugby union, it would be easy to mix the pair up together as simply 'rugby'.

That might offend some people, though, so we're here to help!

As the NRL (that's rugby league) prepares to play their season-opener in Las Vegas, The Sporting News outlines the key differences between the two sports.

MORE: NRL Las Vegas 2024 – How to watch rugby league games in America

Rugby union, rugby league origins

Legend has it that rugby union was conceived at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England in the 1820s when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football (soccer) and ran with it.

While this has never been confirmed, rugby union was officially formed in the mid-1800s.

Written rules were established in 1845 before the creation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

Rugby league evolved directly from this set-up when clubs in the country's north broke away to form the 'Northern Union'. 

This was due to rules denying working-class players compensation when they spent time away from work. 

After a few rule changes, rugby league was born.

Number of players, positions

One of the most noticeable differences between the two sports is that rugby union has 15 players per team on the field, while rugby league has 13 players.

This means rugby union can be a more physical game, whereas rugby league is more fast-paced due to the increased gaps. 

The positional makeup of a team in each sport is as follows:

Rugby union


  • Hooker
  • Loosehead prop
  • Tighthead prop
  • Lock
  • Blindside flanker
  • Openside flanker
  • No. 8


  • Scrum-half
  • Fly-half
  • Inside centre
  • Outside centre
  • Wing
  • Fullback

Rugby league


  • Prop
  • Hooker
  • Second-row
  • Lock


  • Halfback
  • Five-eighth
  • Centre
  • Winger
  • Fullback

Rugby league vs. rugby union scoring

The goal is the same with both sports – score as many points as possible by scoring tries, making conversions and kicking penalties.

A conversion kick is worth two points in both sports, but a try is worth five points in rugby union and four points in rugby league.

Penalties also differ – teams receive three points in rugby union for slotting it through the posts, while it's worth only two in rugby league.

The final difference is field goals (or drop goals). That will earn you three points in rugby union but a relatively small one point in rugby league.

Rugby league vs. rugby union gameplay and rules

One of the most unique aspects of rugby union is 'lineouts'. 

A ball will be thrown in from the sideline, with players lifting their teammates to catch the ball.

This doesn't exist in rugby league – play is simply restarted with a 'tap' of the ball on the foot.

Getty Images

Another notable difference is scrums.

Scrums – where players lock heads and the ball is fed through - are typically very physical in rugby union.

Players will sometimes fall in a heap as they push and it may be restarted a number of times.

Rugby league scrums, however, are smaller and far less physical.

MORE: Who is the highest-paid NRL player?

Rules-wise, the major difference is tackling.

Each side can only make six tackles in rugby league before they must hand the ball over to the over team.

In rugby union, teams have an unlimited number of 'phases' as they make their way up the pitch.

This results in very different strategies when it comes to optimising field position.

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