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Rugby league

Rugby league is a team sport, played by teams of 13 players per side (usually plus 4 substitutes). The aim is to carry an oval ball up the field towards the opponents in-goal area. Touching the ball down behind this line scores a try, the main aim of the game. Points may also be scored by kicking the ball between the prongs of a H-shaped set of posts located on the goal line. The opposing team attempt to prevent scoring by tackling the player with the ball. In addition to running with the ball, players may pass it backwards to a team-mate, or kick it in any direction they choose.

Rugby league is one of the two forms of rugby, the other being rugby union.



Main article: History of Rugby League


The game developed from rugby union, and originated with rugby clubs in Northern England. The players in these clubs were largely working-class, unlike the clubs in Southern England whose players were middle or upper class. Rugby competition at the time did not allow paying players any salary; the working-class players felt they could not afford time off to train and play, nor could they afford to miss work through injury sustained whilst playing.

In 1892, charges of professionalism were laid against clubs in Bradford and Leeds, both in Yorkshire, after they compensated players for missing work. This was despite the fact that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was allowing other players to be paid, such as the 1888 England team that toured Australia, or the account of Harry Hamill of his payments to represent New South Wales (NSW) against England in 1904.

In 1893, Yorkshire clubs complained that southern clubs were over-represented on the RFU Committee and that committee meeting were held in London at times which made it difficult for northern members to attend. By implication they were arguing that this affected the RFU's decisions on the issue of "broken time" payments to the detriment of northern clubs who at the time made up the majority of English rugby clubs.

On August 29, 1895 representatives of the northern clubs met in the George Hotel, Huddersfield to form the "Northern Rugby Football Union" (NRFU). It is often, mistakenly, thought that this new body allowed professionalism from the start. For the first few years of its existence, the NRFU was vehemently anti-professional, only broken time payments were allowed. The separate Lancashire and Yorkshire competitions of the NRFU merged in 1901, forming the Northern Rugby League, the first time the name Rugby League was used officially. The NRFU became the Rugby Football League in 1922.


A similar schism, and for similar reasons, opened up in the union establishment of Australia, where the term rugby league was first used for the new game. In 1907, at the instigation of the famous test cricket player Victor Trumper, at a meeting in Bateman's Crystal Hotel in Sydney, New South Wales, The NSW Rugby League was formed. Players were immediately recruited for the new game, and despite the threat of immediate and lifetime expulsion from the rugby union, the NSWRL managed to recruit Herbert "Dally" Messenger , the most famous rugby player in Sydney at that time. In 1908 when the Australian Rugby Union team returned from a tour of the British Isles, for which the team had received three shillings a day for "out-of-pocket" expenses, 13 of the players immediately joined rugby league teams.

League rule divergence from Union

By 1907, the new sport's rules had diverged from those of union, most noticeably in the reduction of players from 15 to 13; the "play the ball" (heeling the ball back after a tackle) rather than rucking and mauling; the elimination of the line out; and slightly different scoring.

Amateur Rugby League

It should be noted that, although the professional game developed first, a thriving amateur scene soon developed. Apart from during the very earliest years the majority of rugby league players have always been in the amateur ranks, playing purely for the love of the sport. Despite this, many in the rugby union hierarchy have long attempted to dismiss the sport as simply professional rugby union.


The game is governed by a set of laws that are written by the authorities. These have evolved over time.

Point Scoring

Points are scored by:

  • Touching the ball down over the opponents' goal line (a try, worth 4 points). The ball must be placed on the ground within the in-goal area using positive downward pressure by the hand or forearm carrying the ball, and before the momentum of any tackle by an opposing player ends. The player must be inside the field of play at the moment the ball is grounded.
  • Penalty try, where a try would have certainly been scored but for the illegal actions of the defending team. A penalty try is awarded directly under the goal posts no matter where the offence took place.
  • Kicking the ball above the crossbar and between the uprights of a large 'H' shaped set of posts. This may either be done from a place kick following a rule infringement (a penalty goal) or kicked from the hand, providing the ball strikes the ground before being kicked (a field goal, or drop goal). A penalty goal is worth 2 points and a drop goal is worth 1.
  • A conversion, which is attempted after a try has been scored, from in line with where the try was scored along the axis of the goal line. A conversion is worth 2 points.

When a team scores, the opposing team restarts play by kicking the ball (from a place kick) back into play from the half way line.

The game is played for two forty minute halves. The teams swap ends for each half.

Other rules usually thought of as indicative of the difference between the two different types of Rugby, were introduced over the subsequent history of the game. The two most important concepts that league has and union does not are the play-the-ball and the limited-tackles rule.

The Play-The-Ball

The play-the-ball is how the ball is returned to play after a tackle. As soon as a player is tackled (defined as when the ball-carrying arm or the ball touches the ground, provided an opponent maintains some contact) then all the defenders must retreat 10 metres from the tackled player, with the exception of two 'markers', who stand one behind the other, in front of the tackled player. As soon as possible, the tackled player stands up, and places the ball on the ground in front of one foot (if the ball is dropped, it is a knock-on and a scrum to the opposition). The ball is then rolled backwards by use of the boot. In recent years, it has become acceptable for a player merely to place the ball on the ground and roll it backwards by use of the hand, whilst merely stepping over it as it moves backwards.

As soon as the ball is played, it is back in play and the defenders can try to take it back. A colleague of the tackled player will stand behind the tackled player to receive the play-the-ball; he will then choose to pass, kick or run with it. This is most usually the player at Hooker, and is known as the acting half-back or dummy-half .

The Six-Tackle Rule

This is the other rule that both differentiates the game from rugby union and brings it closer to American football. When a side takes possession, they have five attempts to move the ball up the field and score a try or a drop goal with it. The referee keeps track of the tackle count; after each tackle, he shouts how many tackles have been made, in either cardinal or ordinal form. When a side has been tackled five times, the shout is "Fifth and last!" and is accompanied by an arm raised above the head with fingers spread. The referee also has the power to reset the tackle count; if the defending side commits a knock-on (for example, while trying to intercept a pass or catch a kick), but the attacking side immediately regains possession, the referee usually elects to wipe the tackle count in lieu of awarding a scrum: he will shout "Back to zero!", and wave one arm over his head with fingers clenched into a fist, and the attacking side gains another set of six tackles. In this situation the referee will also award zero tackle: that is, the next tackle after the knock-on is not included in the tackle count, and the attackers still have their full complement of six tackles. This is indicated by the referee shouting "zero tackle" instead of "one" or "first". A zero tackle may only be awarded once per knock-on, however. If a side is tackled for a sixth time the ball is handed over by the tackled player to an opponent, who conducts a play-the-ball and the opposition take possession. This indicated by a blast of the referee's whistle and a shout of "handover". Because of this, it is common to kick the ball on the last tackle: normally because, like in American football on fourth down, it is far more desirable to concede possession fifty yards closer to the opposition posts than in midfield or close to your own posts. It is also used on fifth tackle when near the opposing try-line as a different way of trying to beat the defence and score a try. In recent years, running on the last tackle has become known as a power play, a term taken and modified from ice hockey.

These two rules result in a game which, to the casual observer, bears more resemblance to American football with its four-down system and the snap at the line of scrimmage, than to rugby union. However, there is one vital difference between the four-down rule and the six-tackle rule: the only way a rugby league side gains a fresh set of six is via a knock-on or if they are awarded a penalty. There is no distance that they can make to gain a new set of six, unlike in American football where advancing ten yards gains a new set of four downs.

More recent rule changes are those such as: the four-point try, previously three; non-competitive scrums; the ten-metre rule, where the defensive team has to remain in a line at least ten metres away from the play-the-ball area (or behind the goal line if the ball is less than 10 metres away), previously this was only five metres; the golden point rule in case of a drawn game at the end of regular time (Australia only); the 40/20 rule, and many others.


Players on field are divided into "forwards" and "backs".


1 Fullback: Last ditch defender, often is the extra man in attack.

2 & 5 Wingers, or wing three-quarters: Fast players that attack and defend on the edge of the field.

3 & 4 Centres, or centre three-quarters: Play just inside the wingers. Together, the wingers and centres make up the three-quarter line.

6 Five-eighth, or stand-off half: Second receiver.

7 Half-back, or scrum-half: Feeds the scrum and is usually first receiver.


9 Hooker: Packs in the middle of the front row and is usually dummy half.

8 & 10 Prop-forwards: Packs in the front of the scrum. The biggest and toughest players on the field.

11 & 12 Second-row forwards. Pack in the second row of the scrum.

13 Lock, or loose forward: Packs the back of the scrum.

See also Rugby League positions


A scrum is awarded when a player knocks-on (propelling the ball forward with the hand) or when the ball is carried or kicked over the sideline.

It is formed by the front row of each side locking together, and packing down into the front row of the opposition. The second row forwards pack in behind the front rows, and the loose forwards join the scrum at the back. The ball is fed through the legs of one of the props by the scrum-half, who normally then retrieves it again from the back of the scrum.

The main purpose of the scrum is simply to remove the forwards from the play for a period, thus creating more space for back-play. This is intended to give advantage to the side that is awarded the scrum.

Scrums in rugby league differ from those in rugby union, being simpler and less time consuming. It is very rare (but not completely unknown) for a team to win possession against the head.

Disciplinary Sanctions

The standard disciplinary sanction in rugby league is the penalty. The referee may also award a penalty try, which is described in the section on scoring.

In addition to a penalty, the referee may issue temporary expulsions of 10 minutes (the player is said to be in the Sin Bin) or permanent expulsions (sending-offs). In Britain, the referee signals a sin-binning by showing the player a yellow card and a sending-off with a red card. In Australia, the referee raises both arms straight out with fingers spread (to indicate '10 minutes') for a temporary expulsion and simply points sent-off players from the field of play.

A further sanction is that for dissent shown towards the referee: if a player disputes a penalty, the referee may move the ball 10m towards the offending team's try-line. If the ball is already within 10m of the try-line, then the referee awards a penalty try.


Rugby league is arguably less tactically complicated than other codes such as rugby union or American football. The tactics below are a basic guide to the game. On occasions, enterprising teams may choose to do the exact opposite in order to surprise their opponents.

Attacking Tactics

Each team has six tackles (a "set") in possession of the ball, after which they must turn over possession of the ball to the defending side. The attacking team attempts to maximise the distance gained during each set, and to finish the set by scoring points or at least in good field position.

The 40/20 Kick

In the past few years, a new rule has been introduced to help encourage attacking play. Normally, when the ball enters touch, the side who were not in possession or who did not kick the ball out, receive head and feed at the resulting scrum. However, if the ball is kicked from inside a team's own 40 metre line, and it goes into touch between the opposition's 20 metre line and the try-line on the bounce, then that player's side are awarded head and feed at the scrum.


Early in the tackle count the attacking team typically has poor field position—they have a long distance to carry the ball in order to score. The first two or three tackles typically consist of low-risk play designed to improve field position while not losing possession. After the play the ball, the dummy-half may choose to run with the ball. Alternatively he may make one pass to a forward (prop, second row or lock). The large forwards (typically 100 kilograms) attempt to carry the ball as far as possible using brute strength. This is known as "hitting the ball up". If done successfully, the attacking team will carry the ball forward and players from the defending side will be drawn in towards the middle of the ground. Playing mainly down the centre of the field, making one pass to a forward and having him make as much ground as possible and then taking a tackle, is known as "one-out (or one-and-out) rugby". The most skilful forwards will, however, look to release the ball in the tackle to a supporting player with an "offload". This helps to create running opportunities for the supporting players due to defenders having been drawn into the tackle.


These tackles give the attacking team's backs time to organise for attack, while also disrupting and tiring the defending formation. Now riskier play is attempted in order to attempt to score before they must relinquish possession to the opposition after six tackles. The backs attempt to break the defensive line through combinations of passes and kicks designed to confuse the defence.

A 'dummy' is move in which the player with the ball pretends to pass to team-mate, but retains the ball and continues to run with it.

When two players execute a 'run-around', player A passes the ball to player B, and then circles behind him. Player B then passes the ball back to player A. The defending team must move laterally across the field to ensure all attacking players remain marked.

A 'face-ball' or 'second man play' is a pass that travels through the air in-front of an attacking player (who does not catch it) and to a second man. Defenders may mistakenly focus on the first attacker, who does not receive the ball, leaving the second man unmarked.

Rather than running through the defensive line, the attackers may kick the ball forward pass the defensive line, regain the ball, and continue to attack. A 'grubber' is a short kick along the ground. A 'bomb' is a punt kick that travels high in the air, allowing the attacking side time to run through. The attacking and defending sides then contest the bomb by jumping in the air and catching the ball. It is illegal to tackle a player who is in the air.

Defensive Tactics

Defending players aim to spread across the field in a single line and stop the attacking players from breaking this line. Two ways to do this are the 'Slide Defence' and the 'Umbrella Defence'. Teams would use both at different times during a game.

Sliding Defence

Under the 'sliding defence' gaps are left at either edge of the field at the end of the defensive line. Should the attacking side move the ball towards one edge of the field in an attempt to go around the defensive line, then the entire defensive line will move in that direction. This is known as sliding. The advantage of the slide defence is that the players in the defensive line may stand closer together, leaving the attacking side less opportunity to run through the line.

Umbrella Defence

Under the 'umbrella defence' (or 'up and in' defence) players do not spread across the entire field. Players on the edge of the defensive line move up faster than those in the middle of the line, hoping to disrupt any passes towards the edge of the field.


The fullback is the last-ditch line of defence, standing behind the main line of defence. It is the fullback who must: (i) tackle any player who breaks the first line of defence, (ii) catch any kicks made by the attacking side, (iii) shout instructions to the other defending players.


Late in the tackle count, when the attacking side is more likely to kick or break the first line of defence, the wingers may also drop back slightly from the main line of defence. This is to provide support in fielding the ball following a kick from the attacking team, meaning the fullback does not have to cover the entire width of the field. A kick to the corner can be more efficiently fielded by a winger than pulling the fullback out of position. This then allows the other player to become available for a pass when starting the attacking set of six tackles.


Rugby League, while a hugely popular professional and amateur sport in some regions of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, has struggled to assert itself as an international sporting code particularly in the aftermath of the disastrous Super League war for control of the code in the mid 1990s. The game is played at semi-professional and amateur level in France, Russia and many Pacific Island nations. It is the national sport of Papua New Guinea.

The premier international competition is the Rugby League World Cup, first held in 1954. The format has changed over the years, but it is currently held every 5 years. Australia has dominated the competition, winning for the fourth time in 1975, and has defended it 5 times since then.

Other international competitions include the Ashes (a test match series between Great Britain and Australia), the ANZAC tests between Australia and New Zealand and the Tri-Nations. An annual tournament, known as the Victory Cup, is held in Russia.

The most prestigious national competition is the National Rugby League of Australia, which also includes a New Zealand team. The NRL also conducts the fiercely contested and well-attended State of Origin matches between New South Wales and Queensland (two states which cover 56% of the population of Australia), which arguably overshadow international matches in terms of public interest within those states. While Rugby league dominates in these states, in other states of Australia, Australian Rules Football and to a lesser extent soccer significantly overshadow Rugby League in terms of popularity. Rugby League rates well as a television spectacle across Australia, even in areas dominated by other codes of football.

The leading professional competition in Great Britain is the Super League. The Challenge Cup, a knockout competition for all British clubs has been held since 1896. In recent years the entry has been expanded to allow French and Russian teams to take part. A French team from the rugby stronghold of Perpignan will also enter the Super League in 2006.

At the beginning of each season the reigning champions of the National Rugby League of Australia and the Super League of Great Britain contest the World Club Championship to determine the best club side in the world. The British club Leeds Rhinos currently hold this title having beaten the Canterbury Bulldogs.

See also

External links

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