What is rugby league? 

Rugby league began in 1895, as the ‘Northern Union’, when clubs in the North of England broke away from the Rugby Football Union. The clubs wanted to compensate their working-class players for time away from work for rugby tours and injuries. The RFU refused, saying ‘if men couldn’t afford to play, then they shouldn’t play at all’. In the decade that followed, rugby league made changes setting itself apart from rugby union.

Rugby league, or rugby league football to give it its full title, is a hard-hitting, fast-flowing team sport requiring a number of attributes including speed, strength, determination, courage and a willingness to take a hit — and lots of them.

As a contact sport, rugby league is one of the most physical there is. But don’t think that rugby league is all about sheer size and strength, as although it is an obvious advantage, skill and tactics play a significant part in the game too. Rugby league players have to be multi-skilled, being able to run, kick and handle the ball well, but players do have specialist roles within their team to utilize their specific skills and attributes.

The laws of rugby league have been changed over the years, many of the changes aimed at creating a faster, more spectator-friendly sport. The absence of mauls, rucks and line-outs (found in rugby union), mean there are generally fewer stoppages in play and fewer laws for the referee to interpret, making it easier for the spectator to follow.

When taking into consideration the fact that there are only 13 players on the field of play (compared to 15 in rugby union), that’s a lot of ground for the players to cover, so they need to be very fit and mobile.

Rugby league has a long history, but underneath is an overview of the changes and development that Rugby league went through since its founding.




On 29th August 1895, Rugby League was born as 21 clubs based in the north of England broke away from English Rugby Union’s governing body and formed their own competition. The breakaway was caused by the northern clubs’ desire to pay players which was outlawed at the time in Rugby Union.


Nine years after the creation of the sport, the first ever International Rugby League match took place. In front of a 6,000-strong crowd at Wigan, an Other Nationalities side, wearing green jerseys and made up of Welsh and Scottish players, edged past England 9-3 in a friendly on April 5.


Rugby League became a 13-a-side sport, alongside the introduction of the game’s distinctive play-the-ball movement, while all 31 professional teams were merged into one league. Bradford, who finished the year in 12th place, won the Championship Final 5-0 against 18th-placed Salford.


In November 1921, the first £1,000 transfer fee was recorded as winger Harold Buck switched from Hunslet to local rivals, Leeds. Buck made his debut for Leeds against Wigan at Headingley Stadium on Saturday November 5th, 1921. He went on to play 99 matches for Leeds scoring 72 tries and 15 conversions.


In 1932, the first rugby league match under floodlights was played. It was an exhibition game between Leeds and Wigan at the iconic 93,000-capacity White City Stadium in London. Leeds won the game, which kicked off at 8pm, 18-9, in front of a crowd of around 10,000 people.


Rugby League’s first ever televised match took place in 1948 as Wigan beat Bradford 8-3 in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. Also, the Rugby League International Federation was formed in Bordeaux, put in place to act as the game’s first worldwide governing body.


Rugby League became the first code of rugby to stage a World Cup tournament. Great Britain and France dominated the competition, eventually contesting the final. The decider took place on November 13 in Paris, Great Britain won 16-12 for their first of three World Cup titles to date.


Substitutes were now allowed at any time during game. Five years earlier, substitutes were allowed for the first time, but only for players injured before half time. This progressed from two replacements initially, to four, a rule which remains in the present day.


The six-tackle rule was introduced. Having been unlimited from 1895, plays were reduced to four in 1967, but adjusted to six in 1971. Meanwhile, the value of drop goals was halved to one point, alongside the introduction of sponsors for the first time and official timekeepers.


The World Club Challenge begins unofficially as Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs beat St Helens 25-2 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Wigan overcame Manly-Warringah 8-2 in 1987, the next staging of a similar game, before Widnes won the first official World Club Challenge in October 1989, beating Canberra Raiders 30-18 at Old Trafford.


In 1983, the sin bin is introduced for on-field offences in the UK. Referees now have the power to yellow card an offending player, leaving them to serve a ten-minute suspension. In the same year, the number of points awarded for scoring a try increased from three to four.


The ten-metre rule was introduced in Rugby League’s 98th season of the professional game. Defending teams now had to get back ten meters, otherwise they were found offside. In that case, the other team is awarded a penalty.


The Rugby League World Cup is held in Europe. Seven grounds achieve sell-out crowds, with four setting stadium records. Games held in both Wales and Ireland were watched by the biggest crowds ever for Rugby League games in those countries. The final is played in front of 74,468 people at Old Trafford, a record crowd for an International Rugby League fixture.