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What is The Difference Between Rugby League and Rugby Union?

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The Difference Between Rugby League and Rugby Union in New Zealand

The All blacks and the Kiwis are both national New Zealand rugby teams, but what is the difference? Find out about the differences between Rugby League and Rugby Union in New Zealand in the quick guide below!

A fun way to immerse yourself in the Kiwi culture is to experience the atmosphere of a New Zealand rugby match. Rugby is also a good excuse to get yourself down to the sports bar. However, you won’t see the All Blacks at a Rugby League game, and you might wonder why the players keep piling on top of each other in a Rugby Union game? We’ll go over the basics of the differences between Rugby League and Rugby Union in New Zealand below.

For more about experiencing New Zealand rugby for yourself, check out The Best Places to Watch Rugby in New Zealand.

Why Are There Two Types of Rugby?

As New Zealand’s most popular sport, it might make watching a game more enjoyable if you know what type of rugby you are watching and how the rules differ. Our mini guide aims to help you out with that by answering the following:

  • How did rugby split into two games?
  • Why did the rules change between League and Union?
  • What are the different rules?
  • What does this mean for New Zealand rugby?

If your whole trip is surrounding the sport, be sure to check out Sports Break Advice: How to Prepare to Travel for Sport.

Pixabay© Pixabay

It Used to Be About Politics

Rugby originated in the town of Rugby, England in 1823. A schoolboy who was playing soccer picked up the soccer ball and ran. This somehow escalated into a sport. By 1871 the Rugby Football Union (RFU) governing body was established. In order for the RFU to create rugby teams, the paupers of the north of England were paid to play thus becoming professionals and those rich enough to play for free were amateurs usually players from the south.

The initial idea of being a professional was demeaning until someone realised: hey, it’s quite cool to be paid for having fun! So the professional players formed fully professional teams and kicked the butts of the amateur players. The RFU didn’t like this, so all professional teams and players were banned. Did this stop the professionals? Hell no! They created their own governing body in 1895, which became Rugby League. The RFU called their sport Rugby Union.

Pixabay© Pixabay

So Why Did the Rules Change?

Glad you asked. Because the professionals in Rugby League were being paid, they needed to attract crowds with a game that was easy to understand and moved at a quicker pace. The rules changed accordingly.

Rugby Union stuck to the original rules, which are slightly more complex.

Pixabay© Pixabay

What are the Different Rules Between League and Union?

Although there are some minor differences, these are the main rule changes that cause the two games to run very differently.

The main difference is what happens after a tackle: In Union, the tackle is contested meaning the ball carrier must let go of the ball. Either team can pick up the ball and run. This usually results in a “ruck” which is a heap of bodies trying to grab the ball. In League the tackle in uncontested. Once the ball carrier is tackled, the other team must let go of them, retreat 10m and let the team with the ball try again. The team with the ball are allowed up to 6 tackles to score, otherwise, it becomes the other team’s go.

Other differences in the rules include:

  • Players: 15 in Union, 13 in League
  • Try: 5 points in Union, 4 points in League
  • Penalty: 3 points in Union, 2 points in League
  • Drop goal: 3 points in Union, 1 point in League.
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What Does This Mean for New Zealand Rugby?

When someone refers to rugby in New Zealand, they mean Rugby Union. The national team is the world-famous All Blacks. They a top national team, winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The national Rugby League team are nicknamed The Kiwis, who won the 2008 Rugby World Cup.

The only country where Rugby League is more popular is in Australia.

The women’s national Rugby Union team is the Black Ferns, with World Cup titles in1998, 2002 2006 and in 2010.

What do all these teams have in common? The Haka, which is performed by players before each match!

The Pirtek National Championship is Rugby League’s national competition. There are three main national NZ Rugby Union competitions:

  • ITM Cup
  • Heartland Championship
  • Ranfurly Shield

For a more in-depth look at New Zealand rugby, check out our guide to Rugby in New Zealand and the Top New Zealand Events in 2021 for rugby events.

What are the NZ Regional Rugby Teams?

Rugby Union

  • Christchurch Crusaders
  • Auckland Blues
  • Hamilton Chiefs
  • Wellington Hurricanes
  • Dunedin Highlanders
  • Southland Stags
  • Tasman Makos

Rugby League

  • Northern Swords
  • Central Vipers
  • Akarana Falcons
  • Wellington Orcas
  • Counties Manukau Stingrays
  • Wai-Coa-Bay
  • South Island

Want to Learn More Facts About New Zealand?

How about the 10 Things You Did Not Know About New Zealand?


The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Robin C.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Robin, who is the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. With more than 15 years of experience in the New Zealand tourism industry, Robin has co-founded three influential tourism businesses and five additional travel guides for South Pacific nations. He is an expert in New Zealand travel and has tested over 600 activities and 300+ accommodations across the country.

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