The History of Rugby League

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The History of Rugby League

The compelling modern sport we call rugby league is played across the world. Many argue that it is faster, more skilful and athletic than its union counterpart. And, with the ball in play a lot more than in the union version, there are not as many rules, meaning the game is free-flowing and frenetic. Another key difference lies in player numbers - 13 for rugby league and two more for the union game. But where do the origins of rugby league lie, and what's its history?


Rugby League: How it all Began

The modern game of rugby league has its roots in England of the late 1800s, where it had already been played for a century. In 1895, one group of 22 clubs from the northern regions, which were playing under the auspices of the single, unified set of rules or "code" for rugby of the era, called rugby union, decided to break away from their governing body to create their own version of the sport they loved.

They were motivated by an urge to provide players with fair compensation for the time away from work that was needed when taking part in games on Saturdays. That was not an allowed arrangement by what was then the Rugby Football Union, and it ended up being a catalyst for a genuine revolution in sport.

Teams in the north tended to have greater numbers of working class players, who were unable to afford to take time off work to play without this compensation, unlike teams from the south who could rely on other income sources to maintain the amateur principle.

The line-out was dropped in 1897, and professionalism brought in the following year.

The Twentieth Century Onwards

In 1906, the ruck formed after every tackle was replaced with play-the-ball to restart play. By 1910, over 200 Rugby Football Union clubs had abandoned the old rules to take part in the rugby revolution.

From then on, the game start to develop by way of a string of pioneering, radical changes in structure and field rules until it became the modern sport as it is played now.

In May 1954, more than 100,000 people watched the 1953-4 Challenge Cup final in Bradford, England at the city's Odsal Stadium, a match which set a record for attendance at any kind of rugby football game. At the instigation of the French, this was also the year when the Rugby League World Cup was first formed.

A new rule, brought in by the International Board in 1966, stated that a team which had possession could have three play-the-balls, and, at the fourth tackle, there was to be a scrum formation. The first professional Sunday matches of rugby league were played in 1967. In 1972, this was upped to six tackles. By 1983, a handover had replaced the scrum.

How the Game Began in Australia

In August 1907, the New South Wales Rugby Football League was established in Sydney. It was the start of a process which saw rugby league going on to displace union as the main code for the sport in Queensland and New South Wales.


John Player and Joshua Tetley, the first sponsors, joined the game in the 1971-2 National Rugby Football League season. TV was to have a huge impact on rugby league during the mid-1990s, when the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corporation was chasing worldwide broadcasting rights.

In Australasia, the media giant's 'Super League' movement ended up in lengthy, expensive legal wrangling over broadcasting rights. It was a battle between Super League (Australia) and Australian Rugby League organisations, supported by Kerry Packer and Optus Vision.

After 1997, a 'peace deal' was brokered in the form of the National Rugby League, the sport's flagship contest which since the late 1990s has consistently enjoyed record crowds and television audiences.



For anyone shopping online for rugby kit, or memorabilia, it's worth bearing the long, proud and sometimes turbulent history of Rugby League in mind, and all the events that have shaped the sport we know and love in the twenty-first century.

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