A league of its own

Séaghan Ó Domhnalláin discusses the discreet nuances between Rugby Union and the different but similar Rugby League

While nearly everyone in Ireland has heard of, and probably watched, rugby union before, I’m willing to bet that very few have watched a game of rugby league before. Rugby league is a variety of rugby that diverged from the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) in the 1890s, over an argument whether players should be paid or not. In 1895, 21 RFU clubs met in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield and formed the Northern Rugby Football Union, which was later renamed the Rugby Football League. Since then, rugby league has remained the preferred brand of rugby in the North of England, as well as in Australia and parts of France.

Since the 1895 split, there has been a gradual number of changes to the law, which have made league a similar but distinct sport. The biggest differences are league’s 13 players per team and “play-the-ball” instead of rucks after a tackle, which involves the tackled player standing up after they are tackled and rolling the ball backwards using his foot. There are also no lineouts, uncontested scrums and each try is worth four points. These differences make for a quicker-paced game, with more running than union.

The Rugby League World Cup was inaugurated in 1954 in France, with Britain beating France in the Final. Since then, Australia have been the heavyweights of the tournament, winning it 11 times. Britain’s win in 1972 remains the last time a northern Hemisphere team won, with Australia winning every title since, except  2011 when New Zealand won. In 1995, Britain was replaced by England, Wales and Scotland each fielding their own teams. In reality, British teams were always dominated by English players as league is a minority sport in Wales and Scotland.

Rugby league in Ireland

Ireland have fielded teams at every world cup since 2000, mainly thanks to English-born players making use of the grandparent rule, however that is not to say that there are no Irish rugby league clubs. Currently six clubs run a four-team premiership and a three-team championship each year. The winner of the premiership also gets a place in the early rounds of the Challenge cup, rugby league’s version of the FA Cup.

This year, Ireland got off to a good start with a win against Jamaica. A shaky opening by Ireland soon gave way to a more solid defence. This defence, along with 10 tries by eight different try scorers, gave Ireland a comfortable 48-2 win against the Caribbean side.

However, Ireland’s fortune dipped with a 32-14 loss to a strong Lebanese side. This loss put an end to Ireland’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages as a win against New Zealand would have been required, which was highly unlikely.

Ultimately, Ireland lost to New Zealand with a full-time score of 48-10. Melbourne scrum-half Jahrome Hughes gave a brilliant display in how to cut a team’s defence in half, while Ireland missing three front rows to injury and suspension did not help the cause. At least the strong Irish support in the 14,000 people crowd had something to cheer about with two tries from Innes Senior.


This world cup has also been hailed as the most inclusive tournament to date, as the women’s and wheelchair world cups are being held concurrently in England. Eight teams, including Ireland, are contesting the wheelchair world cup, along with eight women’s teams competing in the women’s tournament.