Rugby league football is a full-contact sport played by two teams of thirteen players on a rectangular field. One of the two codes of rugby, it originated in Northern England in 1895 as a split from the Rugby Football Union over the issue of payments to players. Its rules progressively changed with the aim of producing a faster, more entertaining game for spectators.
In rugby league, points are scored by carrying the ball and touching it to the ground beyond the opposing team's goal line; this is called a try, and is the primary method of scoring. The opposing team attempts to stop the attacking side scoring points by tackling the player carrying the ball. In addition to tries, points can be scored by kicking goals. After each try, the scoring team gains a free kick to try at goal with a conversion for further points. Kicks at goal may also be awarded for penalties, and field goals can be attempted at any time.
Rugby league is a popular sport in Northern England, the states of Queensland and New South Wales in Australia, New Zealand, southwest France and is the national sport of Papua New Guinea. The European Super League and the National Rugby League (NRL) are the premier club competitions. Rugby league is played internationally, predominantly by European, Australasian and Pacific Island countries, and is governed by the Rugby League International Federation. The first Rugby League World Cup was held in France in 1954; the current holders are Australia.
Rugby league football takes its name from the bodies that split to create a new form of rugby, distinct from that run by the Rugby Football Unions, in Britain, Australia and New Zealand between 1895 and 1908.
The first of these, the Northern Rugby Football Union, was established in 1895 as a breakaway faction of England's Rugby Football Union (RFU). Both organisations played the game under the same rules at first, although the Northern Union began to modify rules almost immediately, thus creating a new faster, stronger paced form of rugby football. Similar breakaway factions split from RFU-affiliated unions in Australia and New Zealand in 1907 and 1908, renaming themselves "rugby football leagues" and introducing Northern Union rules. In 1922, the Northern Union also changed its name to the Rugby Football League and thus over time the sport itself became known as "rugby league" football.
In 1895, a schism in Rugby football resulted in the formation of the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU). Although many factors played a part in the split, including the success of working class northern teams, the main division was caused by the RFU decision to enforce the amateur principle of the sport, preventing "broken time payments" to players who had taken time off work to play rugby. Northern teams typically had more working class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to affluent southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle. In 1895, a decree by the RFU banning the playing of rugby at grounds where entrance fees were charged led to twenty-two clubs (including Stockport who negotiated by telephone) meeting at the George Hotel, Huddersfield on 29 August 1895 and forming the "Northern Rugby Football Union". Within fifteen years of that first meeting in Huddersfield, more than 200 RFU clubs had left to join the rugby revolution.
In 1897, the line-out was abolished and in 1898 professionalism introduced. In 1906, the Northern Union changed its rules, reducing teams from 15 to 13 a side and replacing the ruck formed after every tackle with the play the ball.
A similar schism to that which occurred in England took place in Sydney, Australia. There, on 8 August 1907 the New South Wales Rugby Football League was founded at Bateman's Hotel in George Street. Rugby league then went on to displace rugby union as the primary football code in New South Wales and Queensland.
On 5 May 1954 over 100,000 (official figure 102,569) spectators watched the 1953–54 Challenge Cup Final at Odsal Stadium, Bradford, England, setting a new record for attendance at a rugby football match of either code. Also in 1954 the Rugby League World Cup, the first for either code of rugby, was formed at the instigation of the French. In 1966, the International Board introduced a rule that a team in possession was allowed three play-the-balls and on the fourth tackle a scrum was to be formed. This was increased to six tackles in 1972 and in 1983 the scrum was replaced by a handover. 1967 saw the first professional Sunday matches of rugby league played.
The first sponsors, Joshua Tetley and John Player, entered the game for the 1971–72 Northern Rugby Football League season. Television would have an enormous impact on the sport of rugby league in the 1990s when Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation sought worldwide broadcasting rights and refused to take no for an answer. The media giant's "Super League" movement saw big changes for the traditional administrators of the game. In Europe it resulted in a move from a winter sport to a summer one as the new Super League competition tried to expand its market. In Australasia, the Super League war resulted: long and costly legal battles and changing loyalties, causing significant damage to the code in an extremely competitive sporting market. In 1997 two competitions were run alongside each other in Australia, after which a peace deal in the form of the National Rugby League was formed. The NRL has since become recognised as the sport's flagship competition and since that time has set record TV ratings and crowd figures.
The objective in rugby league is to score more points through tries, goals (also known as conversions) and field goals (also known as drop goals) than the opposition within the 80 minutes of play. If after two halves of play, each consisting of forty minutes, the two teams are drawing, a draw may be declared, or the game may enter extra time under the golden point rule, depending on the relevant competition's format.
The try is the most common form of scoring, and a team will usually attempt to score one by running and kicking the ball further upfield, or passing from player-to-player in order to manoeuvre around the opposition's defence. A try involves touching the ball to the ground on or beyond the defending team's goal-line and is worth four points. A goal is worth two points and may be gained from a conversion or a penalty. A field goal, or drop goal, is only worth one point and is gained by dropping and then kicking the ball on the half volley between the uprights in open play.
Field position is crucial in rugby league, achieved by running with or kicking the ball. Passing in rugby league may only be in a backward or sideways direction. Teammates therefore have to remain on-side by not moving ahead of the player with the ball. However the ball may be kicked ahead for teammates, but again, if they are in front of the kicker when the ball is kicked, they are deemed off-side. Tackling is a key component of rugby league play. Only the player holding the ball may be tackled. A tackle is complete, for example, when the player is held by one or more opposing players in such a manner that he can make no further progress and cannot part with the ball, or when the player is held by one or more opposing players and the ball or the hand or arm holding the ball comes into contact with the ground. An attacking team gets a maximum of six tackles to progress up the field before possession is changed over. Once the tackle is completed, the ball-carrier must be allowed to get to his feet to 'play-the-ball'. Ball control is also important in rugby league, as a fumble of the ball on the ground forces a handover, unless the ball is fumbled backwards. The ball can also be turned over by going over the sideline.
Players on the pitch are divided into forwards and backs, although the game's rules apply to all players the same way. Each position has a designated number to identify himself from other players. These numbers help to identify which position a person is playing. The system of numbering players is different depending on which country the match is played in. In Australia and New Zealand, each player is usually given a number corresponding to their playing position on the field. However, since 1996 European teams have been able to grant players specific squad numbers, which they keep without regard to the position they play, similarly to association football.
Substitutes (generally referred to as "the bench") are allowed in the sport, and are typically used when a player gets tired or injured, although they can also be used tactically. Each team is currently allowed four substitutes, and in Australia and New Zealand, these players occupy shirt numbers 14 to 22. There are no limitations on which players must occupy these interchangeable slots. Generally, twelve interchanges are allowed in any game from each team, although in the National Rugby League, this was reduced to ten prior to the 2008 season and further reduced to eight prior to the 2016 season. If a team has to interchange a player due to the blood bin rule or due to injury, and this was the result of misconduct from the opposing team, the compromised team does not have to use one of its allocated interchanges to take the player in question off the field.
The backs are generally smaller, faster and more agile than the forwards. They are often the most creative and evasive players on the field, relying on running, kicking and handling skills, as well as tactics and set plays, to break the defensive line, instead of brute force. Generally forwards do the majority of the work (hit-ups/tackling).
Usually, the stand-off/five-eighth and scrum half/half-back are a team's creative unit or 'playmakers'. During the interactions between a team's 'key' players (five-eighth, half-back, fullback, lock forward, and hooker), the five-eighth and half-back will usually be involved in most passing moves. These two positions are commonly called the "halves".
The forwards' two responsibilities can be broken into "normal play" and "scrum play". For information on a forward's role in the scrum see rugby league scrummage. Forward positions are traditionally named after the player's position in the scrum yet are equal with respect to "normal play" with the exception of the hooker. Forward positions are traditionally assigned as follows:
Rugby league is played in over 70 nations throughout the world, Australia, Canada, England, France, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Wales have teams that play at a professional level while the rest are completely amateur, 36 are ranked by the RLIF and a further 32 are officially recognized and unranked. The strongest rugby league nations are Australia, England and New Zealand. The Rugby League World Cup is the highest form of representative rugby league and currently features 14 teams. Those which have contested World Cups are; Australia, New Zealand, England, France, Fiji, Wales, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Ireland, USA, Scotland, Italy, Tonga, Cook Islands, Lebanon, Russia and South Africa. The current World Champions are Australia, who won the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
The Asia-Pacific Rugby League Confederation's purpose is to spread the sport of rugby league throughout their region along with other governing bodies such as the ARL and NZRL. Since rugby league was introduced to Australia in 1908 it has become the largest television sport and 3rd most attended sport in Australia and neighbouring Papua New Guinea is one of two countries to have rugby league as its national sport (with Cook Islands). This has led to officials from that country lobbying to have a team admitted to the National Rugby League, Australia's elite club competition which also features a team from Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city. The reasonable popularity of the code in New Zealand has led to talk about the possibility of another team from the South Island entering the competition as well. Rugby league is the dominant winter sport in the eastern Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland. The game is also among the predominant sports of Tonga and is played in other Pacific nations such as Samoa and Fiji. In Australia, and indeed the rest of the region, the annual State of Origin series ranks among the most popular sporting events.
In England, rugby league has traditionally been associated with the northern counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria where the game originated, especially in towns along the M62 corridor. Its popularity has also increased elsewhere. Currently, only one of the twelve Super League teams is based outside of these traditional counties: Catalans Dragons (Perpignan). Two other teams from outside the United Kingdom, the Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique, also compete in the English Rugby League system. Both teams will play in the Rugby League Championship in 2018.
Super League average attendances are in the 8 to 9,500 range. The average Super League match attendance in 2014 was 8,365. Ranked the eighth most popular sport in the UK overall, rugby league is the 27th most popular participation sport in England according to figures released by Sport England; the total number of rugby league participants in England aged 16 and over was 44,900 in 2017. This is a 39% drop from 10 years ago. While the sport is largely concentrated in the north of England there have been complaints about its lack of profile in the British media. On the eve of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Final where England would face Australia, English amateur rugby league coach Ben Dawson stated, “we’re in the final of a World Cup. First time in more than 30 years and there's no coverage anywhere.”
France first played rugby league as late as 1934, where in the five years prior to the Second World War, the sport's popularity increased as Frenchmen became disenchanted with the state of French rugby union in the 1930s. However, after the Allied Forces were defeated by Germany in June 1940, the Vichy regime in the south seized assets belonging to rugby league authorities and clubs and banned the sport for its association with the left-wing Popular Front government that had governed France before the war. The sport was unbanned after the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 and the collapse of the Vichy regime, although it was still actively marginalised by the French authorities until the 1990s. Despite this, the national side appeared in the finals of the 1954 and 1968 World Cups, and the country hosted the 1954 event. In 1996, a French team, Paris Saint-Germain was one of eleven teams which formed the new European Super League, although the club was dissolved in 1997. In 2006, the Super League admitted the Catalans Dragons, a team from Perpignan in the southern Languedoc-Roussillon region. They have subsequently reached the 2007 Challenge Cup Final and made the play-offs of the 2008 Super League XIII season. The success of the Dragons in Super League has initiated a renaissance in French rugby league, with new-found enthusiasm for the sport in the south of the country where most of the Elite One Championship teams are based. In other parts of Europe the game is played at semi professional and amateur level.
The Toronto Wolfpack are North America’s only professional Rugby League team, competing in the English Rugby League system. The Wolfpack won the 2017 Kingstone Press League 1 in their inaugural season and earned promotion to the 2018 Rugby League Championship. The Wolfpack play their home games at Lamport Stadium in Toronto.
The early 21st century has seen other countries take up the game and compete in international rugby league with the Rugby League European Federation and Asia-Pacific Rugby League Confederation expanding the game to new areas such as Canada, Ghana, Philippines, Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Hungary, Turkey, Thailand, Chile, Brazil and Argentina to name a few. Lebanon is one of a small number of countries where rugby league is more popular than rugby union.
The two most prominent full-time professional leagues are the Australasian National Rugby League and the European Super League and to a lesser extent the semi professional French Elite One Championship and Elite Two Championship. Domestic leagues, with some full-time exceptions, exist at a semi-professional level below the NRL and Super League, in Australia the Queensland Cup (which includes a team from Papua New Guinea) and NSW Cup, which provides players to various NRL teams. In the United Kingdom below Super League is the Championship and Championship 1 (the professional system includes 2 Welsh teams, 2 French and 1 Canadian team). The Papua New Guinea National Rugby League operates as a semi professional competition as does the USA Rugby League in the United States runs semi professional clubs to some extent in providing supported accommodation for foreign players. In other countries the game is played at an amateur level.
The top five attendances for rugby league test matches (International) are:
|2013 World Cup Final||30 November 2013||Australia def. New Zealand 34–2||Old Trafford||Manchester||74,468|
|1992 World Cup Final||24 October 1992||Australia def. Great Britain 10–6||Wembley Stadium||London||73,631|
|1932 Ashes series, Game 1||6 June 1932||England def. Australia 8–6||Sydney Cricket Ground||Sydney||70,204|
|1962 Ashes series, Game 1||9 June 1962||Great Britain def. Australia 31–12||Sydney Cricket Ground||Sydney||70,174|
|1958 Ashes series, Game 1||14 June 1958||Australia def. Great Britain 25–8||Sydney Cricket Ground||Sydney||68,777|
The top five attendances for domestic based rugby league matches are:
|1999 NRL Grand Final||26 September 1999||Melbourne def. St George Illawarra 20–18||Stadium Australia||Sydney||107,999|
|1999 NRL season Round 1||6 March 1999||Newcastle Knights def. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 41–18
Parramatta Eels def. St George Illawarra Dragons 20–10
|1954 Challenge Cup Final replay||5 May 1954||Warrington def. Halifax 8–4||Odsal Stadium||Bradford||102,569*|
|1985 Challenge Cup Final||4 May 1985||Wigan def. Hull F.C. 28–24||Wembley Stadium||London||99,801|
|1966 Challenge Cup Final||21 May 1966||St. Helens def. Wigan 21–2||Wembley Stadium||London||98,536|
* NRL double header played to open Round 1 of the 1999 NRL season. Figure shown is the total attendance which is officially counted for both games.
* The official attendance of the 1954 Challenge Cup Final replay was 102,569. Unofficial estimates put the attendance as high as 150,000, Bradford Police confirming 120,000.
When rugby league cast itself free of an arrogant rugby union 100 years ago, it did so with a sense of re-invention. It was not just about creating better conditions for the players but about striving to produce a better game; a less complicated brand that would appeal to the masses.
But it would still be one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history if Papua New Guinea - the only country to have rugby league as its national sport - were to qualify for the last four.
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