Rugby league

full-contact sport played by two teams of thirteen players on a rectangular field

Rugby league football, usually called rugby league, is a full-contact team sport played with a prolate spheroid-shaped ball by two teams of thirteen on a rectangular grass field. It is one of the two major codes of rugby football, the other being rugby union. Rugby league is most prominent in England, Australia, New Zealand, and France, where the sport is played professionally.

In its modern dress or its old, it is a fine, fine game - the best of all, I reckon, played by men with a ball in their hands.
Frank Hyde, 1995.


  • It's long enough, it's high enough and it's straight between the posts.
    • Radio call of Frank Hyde when a goal was scored that became a iconic part of the game.
  • In its modern dress or its old, it is a fine, fine game - the best of all, I reckon, played by men with a ball in their hands.
  • I salute the contribution that Rugby League has made to Australia's national identity, it's a tough game. It started as a working man's game; it's become every man's game now. It still retains that working class character and that's part of its heart and soul and I hope it always does, but it is also a game that has reached out to the entire community.
  • My greatest moment happened every weekend during the football season when I was able to put on the mighty red, white and blue for the Roosters.
    • Kevin Hastings response when asked in recent times what his favourite memory was after achieving so much in the game of rugby league.


  • The origins of the game, now know across the world simply as rugby, can be traced back over 2000 years. The Romans played a ball game called harpastum, a word derived from the Greek word “seize”, the implication of the name being that somebody actually carried or handled the ball.
    More recently, in medieval England, documents record young men leaving work early to compete for their village or town in games of football. Laws were passed, in Tudor times, forbidding the “devilish pastime” of football, as too many injuries and fatalities seriously depleted the available workforce. The participants of this devilish pastime are recorded thus… “The players are young men from 18-30 or upwards; married as well as single and many veterans who retain a relish for the sport are occasionally seen in the very heat of the conflict…” A description that some might say is as applicable today as it was all of those years ago.
  • It was during a match on the Close in the autumn of 1823 that the face of the game changed to the one which is recognisable to day. A local historian described this historic event as follows: “with a fine disregard for the rules of the game as played in his time, William Webb Ellis first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.”
  • We trained like Tarzan all week, then played like Jane.
    • Frank Endacott, the Widnes coaching advisor, after Widnes Vikings 40-6 hammering away to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
  • If working men can't afford to play, they shouldn't play at all.
    • Harry Garnett, a leading figure in Yorkshire rugby union at the time of the great split.
  • We had prepared to play George Foreman and got George Formby.
    • Brian Noble, the Bradford Bulls coach, on St Helens sending a weakened side to Odsal.
  • Met Dad, went to Wembley. Played Chekhov in the evening. Quite a day.
    • Hull born actor Sir Tom Courtenay on the day the black and whites lost to Wigan in the 1959 Challenge Cup final.
  • I'd rather be on Blackpool beach than Bondi beach.
    • Leon Pryce, during Great Britain's 2006 Tri-Nations campaign in Australia.
  • Since I finished playing rugby league, apartheid has ended, the Iron Curtain has come down and the Israelis have given up the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians. But I still can't play rugby on a Saturday afternoon.
    • Former Castleford Tigers player Ian Birkby who had been prevented from playing socially for Cheshire rugby union club.
  • In south west Lancashire babes don't toddle, they side-step. Queuing women talk of 'nipping round the blindside'. Rugby league provides our cultural adrenalin. It's a physical manifestation of our rules of life, comradeship, honest endeavour, and a staunch, often ponderous, allegiance to fair-play.

New Zealand

  • I'm 49, I've had a brain haemorrhage and a triple bypass and I could still go out and play a reasonable game of rugby union. But I wouldn't last 30 seconds in rugby league.
    • Graham Lowe, former Wigan Warriors, Manly Sea Eagles, North Queensland Cowboys, Samoa and New Zealand coach.
  • Though most New Zealand Maori lived apart from Pakeha or white New Zealanders until quite recently, on the rugby field Maori and Maori culture were assimilated into what became a New Zealand-wide, male cultural practice dominated by white cultural norms, but inclusive of some elements of Maori culture. The assimilation of Maori into the New Zealand culture was such that by the time of the first All Black tour of Britain in 1905, the imperial press often referred to New Zealand and its people as Maoriland and Maorilanders. Rugby at this time became one of the leading imperial sports linking Britain with settlers in the dominions.

South Africa

  • As Nauright shows in his case study of Coloured rugby in Cape Town, black rugby players in South Africa were confined to racially segregated rugby structures from the outset. No South African government ever legislated against racially-mixed sport; white sportsmen and women accomplished this all on their own, as did some black sportspeople. One rugby organization for Coloureds in Cape Town excluded Muslims from their competition until the early 1960s, while another allowed both Muslims and Christians (practicing and nominal) to play. As a result of their exclusion from white competitions, blacks were left to develop their own organizations, competitions and cultural practices in sport, and rugby was no exception. Thus, from an early stage, black rugby both on and off the field developed distinctive practices that emerged from spatial, social and cultural segregation.


  • The main difference between playing league and union is that now I get my hangovers on Monday instead of Sunday.
    • Tom David, former Welsh rugby union international, after switching codes.
  • League is much more physical than union, and that's before anyone starts breaking the rules.
    • Former Welsh international rugby union player Adrian Hadley who went on to play League for Salford.
  • It's the first time I've been cold for seven years. I was never cold playing rugby league.


  • The banning of rugby league was decided, in 1941, by the director of sports, who was a union player, and who was convinced that the disappearance of rugby league would favour the development of rugby union.
    • Former Wimbledon champion Jean Borotra, who was appointed by the Vichy government during the Second World War to run a department known as the Commissariat General A L'Education Generale Et Sportive, a section of the Ministry Of Family And Youth.
  • Theirry Terret shows that in France university students also played a key role in the early development of rugby. As in the USA, when rugby went to France it was not constrained by ties to imperial ideologies. In the late nineteenth century many French elites, however, shared the view of Baron Pierre de Coubertin that English sporting practices were superior ones that would reinvigorate the manhood of the French nation, seen to have been humiliated by the Prussians in 1870. As Terret argues, in France, and particularly in the south-west regions in and around the cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse, rugby rapidly departed from its English origins. Attempts by anglophile Parisians such as de Coubertin and Pashal Grousset were unsuccessful in transplanting English rugby practices to France. Rather, a distinctive playing style emerged centred on French concepts of masculinity and resistance to central authority. This manifested itself clearly in the rise of the game in the south-west where anti-Parisian sentiments were literally played out on the rugby field.
  • Rugby playing styles initially fused with concepts of class-based masculinity of the belle epoque that stressed elegance over strength in the performance of the game. When rugby went to the south of France it was infused with different concepts of masculinity that centred on regional and cultural resistance and the increasing participation of farm labourers who were then able to use their 'physical capital' from their work in taming the men of the urban middle classes. This parallels the situation in England where one of the driving forces behind the entrenchment of amateurism was that the working classes gained an unfair advantage over the more sedentary middle and upper classes because of their more physically demanding occupations. As Terret argues for France, 'The symbolic battles taking place on the playing playing fields at the beginning of the century only intensified the conflict between the southern ideal of the strong man and the northern ideal of the urban intellectual.' A new playing style emerged based on muscularity and forward play that diverged from earlier stylistic back play. This was reinforced in the media in which positively described scrums and rolling mauls as the more valued style of manly rugby and stressed the off-field exploits of local players, linking both elements to conceptions of regional popular culture. Thus rugby and rugby culture were linked into the south-western symbol of the castagne a Gascon noun meaning 'flight'.


  • It was Italian students who studied in France who took the game back with them to Italy in 1909. Rugby first became organized in the northern cities of Milan and Turin, with strong early links to France. In Italy, as Bonini shows, rugby has 'long been appreciated for its pedagogical value as a "'maker of men"'. Unlike France, Italy rugby remained an elite game tied to class-based concepts of masculinity. Rugby expanded further in the Fascist era as a propaganda tool for cbnditioning the masses to Fascist aims. Such conditioning combined the physical with the ideological in the making of men to serve the state and its aims. Bonini, in citing Aldo Cerchiari's 1928 translation of a French introductory rugby text, states that for the Fascists rugby was 'the game that proves the athletic and moral potential of the individual'. Furthmore, rugby was 'the most complete and rational team game, a game that "makes men"'. The fascists initially liked rugby because it was a physical game that allowed players to use their whole bodies and developed a sense of co-operation, self-discipline and the subjugation of the individual to the needs of the group. Indeed, these factors would combine to resurrect the ancient traditions thought to have existed in imperial Rome and that sucha resurrection would help Italy emerge as a leading world power. As with football in the USA, a new Italian game called volata appeared that, in drawing on local traditions, could be cast as a uniquely Italian sport. Rugby thus lost favour with the Facists by 1929 as it was thought to be too British and not Italian.
  • By 1932, however, rugby had regained favour as a better game than other football codes for the development of military preparedness. In that year a university rugby competition began and a new national federation was formed. The return of Fascist favour helped rugby grow to 106 official clubs affiliated to the national union and nearly 7,000 non-affiliated clubs by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. After the war rugby's previous links to Fascism limited its growth and rugby suffered in comparison with other sports, including those introduced by American troops stationed in the country during the latter part of the war and after. Rugby retained its foothold in the universities, however, and expanded to smaller towns in the north and the east during the 1950s.


  • A group of old boys of Marlborough School brought the game to Canada when they attended university there. Canada in turn took the game over the border into the United States - McGill University of Montreal played Harvard in 1874 (a 0-0 draw). It was a neighbourly thing to do and followed the principle of New Zealand immigrants taking the game back home to Western Samoa and England kicking the oval ball over the Channel to France.

United States

  • In the case of the United States, Chandler shows that rugby played at McGill University in Canada heavily influenced the early development of football in America. Shortly after McGill played Harvard University in two matches in 1874, Harvard adopted most of the rugby rules used by McGill. Other American 'Ivy League' colleges soon followed Harvard's lead and embraced rugby, turning away from the soccer-style rules that had been in use. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, rule changes led to a distinctly American game that was significantly different from rugby union. These changes coincided with a heightened American nationalism that emerged from the 1876 centenary celebrations of independence where unique American cultural and sporting practices were valued, often at the expense of English ones. American masculinity became centered on strenuous physical activity embodied at the turn of the century in President Theodore Roosevelt, and football was elevated to a leading position within this this strenuous masculinity.
  • Rugby was not dead in America, however, as many officials and observers became highly concerned about the violence in football that the new rules had unleashed. By 1905 there was public outcry over deaths in football largely due to the widespread use of the flying wedge. The state of Georgia even temporarily banned the playing of football while, as Chandler shows, the leading West Coast universities switched from American football to rugby union. Rule changes allowing the forward pass and banning the flying wedge further altered American football and thus made it even more distinct from rugby. As a result of these the attack on football was relatively short-lived nationally. Rugby retained a stronghold on the American West Coast, however, helped in no small part by important international contacts. Contacts with Antipodean teams have been especially significant from the tie of the 2905 All Blacks tour, which began a trend for New Zealand and Australian teams stopping off on their way to Britain. Later, club teams began touring the West Coast of the United States, often combining this with visits to play Canadian West Coast teams in and around British Columbia. All these contacts helped rugby to maintain a foothold and a following in the United States, but it remained very much a minority sport.
    There were few significant changes in American rugby until the 1960s when the game became part of resistance to traditional American mainstream masculinity. As the major site of resistance the American college campus, long the home of rugby in the country, became the focus of rugby's resurgence. Chandler shows the importance of sociability and conviviality, focused around heavy beer drinking, as central elements of this new rugby culture that then moved from the campuses to the hundreds of rugby clubs springing up nationwide. Because of rugby's association with drinking, the United States Rugby Football Union sought to try to improve the game's image. This came at a time when rugby was ever expanding and a market for it emerged with the potential to attract commercial sponsorship and media attention. Indeed, in the 1990s Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports Channel rapidly expanded its coverage of international rugby, and in 1998 an American team competition to be shown on Fox was planned for the new millenium, suggesting that the game had finally expanded beyond its university base.


  • Even more than it Italy, competitive rugby at the elite level in Japan is organized by corporations such as Kobe Steel which field their own teams. Leading foreign players such as John Kirwin have also been engaged to play in these teams. Company teams, however, draw their base of players from the universities and high schools. It is the latter arena that Richard Light explores in some detail. As was the case in France and Italy, rugby in Japan fused with local masculine cultural practices such as seishin. Seishin is an opaque term that comes from the samurai and refers to 'the inner being, spiritual fortitude and self-discipline developed through particular physical training', stressing unity of mind, body and soul and differs dramatically from Cartesian dualism. As with the Fascist regime in Italy in the 1920s and the 1930s, in Japan seishin was promoted by the military to enable the Japanese to counter the greater American material power in the years before the Pacific war. Western occupation forces forces identified seishin as being too closely linked with Japanese militarism and worked to eradicate it from the school curriculum. Asa result, seishin re-emerged in university and school sporting clubs that operated outside the formal curriculum,with rugby clubs practicing the more severe form. Thus, although rugby in Japan operates similarly to the rugby of Victorian England, it also displays distinctive Japanese concepts of manliness brought forward from the feudal samurai classes. Honour and gentlemanly behaviour go even further in Japan where fighting on the field is seen as a sign of personal weakness both in physical and emotional terms. In addition, individualism must not encroach on an arena centred on group spirit and sacrifice, commitment and aggression that serve the greater good of the whole.
  • Even in Japan, students in the British colonies in Yokohama and Kobe were playing rugby as early as 1874, just four years after the first recorded game in New Zealand. The ease of modern travel has meant international tours involving the lesser rugby playing nations are a relatively new phenomenon. Japan first came to Britain in 1973, prompting a belief that they had just taken up the game even though there are more than 2,000 clubs throughout the length and breadth of the country.


  • By 1930 the middle-class amateur forces that controlled rugby on the English side of the Channel had seen enough and decided France was not for them and they remained isolated until the Second World War. Instead France joined forces with Germany to form an organisation dedicated to rugby. Romania, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium were involved. Of these, Romania embraced the game most enthusiastically and skilfully. Many of the intelligentsia of Romania studied in Paris in the 1930s and took the game home to the Bucharest bourgeoisie. In 1957 Romania were a drop kick away from beating France in one of the most famous of international games, which finished 15-18 in Bucharest. It was an enormous shock to the French. One of the unspoken rules of introducing a game to different parts of the world is that they should not return the compliment by beating you.


  • Now, more than 10,000 Fijians play the game, whose popularity in the Pacific owed much to "local" island rivalries. Fiji first played Tonga in 1924, 40 years before they brought their talents to Britain and France. The taste of home which rugby traditionally gave colonials throughout the world was soon overtaken by the desire to show the mother country how well they could play. That was certainly true of New Zealand, who used their rugby prowess so famously demonstrated on the 1905 tour to British shores as an advertisement to attract immigrants. The message from the then Prime Minster Richard Seddon was that these sons of the Empire were fitter, stronger and had a better quality of life than their British male counterparts.


  • Rugby is by its nature violent, a quality beautifully caught, via the agency of his creation Bertie Wooster, by P.G. Wodehouse, a committed fan until his post-war exile in the United States:
    The normal scheme is to work the ball down the field somehow and deposit it over the line at the other end, and in order to squelch this programme each side is allowed to put ina certain amount of assault and battery and do thing to its fellow man which, if done elsewhere, would result in fourteen days without the option, with some strong remarks from the bench.
  • [A]cquaintance with its history and keen interest in the ways of some of the great players of the past, their techniques and ideas. He must know of all the major battles in former internationals and the way in which the game has grown. This may seem of academic interest only, but an appreciation of the way, the game has grown int he past is of great value in forecasting how the game will develop.
  • Most of the credit for the spread of rugby throughout the world goes to the imperial settlers from England who took the game abroad with them as a popular leisure pursuit of the Victorian middle class. The Empire game grew roots in South Africa and New Zealand through the pioneers who settled in these far-flung lands as farmers, engineers, businessmen and, more pertinently, schoolmasters. The father of South African rugby is generally acknowledged to be Canon George Ogilvy, a whiskery old boy of Winchester and Wadham College, Oxford, who introduced a version of the game to the Diocesan College in Cape Town when he became head- master in 1861. As boys left to return home to their farms they took the game into the rugged rural areas. It was a symbol of class and education.
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