A Divine Schism: How Rugby League and Rugby Union Split Up

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Sometimes it can be better to go your separate ways. Like some former couple, Rugby Union and Rugby league have found success in geographically separate places. The history of their split is a fascinating one from the time when modern team sports were first becoming truly established.

The Honeymoon

Games of football and rugby have existed around the world for thousands of years, but until the 19th Century they were not truly codified. Versions of team ball sports were extremely localized and often had unique rulesets. Despite this, we can see the roots of Rugby League, Rugby Union and Association Football are seemingly alien contests such as the Shrovetide football game played in Ashbourne.

In this contest, townspeople form separate teams attempt to bully a ceremonial ball from one end of the town to the other. Although it may seem brutal, the core fundamental purpose of the game, and the scrummages it involves, resemble modern rugby.

In 1871, the Rugby Football Union was formed. Teams agreed to play by the Rugby School Rules that form the basis of the modern game. The game quickly became popular all over England. The rules of the Union forbade players from being paid, citing the need for the ideals of gentlemanly amateurism to be adhered to. This was to prove divisive as the popularity of the game grew.

Money Matters

As it is with many breakups, money had more than a little to do with the great rugby schism. Although the Rugby School members that codified the game were wealthy, privately educated men, the game had spread northwards and become a popular pastime for working-class people.

Since the rules of the Union prevented payment, working-class teams from the North of England were at a distinct disadvantage. How were they meant to compete? Wealthy people could afford to take time off to train and play, but working-class people did not have that luxury.

In protest, northern clubs met, and decided to protest against this inequality by forming a league in which players could be compensated for their time spent at the club. On the 29th, the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed. In 1922 it adopted the name Rugby League. The schism had taken place!

Today, both forms of Rugby are big business. Betting has also increased revenue around the sport. Rugby odds are highly sought. Pay for players has increased exponentially and clubs are now large organizations with hundreds of staff members. It seems that the Schismatics of the Rugby League were right to demand that players be allowed compensation.

Geography Matters

Often, the schism has divided rugby fans and players along geographical lines. As a result of the formation of the Northern Rugby Union, Rugby League still has great support in Northern Britain, whereas Rugby Union is dominant in the south and west. In Oceana, some Polynesian islands adopted League play wholesale, whereas others stuck to Union Rules. In many places, such as New Zealand, both forms of the game exist side by side and enjoy extreme popularity.

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