What came first, Rugby League or Rugby Union?

For people not familiar with the game it may be strange that there are two different types of rugby. Rugby League and Rugby Union both have their fans, but which one was the original version? 

What came first, Rugby League or Rugby Union? Rugby Union came first, being created at Rugby School in the 1820s. Rugby League began to separate from Union towards the end of the 19th century when the Northern Rugby Football Union broke away from the Rugby Football Union. 

Rugby was first created in 1823, with the story going that Rugby Schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up a football and ran with it during a game at his school. While this has been put down as a rugby myth, Rugby was invented at Rugby School as a version of football. 

The game developed throughout the 19th century, but it never had a proper established set of rules. This meant that different versions of rugby started to develop in different places in the country. Towards the end of the 19th century, there seemed to be a bit of a split forming.

In the southern counties, rugby union tended to be the game played, with the upper and middle classes really taking to the game. But up north, Rugby was slightly different, playing the game that we know as Rugby League. This started to cause issues as rules started to be written on the game. 

It led to the Northern Rugby Football Union breaking away from the Rugby Football Union so that it could create its own competition. Northern counties wanted to play Rugby League and so the sport separated from Rugby Union. So it means that Rugby Union came first, with Rugby League being developed from Union by the northern counties. 

When did Rugby League split from Rugby Union? 

Both forms of rugby worked together for most of the 19th century, as there were not really any real rules that had been set out. This meant both forms of the game just came under the name rugby and the rules tended to vary depending on where you are in the country. 

Rugby League officially split from Rugby Union in 1895. This is when the Northern Rugby Football Union split from the Rugby Football Union which is the national union of Rugby Union. This is seen as the split in the two games as the Northern Rugby Football Union later became the Rugby Football League which is still the governing body for Rugby League in England. 

There were similar separations between Rugby Union and Rugby League in different countries. Australia and New Zealand are a couple of countries where Rugby League became very popular during the 19th century, having been brought across by British travellers. Separations in Australia and New Zealand happened in 1907. 

Why did Rugby League split from Rugby Union? 

Throughout the late 19th century issues were starting to develop between teams who wanted to play a more Rugby League style and there were a lot of other issues between the southern Rugby clubs and the northern Rugby clubs. 

1. Professionalism 

The main issue that actually caused the two games to split is the decision over whether to pay the players. When rugby was created it was always looked at as an amateur game. Amateurism is part of the structure of rugby and traditionalists wanted the game to remain that way. 

But the northern clubs wanted to move the game towards professionalism and in 1892, the plans were laid out for players to be compensated for missing work. This was something that the Rugby Football Union did not allow, despite paying players like the team that toured Australia in 1888. 

It was also frustrating for players as owners were making money from selling tickets to the clubs. This lack of payment particularly hurt the northern teams as they tended to be made up of mainly working-class players. Southern clubs did not have those same complaints as the majority of players came from middle or upper-class backgrounds. 

This was actually the main factor in the differences between the two games and eventually, this led to the split. 

2. Overrepresentation of Southern clubs in the RFU

The other main reason why Northern clubs began to get frustrated is that they felt they were not represented in the sport’s national governing body, the RFU. Southern clubs were overrepresented in the RFU committee and also complained about the fact that the RFU meetings were held in London, often making it difficult for Norther clubs to attend. 

They felt that due to the geographical distance, the RFU did not really properly represent the Northern clubs and also felt that they were not being represented as the mainly middle and upper-class southern clubs were looking down on the mainly working-class northern clubs. Northern clubs felt the only way that they could be properly represented was if they left the RFU. 

3. Severity of punishments

Many people look at the severity of the punishments dished out by the RFU as the reason that tipped the scales towards Rugby League separating from Rugby Union. Northern clubs had been submitting plans for paying their players to the RFU for years but the governing body wanted to keep the game as an amateur game. 

Despite the idea being voted down, Northern clubs knew that missing time was very costly for their players and needed to compensate them for it to keep the games going. So Northern clubs would occasionally choose to ignore the RFU and pay some of their players or form a professional league. 

When teams did this they were punished heavily by the RFU. Huddersfield were accused of offering cash payments for players to move clubs and it eventually led to a long suspension. These punishments were often seen as incredibly unfair and way too harsh on the Northern teams, despite the RFU being known to pay players in the past. 

The severity of these punishments led to frustrations growing and eventually meant the Northern clubs felt they needed to separate from the RFU. 

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