Rugby League is a variant of rugby, with different rules from Rugby Union. The game was developed out from Rugby Union by Northern England and Scottish clubs. The players in these clubs were largely working-class, unlike the clubs in Southern England whose players were middle or upper class. Since, the Rugby Union competition at the time did not allow paying players any salary; the working-class players felt they could not afford time off to train and play, nor could they afford to miss work through injury sustained whilst playing.

In 1892, charges of professionalism were laid against clubs in Bradford and Leeds, Yorkshire after they compensated players for missing work. This was despite the fact that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was allowing other players to be paid, such as the 1888 England team that toured Australia, or the account of Harry Hamill of his payments to represent New_South_Wales (NSW) against England in 1904.

On August 29, 1895 representatives of the northern clubs met in the George Hotel, Huddersfield to form the "Northern Rugby Football Union", a professional Union which would eventually become the Rugby Football League in 1922. By 1907, when the first league was formed, the new Unions rules had diverged from those Rugby Union, most noticeably in the reduction of players from 15 to 13; the "play the ball" (heeling the ball back after a tackle) rather than rucking and mauling; the elimination of the line out; and slightly different scoring.

A similar schism, and for similar reasons, opened up in the Union establishment of Australia, where the term Rugby League was first used for the new game. In 1907, at the instigation of the famous test cricket player Victor Trumper, at a meeting in Bateman's Crystal Hotel in Sydney, NSW, The NSW Rugby League was formed. Players were immediately recruited for the new game, and despite the threat of immediate and lifetime explusion from the Rugby Union, the NSWRL managed to recruit Herbert "Dally" Messenger, the most famous rugby player in Sydney at that time (some might say, the most famous player ever).

Points are scored by:

  • Touching the ball down over the opponents goal line (a try, worth 4 points). The ball must be placed on the ground within the in-goal area using positive downward pressure by the hand or forearm carrying the ball, and before the momentum of any tackle by an opposing player ends. The player must be inside the field of play at the moment the ball is grounded.

  • Penalty try, where a try would have certainly been scored but for the illegal actions of the defending team. A penalty try is awarded directly under the goal posts no matter where the offence took place.

  • Kicking the ball above the crossbar and between the uprights of a large 'H' shaped set of posts. This may either be done from a place kick following a rule infringement (a penalty goal) or kicked from the hand, providing the ball strikes the ground before being kicked (a field goal, or drop goal). A penalty goal is worth 2 points and a drop goal is worth 1.

  • A conversion, which is attempted after a try has been scored, from in line with where the try was scored along the axis of the goal line. A conversion is worth 2 points.

When a team scores, the opposing team restarts play by kicking the ball (from a place kick) back into play from the half way line.

The game is played for two forty minute halves. The teams swap ends for each half.

Other rules usually thought of as indicative of the difference between the two different types of Rugby, were introduced over the subsequent history of the game. For example the limited tackles rule (possession limited to a maximum of four, then later, six tackles) was introduced in 1966-67. More recent rule changes are those such as: the four point try, previously three; non-competitive scrums; the ten-meter rule, where the defensive team has to remain in a line at least ten meters away from the play-the-ball area (or behind the goal line if the ball is less than 10 meters away), previously this was only five meters; the golden point rule in case of a drawn game at the end of regular time; and so on.

Rugby League, while a hugely popular professional sport in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, has struggled to assert itself as an international sporting code particularly in the aftermath of the disastrous "Super League" war for control of the code in the late 1990s.

The premier international competition is the Rugby League World Cup, first held in 1954. The format has changed over the years, but it is currently held every 5 years. Australia has dominated the competition, winning for the fourth time in 1975, and has defended it 5 times since then.