Rugby·Explainer

Join the Wolfpack and become a rugby league instant expert

CBC Sports is the home of the Toronto Wolfpack. But what exactly is rugby league? How is it different from rugby union? Here’s everything you need to know.

Everything you need to know about the hard-hitting, fast-paced sport

The Toronto Wolfpack will get winger Liam Kay back from injury for this weekend's matchup with Toulouse. (Twitter/@TOWolfpack)

The Toronto Wolfpack burst onto the Canadian sports scene last year with an impressive rugby league debut, earning promotion to the second-tier of English competition.

But what exactly is rugby league?

Canadian sports fans are more likely familiar with rugby union — the 15-a-side version of the game made famous by teams like the All Blacks — and rugby sevens, which made its Olympic debut last in 2016 with Canada winning bronze in the women's tournament in Rio.

So before you watch the Wolfpack in action on CBC Sports, here's everything you need to instantly become a rugby league expert.

Rugby league vs. rugby union

The Wolfpack play rugby league — a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport that's popular in northern England and Australia.

If you're thinking "all rugby is the same," well, good for you for not discriminating, but you should still know what goes on in a rugby league match that makes it different from rugby union.

The ball can be kicked forward or passed backward or laterally, just like in the "other" rugby, but the inventors of rugby league wanted to speed up game play even more.

In addition to reducing the number of players on the field for each team to 13, they changed what happens after a tackle is made. Once a player is brought to the ground, the defending team has to back up 10 metres and the offensive team restarts play.

Teams get six tackles on offence before the ball is automatically turned over — like what happens after four downs in American football — so teams need to score or kick the ball away before the sixth tackle is made. This differs from rugby union as it eliminates rucking, the part of the game where both teams fight for the ball after the tackle is made.

Those are the basics, but it helps to see it in action:

Adam Higson scored a pair of tries, and Ryan Brierly intercepted a pass and ran it nearly the length of the pitch for a score, as Toronto beat the Dewsbury Rams 23-12. 4:59

In addition to streamlining game play, the value of scoring plays separates rugby league from its union counterpart:

  • Tries (touching the ball down in the endzone) are worth four points in league versus five in union
  • Conversion kicks after tries are worth two — this applies to both codes
  • Penalty goals (like a field goal in American football) are worth two points in league versus three in union

If this seems overwhelming, get whelmed with this simple mantra: You have six tackles to score six points.

Don't be a one-man Wolfpack

If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Toronto's team name is Zach Galifianakis' speech from The Hangover, keep in mind that some of the city's other pro franchises involve dinosaurs and foliage in their names.

Toronto currently plays in the second tier of the Rugby Football League, a predominantly British loop, after winning the third-tier title in its inaugural season. All of the team's other opponents are a transatlantic flight away, so the Wolfpack play large chunks of their season overseas and return for lengthy homestands at Toronto's Lamport Stadium — except for one game in Markham, Ont., in May.

The team bolstered its roster this offseason with several high-profile additions from rugby league's top flights in England and Australia's National Rugby League — like new captain Josh McCrone — but mainstays like Liam Kay and Greg Worthington are still strong contributors to the club. Ryan Brierley took over kicking duties for the departed Craig Hall, and mid-season signing Gareth O'Brien is turning heads in the league.

While you can watch all of the Wolfpack's matches in the Betfred Championship live on CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app, the team also competes in the concurrently contested Ladbrokes Challenge Cup, where they take on teams from all three tiers of rugby league (think England's Premier League and FA Cup).

Fun facts to impress your friends

Alright, you know to pass the ball backwards and avoid getting tackled, but there's so much more to rugby league. So, here are a few facts to impress the hardcore league supporters:

  • Actor Russell Crowe is one of the owners of the National Rugby League's South Sydney Rabbitohs. Are you not entertained by that name?
  • Professional rugby league may be relatively new to Canada, but it's been a part of the sport's identity dating back to the split from the originally amateur-only rugby union in the late 1890s. Rugby union would eventually become professionalized in 1995.
  • Despite the rift between the two versions of rugby, it's possible for players to play and excel at both. Sonny Bill Williams, who won two Rugby World Cups with the All Blacks, is the most famous dual-code players today. Oh, and he also played sevens for New Zealand and is a heavyweight boxer on the side. Just call him The Kiwi King of YouTube.

About the Author

Benjamin Blum

Senior writer

Benjamin Blum is a senior writer with CBC News and previously worked with CBC Sports in the same capacity. He holds a master's of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.