South African Victor Matfield takes a lineout against New Zealand in 2006.
Rugby league is played both as a professional and amateur sport in Ireland, France, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. It is regarded as the national sport of Papua New Guinea. There are semi-professional and amateur competitions of rugby league which take place in France, Russia, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Serbia, Lebanon, South Africa, Japan, Canada, the United States, Fiji, Cook Islands and Tonga.
Rugby union, also a professional and amateur game, is dominated by eight “major” unions: France, Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Wales and Scotland. Rugby union is a major sport played nationwide in each of these countries. Rugby union is the national sport in New Zealand and Wales.
Numerous “minor” unions include Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Namibia, Romania, Samoa, Spain, Tonga, the United States and Uruguay. In Malaysia, rugby union is played by campus students. Rugby union ranks as the national sport of Pacific countries such as Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa.
Many of the rugby league positions have similar names and requirements to rugby union positions but there are no flankers in rugby league.
An old saying goes “football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians, and rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen”. In most rugby-playing countries, rugby union is widely regarded as an establishment, historically amateur, sport: many private schools and grammar schools play rugby union. By contrast, rugby league has traditionally the reputation of a working class, professional, pursuit. A contrast to this ideology is evident in the neighbouring unions of England and Wales. In England the sport is very much associated with the public schools system. In Wales Rugby is associated with small village teams consisting of coal miners and other industrial workers playing on their days off.
Because of the nature of the games (almost unlimited body contact with little or no padding), the rugby world frowns on unsporting behaviour, since even a slight infringement of the rules may lead to serious injury or even death. Because of this, governing bodies enforce the rules strictly.