The history of rugby league as a separate form of rugby football goes back to 1895 in Huddersfield, West Riding of Yorkshire when the Northern Rugby Football Union broke away from England’s established Rugby Football Union to administer its own separate competition. Similar schisms occurred later in Australia and New Zealand in 1907. Gradually the rugby played in these breakaway competitions evolved into a distinctly separate sport that took its name from the professional leagues that administered it. Rugby league in England went on to set attendance and player payment records and rugby league in Australia became the most watched sport on television. The game also developed a significant place in the culture of France, New Zealand and several other Pacific Island nations, such as Papua New Guinea, where it has become the national sport.

Before the schisms

Although many forms of football had been played across the world, it was only during the second half of the 19th century that these games began to be codified. In 1871, English clubs playing the version of football played at Rugby School which involved much more handling of the ball than in association football, met to form the Rugby Football Union. Many new rugby clubs were formed, and it was in the Northern English counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire that the game really took hold. Here rugby was largely a working class game, whilst the south eastern clubs were largely middle class.

Rugby spread to Australasia, especially the cities of Sydney, Brisbane, Christchurch and Auckland. Here too there was a clear divide between the working and more affluent upper class players.

The strength of support for rugby grew over the following years, and large paying crowds were attracted to major matches, particular in Yorkshire, where matches in the Yorkshire Cup (T’owd Tin Pot) soon became major events. England teams of the era were dominated by Lancashire and Yorkshire players. However these players were forbidden to earn any of the spoils of this newly-rich game. Predominantly working class teams found it difficult to play to their full potential because in many cases their time to play and to train was limited by the need to earn a wage. A further limit on the playing ability of working class teams was that working class players had to be careful how hard they played. If injured, they had to pay their own medical bills and possibly take time off work, which for a man earning a weekly wage could easily lead to financial hardship.

The schism in England

In 1892, charges of professionalism were laid against rugby football clubs in Bradford and Leeds, both in Yorkshire, after they compensated players for missing work. This was despite the fact that the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) was allowing other players to be paid, such as the1888 British Isles team that toured Australia, and the account of Harry Hamill of his payments to represent New South Wales (NSW) against England in 1904.

In 1893 Yorkshire clubs complained that southern clubs were over represented on the RFU committee and that committee meetings were held in London at times that made it difficult for northern members to attend. By implication they were arguing that this affected the RFU’s decisions on the issue of “broken time” payments (as compensation for the loss of income) to the detriment of northern clubs, who made up the majority of English rugby clubs. Payment for broken time was a proposal put forward by Yorkshire clubs that would allow players to receive up to six shillings (30p) (equivalent to £30 in present day terms) when they missed work because of match commitments. The idea was voted down by the RFU, and widespread suspensions of northern clubs and players began. The professionalFootball League had been formed in 1888, comprising 12 association football clubs from Northern England, and this may have inspired the northern rugby officials to form their own professional league.

On 27 August 1895, as a result of an emergency meeting in Manchester, prominent Lancashire clubs Broughton Rangers, Leigh, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, Tyldesley, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan declared that they would support their Yorkshire colleagues in their proposal to form a Northern Union.

Two days later, on 29 August 1895, representatives of twenty-two clubs met in the George Hotel, Huddersfield to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, usually called the Northern Union (NU).Twenty clubs agreed to resign from the Rugby Union, but Dewsbury felt unable to comply with the decision. The Cheshire club, Stockport, had telegraphed the meeting requesting admission to the new organisation and was duly accepted with a second Cheshire club, Runcorn, admitted at the next meeting.

The twenty-two clubs and their years of foundation were: Batley FC 1880, Bradford FC 1863, Brighouse Rangers FC 1878,Broughton Rangers FC 1877, Halifax FC 1873, Huddersfield FC 1864, Hull F.C. 1865, Hunslet FC 1883, Leeds FC 1864,Leigh FC 1878, Liversedge FC 1877, Manningham F.C. 1876, Oldham FC 1876, Rochdale Hornets FC 1871, Runcorn RFC 1895, Stockport RFC 1895, St Helens FC 1873, Tyldesley FC 1879, Wakefield Trinity FC 1873, Warrington FC 1875, Widnes FC 1875, Wigan FC 1872.

The rugby union authorities took drastic action, issuing sanctions against clubs, players and officials involved in the new organisation. This extended even to amateurs who played with or against Northern Union sides. Consequently, northern clubs that existed purely for social and recreational rugby began to affiliate to the Northern Union, whilst retaining amateur status. By 1904 the new body had more clubs affiliated to it than the RFU.

The separate Lancashire and Yorkshire competitions of the NRFU merged in 1901, forming the Northern Rugby Football League. Also in 1901, James Lomas became the first £100 transfer, from Bramley to Salford. The NRFU became the Northern Rugby Football League in the summer of 1922.

Similar schisms in football were threatened by the formations of the British Football Association in 1884 and the Amateur Football Association in 1907, but were averted.

The historic events that led to the 1895 rugby split were the subject of Mick Martin’s play Broken Time, the first dramatic treatment of rugby league.

The early years

The first international rugby league match took place in 1904 between England and an Other nationalities team, mostly made up of Welsh players.

Initially the Northern Union continued to play under existing RFU laws. The first minor change (awarding a penalty for a deliberate knock-on) was introduced during the first season of the game. Other new laws were gradually introduced until, by the arrival of the All Golds in 1907 the major differences between the games had been introduced. These major differences were:

  • 13 players per team as opposed to 15 in union (the two “missing” are the flankers)
  • The “play the ball” (heeling the ball back after a tackle) rather than a ruck
  • The elimination of the line-out
  • A slightly different scoring structure, with all goals only being worth 2 points

See: Rugby league gameplay for more on the current game.

During this period the Northern Union began to develop the British game’s major tournaments. The league championship, after initially being played as one competition, was split into two sections, the Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues, with only a limited number of inter-county games. This necessitated a play-off structure to determine the overall champions. A nationwide cup, the Challenge Cup was introduced, and soon became the biggest draw in the sport. Finally, in 1905, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Cups were introduced, thus completing a structure that was to last until the 1960s. There were therefore four trophies on offer to any one club, and the “Holy Grail” was to win “All Four Cups”.

As it became obvious that two codes of rugby were going to co-exist for the foreseeable future, those interested in the game needed to be able to distinguish between them. It became customary to describe those teams affiliated to the NU as ‘playing in the league’ hence “rugby league” while those which remained affiliated to the RFU (who did not play in a league) as playing “rugby union”.