Advice to innocents Down South regarding the terminology of footer



Righto you Southerners,


With more words on the football codes of northern climes appearing on the Almanac site, I need to straighten something out for Almanac editors and for readers who have grown up with Australian football and have a tendency to slaughter the language around the codes.


Rugby league is rugby league, or just ‘League’,  BUT IT IS NEVER RUGBY!


Rugby is rugby union.  Or, should I say, rugby union is rugby.


The history of the two codes is worth reading about. Wikipedia is at least a start.


Rugby league is a working class game. Think Ipswich coal mines. Think Wayne from Wantirna.


Rugby union is the rah rahs game. Think straight teeth and moleskins. Percy Beames Bar. Think the lawyer Hayden from Hawthorn.


Rugby league is the game of state high schools.


Rugby is the game of private schools.


Rugby league is the game of the shearers and those who frequent bush dances where there are Irish fiddles, tribes of kids, jugs of Bundy, and drunken dancing.


Rugby union is the game of the squatters who send their kids off to Churchie and Nudgee College where they learn how to get insurance when they have to organise black-tie B & S balls, which feature violins, grown ups who act like kids, jugs of Bundy and drunken dancing.


Rugby league is the game of the Gabba Hill.


Rugby is the game of the Members and the Queensland Cricketers’ Club.


This may sound like stereotyping, but it’s just plain f#cking true and you can have a Sociology department full of Cultural Studies boffins argue the point, but that’s how she rolls Up North.


It may have been safer to write a short story in which characters were having a discussion in a pub on the Barassi Line, perhaps around Narrandera,  about these matters. I could have made one bloke a Queensland toff, another a Queensland yob, drinking with two travellers from south of the Murray.


But actually, I’m over that stuff.


PS. Rugby is sometimes called ‘rugger’. This is an English tradition established so that in limericks, songs and other literary creations, chaps had a word to rhyme with bugger.



Read more from John Harms.


Read more rugby league stories, especially memoir HERE.



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About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. In a nutshell, JTH!

  2. Pity, I’d like to read that Narrandera story JTH!

    Can only echo Ian, well surmised.

    P.S. Love the capitals on “Up North”

  3. Union is known as the game they play in heaven. I dont know what that aays about the orher football codes.

  4. Ever since living in Brisbane and then Sydney it has driven me crazy hearing Melburnians call Rugny League, “Rugby”. No matter how many times I correct them and explain the difference, they still continue doing so. Although I was told once “Rugby, League, Union, who cares!”

  5. Jarrod_L says

    In addition League is “The Greatest Game of All” and Football/Soccer “The World Game” – I wonder what footy’s byline should be?

    Besides of course “Australia’s Game” which has been used before.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    In a word, vehement, JTH!

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Why does V’Landys call his domain “Rugbeleague” then?

  8. Its all rugby to me JTH. Fuck ém

    And another thing – footy is NEVER AFL, its just footy. AFL is the game that is played in the weird heads of those who run the AFL, not the people who actually play the game. AFL is played by sponsors and bankers and wankers. Footy is played by people.

  9. Dips, as KD said above re JTH, ‘vehement’!

  10. Jarrod_L says

    Swish, there’s a certain strain of strine that results in variations of “Rugbahleeg” – I’m by no means an expert, but Peter seems to be one of the more prominent extollers of that type of phrasing and hence you hear it a lot more now.

  11. Rulebook says

    Ditto Dips !

  12. roger lowrey says

    Agree with you Dips. It’s all one man pushes two men’s heads up three men’s bums to me.

    But as Richie would say though, nice deliniation that JTH. Very helpful and put in words I kinda get. Wantirna can sometimes be a marginal electorate with the right boundaries.

    For all that, I have never been able to work out how a fly half is different to a five eighth.

    Where is Ian Hauser when you want him?


  13. Roger, a fly half plays rugby; a five-eighth plays rugby league. For all other consultations, I’m available in Noosaville at an appropriate fee, usually negotiated in bottles of red. (Unfortunately, Victorians not allowed in at this point in time.)

  14. Jarrod_L says

    As Ian said, one is from League, the other Union…broadly they are similar positions on paper, but given Union has the two extras on field and different centres (plus plenty of other more tactical and rules-based reasons), they’re not the same in practice.

  15. Any game where the whole object is to fall over I.e. score a try, is a bit funny to start with. Then you have the vast majority of participants ordered not to kick the ball. How is any of that to be called “football?” Then you have….ah, forget it, I’m sticking with Aussie Rules.
    Have to concede that occasional games of international rugger have resembled trench warfare without the deaths and have been quite interesting.

  16. Warren Tapner says

    Australia’s rugby capital?

  17. Now I see, said the blind man

  18. Adam Muyt says

    And if we really want to stir things up: is it soccer or football?
    Good one JTH. ‘Bout time!

  19. Liam Hauser says

    Although I’m a rugby league fan through and through, I had to cover both league and union when being a sports reporter in Tumut and Gundagai.
    Fifteen players per side in union as opposed to 13 in league was one obvious difference. No limited tackles rule or play-the-ball in union, while scrums were different. Rucks, mauls and line-outs in union, but not in league. Offside penalties occur in both codes, but in union I had to get used to terms like “hands in the ruck” and “not rolling away”. This was unusual for someone who grew up following league.
    For anyone who thinks that league and union are the same and can both be called rugby, I think there’s about as much sense in that as saying that AFL and soccer are the same and can both be called footy.

  20. Luke Reynolds says

    So, unlike the Rugby codes, jugs of Bundy don’t discriminate north of the Barassi line.

    What happens in New Zealand? Do they have Bundy there?

    The best explanation of the differences of League and Rugby I’ve read, well played JTH.

  21. John Milton says

    Lovely piece John and spot on in every respect.
    Memories from the last century. Playing scrum half for the London Nautical School 2nd XV on.Saturday mornings and usually getting a flogging. Then watching St Helens vs Wigan on the telly in the afternoon or Rochdale Hornets vs Hull Kingston Rovers (laughingly reported as Hulkingstone Rovers in Monday’s edition of The Age when they used to cover such things). Commentator Eddie Waring’s famous comment every week, “Eh oop, he’s off for an early beth (bath)”, whenever a player was sent off!

  22. Dips, I think we will be six separate nations on the Island Continent. And if I’m wrong it’s only because we’ll go for two. Up North and Down South.

  23. Peter Fuller says

    I’m interested to hear that the class delineation is as pronounced in Queensland as I understood it was in NSW. You or Ian may correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that League originated in Australia (NSW at least) in the early years of the 20th century, because working men could not afford to play without pay when injury threatened a man’s ability to turn up for work, when looxuries such as sick leave were a mere glint in the eye of socialist dreamers. I’m interested in whether League began in Queensland and in England for that matter at approximately the same time.

  24. Adam Muyt says

    Peter, League began in 1895 in the North of England. Rugby’s amateur status didn’t sit well with northern working men, who couldn’t afford to lose pay when travelling for matches, or if injured. It arrived in Australia around 1907; the Sydney Rugby League competition formed in 1908, the first in the country. Eight teams. Rugby’s star player, Dally Messenger, jumped from Union to League – this is recognised as one of the key moments in the formation of the breakaway code here as many other players followed his lead. Today the best player in the NRL receives the Dally M Medal.

  25. Hi Peter, the NMA has a short history:

    Adam’s summary is spot on.

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