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NRL vs Super 14: The Differences In The Game And The Players

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Phil Stewart
Phil Stewart
Crusaders Thomas Waldrom is hit hard in the tackle of Blues Tony Woodcock, left, and Tom Chamberlain in a Super 14 rugby match, Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, May 16, 2009. Credit:NZPA / Wayne Drought.

On the surface, rugby union and rugby league appear similar. Same field, same length of time, same core skills, same mode of scoring. All identical.

Yet you get a completely different viewing experience.

It’s an age-old debate among armchair sports fans: which is better to watch, rugby union or league. Of course, it’s an entirely subjective question, you watch what personally appeals to you.

And obviously we like to watch different things.

By comparing key stats from the 2009 NRL (rugby league) and 2009 Super 14 (rugby union) seasons we can confirm the differences, and similarities. Then we can understand the differences in what actions each game requires from players.

The question is, what are players doing in any given game, and how big is their workload?

The structure of each game: the differences that determine the different tasks of players

The game of  rugby league in the  NRL follows a basic structure where you have the ball for a certain number of possessions to do what you can. Turnovers result when you make a mistake. There are essentially no contests for possession (except off kicks or dropped balls). Simple. This simplicity of structure means all energy can be focused on what to do when you have the ball (and what to do when you don’t).

Rugby union in the Super 14 has what rugby league has, and adds in a new element: competition for possession in general play and in play restarts. The restarts of play – scrums and lineouts - are opportunities to compete for possession. Rucks and mauls occur in general play after a tackle, and are a further opportunity for teams to compete for possession. Specific player-skills are developed to do this and much energy is focussed on these competitions. What this means is that what you do with the ball (and not) is only part of the equation.

The result: the straight-out ball-running (that means when you have possession of the and can run or pass it) and defending tasks are of lesser relative importance in union, as there are several other tasks that require player’s time and energy. All players of rugby union must also develop skills at rucks and mauls, and the forward must develop skills in scrums and lineouts. In a game, there is less time available for basic ball-running and tackling because time is spent on these other activities.

And that is what defines the differences in the two games.

NRL vs Super 14: time spent on different game activities

For the reasons given above, in the NRL there is much more time within the 80 minutes of gametime devoted to running and tackling.

Statistics from the NRL and Super 14 indicate the differences in time that the ball is actually in play where players are involved in either ball-running or tackling.

Stats collected from all games of the final round of the 2009 Super 14 and NRL regular seasons illustrate the differences in total time that is available for ball-running and tackling.

Where the time went: average different events per game 2009 season

Average single-game values NRL round 26 2009 Super 14 round 13 2009
Restarts of play 13 scrums 20 scrums; 26 lineouts
Kicks at goal (penalties and conversions) 9 11
Penalties (not resulting in kicks at goal) 11 15
Time of ball in play 62 minutes 28 minutes

In the final regular season round of the NRL, the ball is in play for 78% of the total game time. In the final regular season game of the Super 14 the ball is in play for 35% of total game time.

Demands on the players: what are the differences in what they do in a game

The best way to understand the skills and capabilities of the players of each code is to look at what they actually have to do in a game.

We can only compare attributes that are common to each game. We can’t compare lineout ability, scrummaging ability, rucking or mauling ability. Only ball-running and tackling, because these skills are exactly the same in both games.

To understand the nature of what a player does, we can look at their volume of running with the ball and the volume of tackling they do in a game. Passing and field-kicking are secondary actions that come from a player’s possession of the ball and are dependant on many factors (the state of the game, the type of player, etc)
We can compare players of the same position playing each game. We can compare the average total they do in a game of: running with the ball, metres run with the ball, number of tackles.

I’ve compared the best players in each position through the 2009 season. The values are the averages for games in the season (Super 14 players: all games played in the regular season; NRL players: average of their first 13 games of the season)

The best players in positions from the NRL are the Dally M awards winners for their position. The best players from the Super 14 were determined from the ‘team of the year’ awards of two prominent Super 14 journalists (you may of course disagree with their picks but the stats of the top few players are similar in any case).
Here are the comparisons:


  • Super 14    Tatafu Polota-Nau:  8 tackles; 5 runs; 23m run
  • NRL    Michael Ennis:  26 tackles; 6 runs; 48m run


  • Super 14    Ben Robinson: 8 tackles; 4 runs; 15m run
  • NRL    Ben Hannant: 35 tackles; 15 runs; 126m run

Second-row forwards

  • Super 14    Victor Matfield: 9 tackles; 3 runs; 14m run
  • NRL    Anthany Whatmough: 25 tackles; 14 runs; 120m run


  • Super 14    Fourie du Preez: 10 tackles; 8 runs; 41m run
  • NRL    Jonathan Thurston: 18 tackles; 6 runs; 45m run


  • Super 14    Matt Giteau: 10 tackles; 8 runs; 41m run
  • NRL    Jamie Soward: 10 tackles; 7 runs; 80m run


  • Super 14    Wynand Olivier: 12 tackles; 9 runs; 84m run
  • NRL    Josh Morris: 14 tackles; 9 runs; 86m run


  • Super 14    Sitiveni Sivivatu: 6 tackles; 11 runs; 133m run
  • NRL    Taniela Tuiaki: 6 tackles; 13 runs; 121m run


  • Super 14    Mils Muliana: 4 tackles; 12 runs; 135m run
  • NRL    Jarryd Hayne: 4 tackles; 20 runs; 226m run

We see:

  1. The volumes of running and tackling work of forwards are very different. The amount or league forwards is much greater
  2. The volumes of running and tackling work of backs is similar. However there is a general trend for NRL backs to do slightly more running.

This all seems to make sense with the initial comments made: rugby requires much more time and effort in competitions for possession and restarts of play. These are predominantly the tasks of forwards. NRL forwards do not spend nearly as much time contesting for possession or restarting play, so NRL forwards are busy spending their time ball-running or tackling.

NRL forwards vs Super 14 forwards: comparing the maximum workloads

Let’s look a little more into the workload of forwards.

Specifically, we can look at the players with the highest game-averages for running and tackling in each competition for the 2009 season.

We'll look just at two forward positions: prop and second row. (Super 14 players: all games played in the regular season; NRL players: average of their first 13 games of the season)

Prop:     Highest average Tackles

  • Super 14     Gurthro Steenkamp 8 tackles
  • NRL    Luke Douglas 36 tackles

Prop:   Highest average Runs (with game-average metres run)

  • Super 14    Ben Alexander: 6 runs (34m run)
  • NRL    Fuifui Moimoi 16 runs (138m run)

Second-row forward:   Highest average Tackles

  • Super 14    Will Caldwell: 11 tackles
  • NRL    Michael Luck: 45 tackles

Second-row forward:    Highest average Runs (with game-average metres run)

  • Super 14    Nathan Sharpe: 10 runs (56m run)
  • NRL    Zeb Taia: 16 runs (117m run)

Again this shows that NRL forwards do a lot more running and a lot more tacking than Super 14 forwards. Again, this makes sense when we understand the tasks required of the forwards in each game.

What needs to be considered of the NRL forwards is the sheer volume of work they do. Contemplating the average 46 tackles Michael Luck does each game is difficult. That is an incredible amount of physical work and requires a lot of endurance. Similarly, 16 runs by Zeb Taia into opposition forwards is very physically demanding. The NRL regular season is 24 games long. Over that 24 games these players have a tremendous workload of physical contact (Michael Luck makes 1043 tackles in 2009!)

There is much more ball-running and tackling in the NRL than Super 14.

All of the above indicates that NRL players do significantly more ball-running and tackling than Super 14 players.
Super 14 forwards are skilled at doing other things such as scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls. In fact, in many instances players are picked solely for their abilities in the set-piece restarts of play. Their ball-running and tackling skills are secondary to their other skills.

In the NRL this compromise does not exist. Players are picked for their abilities at ball-running and tackling solely.

What do you like?

I like ball-running and tackling. And over 80 minutes I want to see as much of it as I can.

I also want it to be of the best quality. And this is where it gets a little subjective.

But there is also some clear logic that we can apply.

It is hard to argue against the idea that players who are tasked solely with ball-running and tackling, and have to do a lot more of it, will develop greater skills in those areas. If that’s all they have to focus on, they have more time and energy to get better at these tasks than players who also have to put time and energy into learning structured tasks for restarting play and competing for possession.

Or put another way, in NRL the focus is solely on ball-running and tackling. These are the defining actions in any NRL game. In the Super 14, there are several defining actions; ball-running and tackling are only two of them. With games being defined by the results of restarts in play and competitions for possession, ball-running and tackling are of relatively lower importance. And with lesser importance, players may not have the time or energy to develop their skills in these areas as they are of lesser relative priority.

It’s all been quite theoretical and statistical, but the insights are useful. The proof, of course, is in the watching.

Watch some action

Some impressive tackling and running from the NRL in these short video clips of Try and Tackle of the year.

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