The main differences between Rugby League and Rugby Union are:
League has less players (13; Union has 15)
after a successful tackle, in League the tackled player keeps the ball and play restarts
after a successful tackle, in Union the tackled player must release the ball and play continues
Also Union is more popular world-wide.
However there is a form of rugby that is easy to understand and incredibly exciting - Rugby Sevens!
Here there are only 7 players per side on a full-size pitch. The ball is in play practically continuously and there is a score almost every minute.
The game is so demanding that a typical match only lasts 14 minutes (with a 1 minute half-time.)
With so few players on the pitch:
it’s easy to follow the action
you can see the skills (every player must be able to run, pass + tackle superbly)
you’ll see many examples of side-steps, dummies and sheer pace
Rugby league is simpler and more exciting, tries are scored frequently - shares the NFL ideas of yardage and downs (sort of - the game doesn’t stop but you have 6 oppotunities to move the ball forward and then it has to be relinquished to the opposition).
The Australian National Rugby League (NRL) would be the highest standard to watch - international rugby league is not that big of a deal as only three teams play it to any sort of level.
Rugby union is more strategic, a lot of set plays - one million rules but you can understand the basics OK. The international game is huge (six nations on at the moment, world cup, rugby chamionship), domestic game more of a niche sport. Really hot and cold sport, IMHO - a good game of RU is prob the best to watch, as you get the speed and flow of RL combined with a deeper, tactical game. Problem is so few teams play good RU - here in Europe the teams have evolved to play a really dull, attritional game that is often decided by penalties. You can still admire the physicality of this - two behemoths deadlocked, until a scrum collapses and they all jump up and down high-fiving each other, because they won a penalty.
The Australia and NZ national RU sides would be the opposite of this, being known to play a more expansive and attractive style.
Six nations is on now, Ireland play Wales today, so you might be able to pick that up somewhere to watch depending where you are - it will be on in a pub somewhere in any decent sized US city.
Huh, well that has me a bit interested. I have watched a bit of Ruby sevens and always thought it seemed fun but hard to find regularly to watch. What is Six Nations all about? What are the National teams involved like. Who would be a good team to follow obsessively for a while?
The Six Nations is basically the annual European rugby union championship tournament.
Six teams - England, Scotland, Ireland (includes North and South), Wales, France, and Italy. Each team plays all the others once, they alternate home and away each year.
Pick your own side to follow, really. It’s a good open competition, no one country ever dominates for too long. Scotland haven’t won for a while though mind, and Italy never (they only joined in 2000).
Six Nations is the North European National championship. The teams are England, Scotland, Ireland (the whole island), Wales, France and Italy. They play each other once in a season.
The Southern Hemisphere equivalent features New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
Although I’m English, I’d suggest you follow Wales. They are a small country, but passionate about rugby. Also the singing of the Welshcrowd is a total pleasure. (turn your sound up and click on these youtube links!)
Although Rugby League has a lot of skilful players, it’s less exciting than Rugby Sevens!
Also League may not stop like American Football, but it certainly pauses after every single tackle. The tackled player has to get to his feet to play the ball, whilst both teams move back into position.
Union may have had a lot of penalties a decade ago, but now teams play for tries. Here’s the English Premiership table: 260 tries scored after just 11 rounds of matches!
Also you’re on shaky ground talking about scrums. Union has real contests, whilst in League they might as well not bother:
the ball always remains with the side in possession
Find your local club and go watch some games. Make yourself known and your local rugby folks will almost certainly let you know where to catch the big games in your area. Hell you might even play a few games yourself.
ESPN’s rugby page (www.espnscrum.com) is my go-to site. If you want “local” coverage of England / Scotland / Wales, I suggest you find a British newspaper site that’s still free (examples: the Guardian, the Telegraph), or you can search bbc.co.uk for its sports coverage (note that if you do a search, search for “sport” instead of “sports,” as the British use the singular to refer to sports in general).