Rugby Union - An Outsider's Guide
Created | Updated Oct 23, 2009
Rugby Union Football is a sport played with varying success all over the world. It was allegedly invented in the 1820s when a public school boy called William Webb Ellis essentially cheated at football1 by picking up the ball and romping off down the field, touching it down between the goalposts. In most situations, this would have led to a sound thrashing by the games master, and at least a free kick. However, the idea caught on and the new sport was named Rugby Football after the school at which it was developed. How different the sporting world would have been if one of Webb Ellis's classmates had hacked him down with a two-footed challenge and then beat him up in the showers later...
Like all sports, Rugby Union has rules. However, it's not that simple; try to explain to the uninitiated what is happening at any point in a rugby match, and you will understand. To the untrained eye, it just looks like a 30-man2 riot, with some random individual running around blowing a whistle and shouting.
The Rugby Pitch
Rugby Union is played on a grass pitch, although sometimes sand, clay, snow or artificial surfaces are used. Astroturf is not usually an option, due to the abrasions and burns a player can sustain when skidding along that particular surface, but some more advanced artificial surfaces are becoming more common. However, grass is far and away the norm. The pitch measures no more than 100 metres in length by no more than 70 metres in width, although some pitches are a little shorter or narrower than others.
The pitch is divided up by a series of lines running along its length and width. For a diagram showing the layout and dimensions of the rugby pitch, along with more information about the pitch, look at the International Rugby Board's Law 1 - 'The Ground'.
The Aim of the Game
The basic premise of rugby is very simple: 15 players3 divide themselves into eight 'forwards' and seven 'backs' based on size, weight, strength, speed and intelligence4 and face a similar set of 15 players. The object of the game is to place an elliptical ball on the ground behind the opposing team's try line5, which will score the team five points. The unusual name comes from the next event in play after scoring where the scoring team get a chance to 'try' to kick the ball between the posts. This can be from anywhere up to 22 metres away from the spot the try was scored – perpendicular to the try line, aiming between the posts. If the ball goes between the posts above the crossbar, the try is judged to have been 'converted' and a further two points are scored. The team with the most points after two periods of 40 minutes wins.
That's the easy bit. The hard bit is actually understanding what is going on at any one time. There are a number of things you have to bear in mind when watching or playing rugby, which will make the whole thing much easier to understand, or at least stop you frothing at the mouth screaming for mother.
1. Positions in rugby
The positions in rugby can become very confusing to the uninitiated as most of them are known by at least two different names and sometimes even more. The most common alternatives have been given here (along with shirt numbers in brackets).
Forwards: Two props (1 and 3), a hooker (2)6, two second rows, also known as locks (4 and 5), a number 8 (guess which number is on his shirt...) and two flankers (6 and 7)7. The props and hooker are known as the Front Row, and are shorter, heavier and generally stronger than the other players, although in recent years these players, despite their specialised 'skills', have become taller, fitter and less like finalists in a pie-eating contest. They are generally responsible for the majority of penalties, either through ignorance of the rules or through just being dirty swine. The hooker will try to scrape the ball backwards out of the scrum with his or her boot and will also throw the ball into the line-out. Props are the powerhouses of the scrum, trying to shove the opposition backwards off the ball.
The Second Row players tend to be tall, upwards of 6 feet at least, and at least vaguely mobile. These are the main catchers at a line-out, where they can jump or be lifted by other players in order to get the ball after it has been thrown in.
The Back Row8 comprises the two flankers and the number 8. These players tend to be faster than the other forwards and twice as dirty, but with a modicum of intelligence that stops them headbutting the ref - or each other.
Backs: A scrum-half, or inside-half (9), fly-half, or outside-half (10), two centres, or centre-halves (12 and 13), two wingers, or wing-threequarters (11 and 14) and a full-back (15).
The scrum and fly-halves go closer than is advisable to the scrum, and generally act as the link between forward play (lots of grunting and straining), and back-play (lots of passing and running around).
The centres tend to provide defence and attack, a little like football midfielders. Centres are growing in size and power in the modern game, and are generally to be relied on to tackle anything that moves in a different coloured jersey, apart from the referee – usually.
The wingers stay on the edges of the pitch. These tend to be speed merchants9, and are also becoming stronger and more powerful. Jonah Lomu of New Zealand is a fine example – at his peak in the mid- to late 1990s he was well over six feet tall and 18 stone and could run 100 metres in ten-and-a-bit seconds - truly terrifying, especially if you were the England player Mike Catt and you were meant to be trying to stop him from scoring in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
The full-back, well, stays at the back. Runs a bit, kicks a lot, and tends to shout 'MARK!' occasionally when he catches the ball, even if his name isn't.10
2. The ball can only be passed backwards using the hands
When passing the ball to a member of their team, the ball must travel along or diagonally behind an imaginary horizontal line across the pitch. This imaginary line runs through the player from one touchline to the other. A player does not have to pass the ball directly backwards: as long as the ball travels along the imaginary line (known as a 'flat pass') or diagonally behind it the pass is legal. This is obviously to stop cheating sorts simply lobbing the ball the length of the pitch and scoring lots of points with the minimum of effort and/or bloodshed. Intentionally passing forward is against the rules and will be penalised, at least most of the time - there have been countless occasions in rugby history when a forward pass has gone unnoticed by the referee and has resulted in a try.
A 'knock-on' occurs when the ball is fumbled forwards from a player's hands and will result usually in a scrum - more on these later. If it comes off a leg, head, chest or genitals it's fine.
3. Players must remain behind the ball carrier or they are offside
The offside rule in rugby is far simpler than the offside rule in soccer. Basically, if a player on your side has the ball, you have to be behind whichever of their feet is furthest back. If you are in front of this point you are out of the game, and any attempt to interfere with play will result in a penalty11. Despite its simplicity this rule is often flouted, mostly by forwards12. Accidental offside usually results in a scrum to the opposition, which leads us neatly to...
4. Scrums, rucks and mauls – how to tell the difference
Scrums are a way of restarting the game after an infringement or a mistake. To be brief, a small bloke, the scrum-half, rolls the ball between two gangs of sweaty, steaming muscle, lard and neoprene called the pack. The team's pack is arranged into three rows, the Front Row (prop-hooker-prop), Second Row (two second-rows or locks) and the Back Row (Flanker-Number 8-Flanker), bound together using the hands on shirts and shorts. These two groups of eight forwards try to shove each other off the ball so their backs can generally chuck it about until one of them scores, drops it, falls over or gets walloped by the opposition. That is all there is to say about scrums, because no-one really understands them except forwards, and they like to keep the secrets to themselves.
Rucks take place in open play when some berk gets tackled and ends up on the ground. They must release the ball immediately, and hopefully a member of their own team who is on his or her feet can step over and pick the ball up. However, it's not that simple, because on the whole, the forwards tend to pile into the tackle area and you have a ruck. The ball is on the ground, so no hands can be used unless the player is on their feet.
Feet can be used to scrape the ball out of the melée, and a small amount of scraping at opponents' hands is tolerated in order to create a clear exit for the ball. Any attempt to block the ball's progress or interfering with it with the hands if the player is off their feet is penalised, as is any player who simply dives into the pile of bodies from the back or side of the ruck.
Rucks are extremely difficult to explain, and many referees don't know many of the complex rules governing them.
Mauls also take place in open play, and are similar in a way to rucks, but the ball is held by a player on his or her feet. They are not on the ground. As with a ruck, a maul starts when a player is tackled and held, but remains on their feet. His or her team-mates (usually the forwards, they like this sort of thing) can grab onto the held player and push them forwards. This is useful to gain territory, and often a team will simply rumble forwards until they cross the try line or make serious headway towards it (a 'rolling maul') and either a player will drop to ground the ball to score or it is released to the backs who no longer have too far to run.
On other occasions the ball is released quickly from the maul and passed to the backs who do their chucking-it-about stuff. The opposing team can try to rip the ball loose in order to gain possession, so mauls differ from rucks in the respect that the hands can be used.
If a maul collapses to the ground accidentally, it can become a ruck and so the rules change. If a maul is collapsed intentionally, the offending team will be penalised.
5. Dangerous play
Hurtling into someone at full tilt, grabbing them and then slamming them into the ground so they can get steam-rollered by the aforementioned pack is not dangerous play. Punching them is. The rules on dangerous play in rugby may appear a little hazy, but in reality most players and referees know when the line between safe and dangerous play has been crossed.
Tackling someone around the neck is murderously stupid, as is collapsing a scrum or maul. Both can result in broken necks or spines which in turn can be fatal and are not a laughing matter. Those who intentionally break this rule have no place in civilised society, let alone on a rugby pitch. However, giving someone a 'good shoeing'13 is not a problem on the whole, unless you are the poor soul lying in the path of the ball's exit from the ruck. Suffice to say that different referees will tolerate different levels of violence. Any person who thinks they are 'hard' should avoid boasting until they have stepped onto a pitch to play a high-level international match – or a club-level match between two particularly bitter or dirty teams. The words 'broken spirit' and 'body bag' spring to mind.
Despite this reputation for physical and emotional scarring, rugby is actually a relatively safe sport. The rules are geared first and foremost towards player safety. Any reasonable referee will stop play immediately if a player's safety is in question, and punishments for wilfully dangerous play are severe, including being shown a yellow card (being ordered from the field for ten minutes – also know as being 'sin-binned'), red card (being ordered from the field of play for the rest of the match), fines and suspensions (being banned from playing for a set number of weeks or matches). In some extreme cases, players have been banned from playing any rugby at all for years or even life. In the modern professional game this particular punishment is obviously career-ending.
Rugby players also tend to show more respect to the referee than their footballing counterparts, largely because questioning a referee's decision can result in more severe punishments that will disadvantage the whole team. For example, a penalty can be moved a further ten metres towards the offending team's try line if the ref is given any grief. They can also be reversed, so if one team commits a minor offence (say obstructing a player) but the other team retaliates (by punching the offending player on the snout), the referee can and will give the original team the penalty. This encourages players to keep a modicum of restraint.
6. A line-out is not a parade of criminals
Even though the pack may look like a murderers’ tea party, line-outs are a way of restarting the game when the ball has gone over the touchline at the side of the pitch. When a team kicks or throws the ball over the touchline, or the ball carrier crosses the line physically (either by putting a foot over the line whilst running or being bundled over the line by the opposition), a line-out is formed. The team who were not in possession of the ball get the 'throw in'. The two sets of forwards form lines about a metre apart and the ball is thrown by one of them down the middle - theoretically. A player catches it and it is passed to the backs who chuck it about a bit more (see point 4). Alternatively, the ball is slapped to the ground and all hell breaks loose, with a pile of steaming forwards hurling themselves at it until it has no way of coming out or it bursts. In some lower-league matches (and some international ones as well), the latter is the usual result.
The team with the throw in usually nominate one of their players to catch the ball, and this is arranged by a confusing series of coded calls along the lines of '22-fishwife-anal-probe-75-parlez-vous-Gallois!' which apparently somebody understands.
Other points to bear in mind
Kicking forwards is allowed (have you ever tried kicking backwards?) in order to gain territory or get the ball away from your own try line, but the kicker must chase the ball and if it goes over the touchline, the opposing team get a line-out.
Kicking forwards is not allowed if you are trying to get the forward in question to stop throttling you.
Penalty kicks are a bit like a conversion, but score three points. Most players have a natural range of around 30 to 40 metres from the posts in a straight line, but some players are pushing the envelope by putting over kicks from 50 metres or more.
Penalties can also be taken in the form of scrums, kicks to touch - in which case the team awarded the penalty also get the throw-in at the line-out (see point 6) - or the 'tap-and-go', in which case the forwards get to do their thing of rumbling forwards like a hungover rhino until the ball is touched down under a pile of bodies or the backs chuck it about again and either score, drop it, etc.
Rugby teams and rugby nations
Rugby Union is divided into a variety of organisations, clubs and authorities. The main grassroots level of rugby is the local club. In most countries, clubs play in a variety of regional and national leagues based on the club's results and the quality of their players. A top-level team (such as those playing in the English Premiership or the Southern Hemisphere's Super 14 league) will often have many international players in their ranks and are, by and large, professional organisations (ie, the player's job is to play rugby). Lower leagues may field semi-professional or purely amateur teams, where playing rugby is a serious hobby, not a job.
The rugby world is also divided into national teams. In the Northern Hemisphere the big names are the likes of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (the so-called 'home nations'), France and increasingly Italy, Russia, USA and Canada. The Southern Hemisphere is dominated by the likes of New Zealand (the 'All-Blacks'), Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Alongside these teams there is increasing interest in rugby from the likes of Argentina.
Rugby is becoming a more popular sport in many countries, especially after the emergence of the Rugby World Cup, a four-yearly tournament of the world's rugby nations. However, some countries are rugby nations to the core, such as Wales - where rugby is virtually a religion - and New Zealand, one of the few countries where the mighty football is not the most popular winter sport.
Rugby need not be a confusing game, but it often can be. There are so many laws and rules, that even the referees have to be reminded occasionally14 of what is legal and what is not. For further information on these, consult your local Rugby Football Union (each rugby-playing nation has one) or the International Rugby Board. Suffice to say that rugby is a sport that is best watched first and played second, as many life insurance companies get twitchy when you say you play. Despite this, however, it is a great sport, which can provide moments of beauty and brilliance15 as well as sickening aggression. Real fights are rare, and the sense of camaraderie at the end of a match is often touching to see, as two sets of men, or women, that have spent the previous 80 minutes kicking lumps out of each other shake hands and then head off to the bar to get drunk and sing rude songs.