Rugby is a fast-moving, full-contact team sport. It shares its roots with soccer, but is better known in North America as the forerunner of American football. There are many nuances, but this page should help you understand the basics.
A rugby match takes place on a field (called the “pitch”) that is 100 meters long and 70 meters wide. At either end of the pitch is a “try zone” — something like the end zone in American football — and an H-shaped goal.
Ordinary matches consist of two forty-minute halves separated by a ten-minute break. (Some tournaments will have shorter halves.) Play starts with a kick-off at the fifty-meter line, and it continues uninterrupted until one team scores, until the ball goes out of bounds (“in touch”), or until the referee blows his or her whistle to indicate a penalty or injury. (To reiterate: uninterrupted. We don’t stop just because somebody got tackled, or just because the ball is rolling around on the ground.)
Playing the Game
While the ball is live, players can run with it; kick it; hand it off to a teammate; or pass it backwards. (Forward passing is illegal in rugby.) The defending team can tackle the player with the ball, hold him, shove him out of bounds, or get the ball from him, but they cannot tackle or block any other players.
If the player with the ball is tackled to the ground, play continues — like we said, uninterrupted — but the player with the ball has to release the ball. At that point, any player who is on his feet may try to pick it up, or they may push against an opponent in a formation called a “ruck”. (So many puns there.) During a ruck, players on their feet may not use their hands to retrieve the ball; instead, they must either fish it out with their feet or shove their opponents off the ball so that one of their teammates can get it.
Sometimes, though, the player with the ball is halted, but he isn’t brought all the way to the ground: instead, he’s still upright and struggling against defenders. This is a formation known as a “maul”. During a maul, players from either side can bind onto their teammates and push toward or away from the try zone. The player with the ball can also attempt to hand it off to a teammate, and the defenders involved in the maul can also attempt to tackle the player with the ball or take the ball from him.
Follow this link to a video that provides more information about the general rules of rugby with some visual demonstrations: Rugby 101 Video
Officials and Penalties
Every game has one referee and two touch judges.
Touch judges are responsible for signaling when the ball has gone “into touch” (out of bounds), and when the ball has been kicked through the uprights to score. That’s really the extent of their job, but we love them anyway.
Referees are responsible for keeping the match fair and relatively safe, and as a result they have quite a bit of discretion on calling or not-calling penalties. The ref’s calls carry the force of divine mandate and cannot be reversed or appealed. It is
unwise foolish completely fucking stupid to challenge the ref’s judgement, because you will earn your team a penalty this way. (You might even get kicked out, which puts your team at a disadvantage.) The team captains are the only two players permitted to speak to the referee, and they must always call the referee “Sir”.
If there is a minor infraction of the laws, such as a forward pass, or if the ball becomes stuck in a ruck or maul, then the referee can call for a “scrum”. In a scrum, eight players from each team bind onto each other, forming two huge solid masses. At the referee’s signal, the two masses slam into each other, and one of the two scrumhalves puts the ball into the middle. After an intense and often exhausting contest of strength and skill, the ball eventually finds its way to one side, and that team gets possession of the ball. Scrums are sometimes called the “game within the game”, and a well-played scrum can turn the tide of an entire match.
Major infractions of the laws can result in penalty kicks or free kicks. Particularly heinous infractions can result in a player’s trip to the “sin bin” for five minutes, or a player’s outright ejection from the game; players who are ejected or put in the “sin bin” cannot be replaced with a substitute, which puts their team at a significant disadvantage, and that rarely works out well.
Teams score either by moving the ball into the try zone and touching it to the ground (a “try”, worth five points) or by kicking the ball through the upright posts (from regular play or penalty, this is a “goal”, worth three points; if done after a try, a “conversion”, worth two points). Naturally, the object of the game is to out-score the opposing side.
Tries are like touchdowns in football, but with one significant difference: it isn’t enough to just carry the ball into the try zone. Instead, the ball has to touch the ground of the try zone and a player’s hand at the same time. (This is where football gets the term “touchdown”.) If the defending team can keep the ball from touching the ground, then the try doesn’t happen.
Once a team scores a try, they get to attempt to kick the ball through the uprights for a “conversion” (worth two points). They can kick from any distance, and they can do a drop-kick or use a tee, but they must be aligned with the point where the ball touched the ground. Once that’s all done, there’s another kick-off at the 50-meter line, and the team that just scored gets the ball back.
Teams may also kick the ball through the uprights during regular play or from a penalty kick. This is a “goal”, worth three points, and can also be done as a drop-kick or from a tee. As with a try, once a team scores a goal, there’s another kick-off at the 50-meter line, and the team that just scored gets the ball back.
During the match, each side has fifteen players on the pitch, plus up to seven alternates on the sidelines. Every position has its own characteristic strengths, which we’ll cover in a minute, but it’s important to remember that every player on the pitch has the opportunity to pass, run, kick, catch, tackle, be tackled, or score points, as the circumstances demand. It’s also important to remember that, in rugby, there’s a place for every build and height.
Positions are traditionally numbered according to their place in the scrum. Positions one through eight are collectively known as “forwards”, and positions nine through fifteen are known as “backs”.
- Positions one and three are known as props. During the scrum, the props stand on either side of the hooker, and, as the name implies, provide physical support. Typical props are short to average height, with a sturdy build, and they really, really, really, really, really enjoy physical contact, which is good, because they get a ton of intense physical contact during a match.
- Position two is better known as the hooker. (Seriously, that’s what the position is called.) During the scrum, the hooker wraps his arms around the props’ ribcages, then uses his foot to try to “hook” the ball backwards to his teammates (hence the name). During line-outs (when the ball goes out of bounds), the hooker calls plays and throws the ball back in. Hookers are usually the shortest of the forwards, with long arms and powerful legs.
- Positions four and five are known as locks, and they form the second row in the scrum. Locks provide most of the physical power of the scrum, and often jump at line-outs. They are generally the tallest and strongest players on the team.
- Positions six and seven are known as flankers. Flankers bind onto the side of the scrum, and in open play they often handle the ball or chase down the opponent with the ball. Flankers are the most aggressive players on the team, are generally average to tall in height, have an athletic build, and loooove to tackle.
- Position eight is known as, well, number eight. Number eight plays at the very back of the scrum. When the hooker does his job and moves the ball backwards, it ends up at number eight’s feet; number eight then either holds the ball for the scrumhalf or breaks off the scrum and runs the ball himself. Like flankers, number eights are generally average to tall in height, with an athletic build.
- Position nine is known as the scrumhalf - the link between the forwards and backs. At the start of a scrum, the scrumhalf puts the ball into the middle, and at the end of the scrum he (hopefully) retrieves it from number eight’s foot to initiate open play. The scrumhalf also retrieves the ball from a ruck, keeping play going. Scrumhalves are usually the smallest players on the team, but they almost always have the biggest
- Position ten is known as the flyhalf. The flyhalf is usually described as the “general”, reading the defense, calling plays, shuffling backs, and distributing the ball wherever it has the best chance at getting through. Flyhalves are average to tall in height, and have hands of gold.
- Positions eleven and fourteen are the wings. The wings are the nimblest players on the team, and as a result they score the most tries. There’s no typical build for a wing; they just have to be fast and agile.
- Positions twelve and thirteen are the centers. Centers are usually described as the “platform” for plays; their role is to draw in defenders, opening up holes in the opposing line so that other backs (usually wings) can slip through to the try zone. Physically, centers are average height, with a lean to athletic build and strong shoulders and legs.
- Finally, position fifteen is the fullback. The fullback plays at the back of the team, acting as the last line of defense, but he also receives the most high kicks and is usually the best kicker. Depending on your point of view, the fullback is either the bravest or the most foolish, as his tackles are consistently done at full speed out in the open. Physically, the fullback is usually short, with a powerful lower body.
The Third Half
Rugby is as much a social endeavor as it is a sport, so the gathering after the match is just as important as the activity on the pitch. At the “third half”, the home team hosts the visitors for food and drink (and drink, and drink, and drink). It’s a great opportunity to mingle with the other team, congratulate them on the things they did well, and comment on their other valiant efforts throughout the match.
Of course, no third half is complete without a whole lot of beer. Or the drunken, and sometimes off-key, group performance of songs that are bawdy, profane, sacrilegious, and absolutely hilarious. Or drinking games involving stealthy citrus fruit. Or streaking. Or public demonstrations of hidden dancing abilities. Or unusual and unsanitary drinking vessels.
There’s an awful lot that happens in the third half that you might not want your mother to see or hear or even think about, and frankly the third-half details will vary from team to team and match to match, but the important part is that you’re doing all of it with your teammates and with the guys you just spent eighty minutes pummeling. At the third half, everybody is your friend.