A Beginner’s Guide To Rugby

A Beginner’s Guide To Rugby

The Rugby World Cup (RWC) starts today.  Millions of people around the world are waiting in anticipation for the first game tonight. There’s only one problem – I don’t know anything about rugby.

When people started chatting about the Rugby World Cup (RWC) at the office, I knew we had to write about it.  So I decided to do some reading and watching of videos, determined to understand at least the basics of the sport and share what I learned here.  That’s why this is a beginner’s guide – I know slightly more than I did before, and before I knew nowt at all.

What’s the difference between Rugby Union and Rugby League?

There are two types of rugby – Union and League.  The World Cup is a Union competition, so where did the other one come from?

Let’s start with a history lesson – though bear in mind I’m not that good at history.  The sport of rugby gets it name from Rugby, the public school.  Legend has it that in the 1800s one of the pupils, William Webb Ellis, was playing football when he decided to pick up the ball and run with it.   (The winners of the Rugby World Cup are presented with a cup named after him.)

This new style of play caught on and soon had its own rules.  Eventually it became so popular that in 1871 the Rugby Football Union was formed as a governing body.

Here’s where it gets a little bit political.

In the North of England, where the game was becoming really big, rugby players were often from working communities in mill or mining towns.  If they played for their local or county team, they might have to take time off work, something they could little afford.  (Bear in mind it was an amateur game, so there weren’t any professional sportsmen.)

On the other hand, players in the south weren’t as likely to be working class, more middle and even upper class, so taking time off didn’t affect them as much.  They didn’t need to worry about money to indulge their passion.

Eventually some rugby teams in the north of England wanted their players to be compensated for taking time off work: a ‘broken time payment’.  Some others felt this would stop it being an amateur game and eventually this split turned into a schism and then into a chasm – on the one side you had the Rugby Football Union and on the other, formed in the late 19th century by the people that wanted compensation, The Rugby Football League.

The biggest rule difference in League is that the attacking team has six chances to score.  If their ball carrier is tackled, that counts as using up one chance.   If they fail to score within those six tackles, the other team goes on the attack.  In Union that rule doesn’t apply, the play flows back and forth naturally.  There are other differences, including the number of players, but let’s concentrate on Rugby Union, because that’s what the RWC competition is.

How long does a rugby union game last?

It’s an 80-minute game, split into two halves of 40 minutes.  Half time is about 10 minutes.

How many players are on a team?

15.   To keep things simple, eight of these are forwards – the big guys you see on TV, the heavy lifters.   Then there are seven backs – think of them as the ‘smaller’ players, the runners.

How does passing work in rugby?

You can only pass backwards to a teammate.  I think that’s why you see slightly staggered lines of players, just hanging back enough to stay within the rules, but no so much that it makes getting the ball difficult.   You can kick the ball forward, but I believe this is to get it up field and gain territory.  I assume that the person kicking it is the one who has to pick it up next, unless an opposition player gets it.

How do you score?

If you put the ball on the ground at the opposition’s end of the pitch, that’s called a try.  It’s worth five points; that’s the one you see players leaping forwards for.   After a try, the scoring team is given a chance to try to kick a goal.   At each end of the pitch is an ‘H’ shaped set of bars.  If the kicker puts the ball between the bars and over the crossbar, that’s called a conversion and is worth two points.  Teams awarded a penalty can also try to kick for three points.

Finally, you’ve got a drop goal, this is also worth three points.  When I read about this, I understood that the player with the ball lets it drop on purpose, then they can kick it after it touches the ground.   I imagined it bouncing up like a tennis ball, but if you look at videos of the play, they’re kicking it as soon as it touches the ground.  A Jonny Wilkinson drop goal secured the RWC for England against Australia in 2003.  Just look at that timing.

How do tackles work in rugby?

You’re only allowed to tackle the player with the ball.  You can get hold of him anywhere except for his neck and head and you can’t touch him if he’s in the air.  If you break these rules you might get a yellow or red card.  I think tackling might be getting more dangerous as players get bigger and bigger.

What’s a scrum?

This is the bit I think about when I imagine a game of rugby – the players all interlocked and pushing against each other.

If a player lets the ball travel forwards from his hands, so he throws it or it tumbles from his hands and bounces forwards, the referee will call a scrum.

The ball is thrown in between the two groups and they fight for possession of it, trying to grab it and pass it backwards with their feet.  Nope, you’re not allowed to touch a scrum ball with your hands.

When the ball comes out of the scrum, it’s normally a player called a scrum half who will pick it up and chuck it to one his teammates, backwards, for the next attack to start.


What’s that about getting mauled?

If the ball carrier is tackled, but neither he nor the tackler go down, you might have a maul.  This is where players from both teams steam in to try to get the ball.  In the middle of this, the carrier has to try to turn his back and pass it to his teammates.  If a maul is taking too long, the ref might call a scrum.

I can hear a ruck-us

If the ball carrier is tackled and he falls to the ground, you’ve got a ruck.  Now the tackler has to let go of the player and the player has to let go of the ball.  Then the players will pile in to try to win the ball with their feet and push back the other team.  Again, the ref can say it’s taking too long and call a scrum.

What happens if the ball goes out of play?

The referee calls a lineout.  It’s the bit where all players leap up, sometimes helped by other people, trying to get the ball. (It’s a bit like a throw-in in a football match.)

The forwards, the big players, from each team form two lines.  The ball is then thrown between them and the forwards try to get hold of the ball and get it to their own team to start another attack.

A lineout happens if the ball is kicked off the pitch, or a player with the ball goes over the edge of the pitch at the sides, or simply puts his foot on the edge.

Is there an offside rule?

I’m not going to try to explain this, because I don’t understand it.  Even the simplest explanation I’ve found is confusing.  Trust me.

How about rugby and sportsmanship?

Despite being a lot more aggressive and violent than football, respecting the referee and good sportsmanship seem to be much more valued in rugby.  I’ve heard that players have to call the referees sir and don’t talk back.  They are also supposed to applaud the other team and match officials at the end of a game.

One quote I’ve read is that ‘rugby is a beastly sport played by gentlemen‘.

Talking of being gentlemanly, if I’ve got any facts wrong or have been muddled in my understanding of the game, please do let us know in the comments.   As I said at the beginning, I’m a beginner to all of this.    Here’s to England’s success in the cup.


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Previously on The Euroffice Blog…





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