The Rules of Rugby

Rugby is a lot of things to a lot of people. It is challenging, exciting, and a rush. There are always new things to learn and old limits to push aside. Rugby is a continuous, flowing game with natural ebbs and surges, but no real time-outs except for injury. It has both premeditation and spontaneity. The faster you can make things happen, the more likely you will be able to score. All shapes of people can play. It is an aggressive and physically demanding game. Fitness is mandatory. A few catch words in rugby are “move forward” and “support.” Confusingly enough (at first), you often have to back up or pass back to support the surge forward. The overall team direction is always aimed toward the Try (Goal) Line. Rugby is a team game. The collective effort of 15 people is far more powerful than the individual. Your knowledge and understanding of the rules of rugby will help or hinder the team’s success.

The Pitch


We play on a pitch or what most would call a field. It is up to 70 meters wide and up to 100 meters long. The pitch size is really up to what’s available for the club hosting the match. All of these markings will make sense (click on the image for larger picture). For now, one important thing to remember is that the lines are included in what is beyond them (i.e. the touchline (sideline) is in-touch or out of bounds, and the goal line is in-goal).

The Basics (Video)

The action in rugby begins with a kick-off. This is taken at center field. The game is divided into two halves, no more than 40 minutes long and sometimes less. The clock never stops, but any time taken for injury is added on to the half in which it occurs.

In rugby, anyone at any position may play the ball. You may run with it, pass it, kick it, or tackle an opponent who has it – provided that you are onside. This is important: if you are behind the ball, you are onside. If you are in front of the ball, you are offside. If you influence the play in any way from an offside position, you will receive a penalty. The concept of offside explains a lot of this seemingly convoluted game. For example, we cannot pass forward because that would mean that the receiver would be in front of us and offside.

Kicking forward is permissible but unless you are behind the kicker, and he or someone behind him passes you or you are the kicker, you cannot just go for the ball. If you are offside and within 10 meters of an opponent fielding a kick, you must retreat beyond that 10 meters and only go ahead in your pursuit of the ball after he has moved 5 meters, passed, kicked, or dropped the ball. You also may not block in rugby. Inhibiting opponents or just standing in the way is called obstruction and it is a penalty if you do so.

Positions and Responsibilities

The Forwards

The Forwards are the grunts and the relentless tide. It is their responsibility to scramble, chase, ruck, and maul in the effort to gain possession of the ball. They will then take it forward or present it to the backs to move it out wide. They are then expected to remain in relentless support of whoever carries the ball. The Forwards are also referred to as the pack or the scrum. A scrum is also the name of the pack of forwards who bind together in specific positions when a scrumdown is called. It is the basic set formation of rugby and occurs after various infringements of the rules or when the ball becomes tied up. It is a face-off of sorts and a favorite among forwards. Form and timing are more important than brute strength.

The Forwards consist of positions 1-8 on the diagram to the right:

  1. Loose Head Prop (sturdy and fearless)
  2. Hooker (small, quick, and ready to take control)
  3. Tight Head Prop (sturdy and fearless)
  4. Lock – (big and strong)
  5. Lock – (big and strong)
  6. Flanker – (quick and aggressive)
  7. Flanker – (quick and aggressive)
  8. Number Eight (smart with foot and hand skills)
  9. Scrumhalf (Smart, experienced, and quick) – Technically a Back but mentioned here as work with the forwards is instrumental to overall play

Scrums, Rucks, and Mauls

Scrums occur during set plays – usually after a penalty or other stop of play. The scrumhalf puts the ball straight into the space between the two front rows known as the tunnel. By combining a driving push and a quick foot strike by the hooker (occasionally a prop), each team attempts to win the ball. It is then channeled back to the #8 who lets it out to the scrumhalf (who has moved to the back) or the #8 picks it up himself and breaks off from the scrum. The team who gets to put the ball in has “the advantage” due to their advantage of timing and having their front row closer to the put-in point. By driving forward, we not only win the ball but give momentum to any subsequent offensive moves after the ball is out.

In open play, more spontaneous versions of this type of formation are the rucks and mauls which can occur at any time. Rucks and mauls basically give everyone a chance to collect themselves and rally the troops for the next play.

Picture of Rugby Ruck

A ruck is when at least one player from each team binds over the ball that is on the ground (see picture to left). A maul is when at least one player from each team binds around a player that is standing with the ball in his possession – remember, a maul is tall. It is very important to remember that you must position yourself low and drive forward when engaged. Only go to ground if your teammates in support yell for you to go to ground (so they can ruck over you and reset the play). This is not football. Play doesn’t end when you hit the ground so don’t worry about going to ground. Your timing doing so is what you need to keep in mind. When there are people bound over the ball on the ground (a scrum or ruck) there are no hands allowed. You may not touch the ball with your hands until it is clearly visible.

Once a ruck or maul forms, players not participating (by being fully bound with at least one whole arm) must remain behind the last person’s foot (of the scrum or ruck). This gives players not involved some time and space in which to set up and look for defensive holes. The good teams will be able to do this quickly and take advantage of their opponent who is slower to their positions.

The Backs

In rugby, an old adage says that the Forwards win the ball and the Backs win the game. The Backs are the glamor boys of rugby. Playing in less traffic, the Backs must still ruck and maul, tackle, and advance the ball.

A line up looks like this (positions 9-15):
9. Scrumhalf (Smart, experienced, and quick)

10. Flyhalf (Great hands with a cool head)

12. Inside Center (Good change of speed)

13. Outside Center (Same and faster)

11. Wing (Burner)

14. Wing (Burner)

15. Full Back (Good field vision/kicker)

The backline (all the Backs) puts its strength on the greatest side of the field (strong side). The other side is logically referred to as the weak side. Each wing remains on a single side of the field and thus play both weak and strong. If the ball is in the middle of the field, the backs can split. Once in possession of the ball, the backs have many options to advance the ball. They might quickly pass it out to the wing who has less traffic and is generally very fast. The ball might be kicked in various ways and pursued. A great way of extending the backline and getting the ball out is to loop, which is when an inside player (often after passing the ball out) sprints behind the line bursting through to receive it again somewhere down the line. The backs may skip a player along the line in order to get it out quickly or insert an extra player (typically the fullback) who might come crashing through.

To catch your opponent off-guard, the backs can change the direction of movement by reverse passing back to the person you got it from, cutting back against the grain, or switching with another player. A switch happens when instead of passing to the person outside of you, that person suddenly cuts back behind you to receive a handoff. You can also dummy the defense by faking a move to a teammate and keeping it yourself. When running downfield, it is important that backs run straight to leave room for people on the outside. Most importantly, a team must work together. This applies to defense as well. The defense must approach hard and in a flat line. Failure to come up as a flat line will create gaps that the opponent will take advantage of. The faster you are in their faces, the less time they have to think and act. You must come up as a unit or a good team will expose you.

Skills

Backs and forwards must develop certain rugby-specific abilities. These skills are the foundation of all play, simple and complex.

Passing

You already know that you can’t pass forward in rugby. Lateral passing is okay but not a good habit. Passing backwards is your goal. To enable this, the Backs will line up at about 45 degrees to the ball. Technique may vary, but the important concept here is your pass must be catchable. Using both hands, the ball is passed in an underhand fashion and should arrive in the receiver’s hands upright. You should lead the receiver so that he is bursting through it at full speed. Waist high is ideal. The distance between the passer and receiver varies depending on how skilled they are and the particular set play that is called. The receiver stays at an angle sufficiently deep to receive the ball running at top speed. The passer should always turn his body toward the receiver. See your receiver first and then pass (all in one fluid motion).

Kicking

Kicking is another crucial element of rugby. The Pop Kick is a short, up-in-the air kick that you can field yourself or another one of your teammates can. If you’re in danger of being tackled and there is no one to pass to, you can pop kick it over his head and run onto it. With this strategy, you’ve got the momentum – he will have to turn around to chase it and you. Remember, he cannot touch you if you don’t have the ball. The Grub Kick is like a hot grounder past the shortstop. You punch it along the ground with your foot (i.e. kick it into the ground) and pursue the ball. Due to the shape of the ball, the grub kick will take some weird hops, making it hard to handle. Kicking the ball should be a strategic element of your game and not a panic move. It is important to place kicks in a spot where you or your team can regain possession. Longer kicks may be used too, where the ball is kicked to a part of the field that your teammates can get to first or make life miserable for an opponent who does. The ball may also be punted into touch (out-of-bounds) for long yardage. We’ll explain later what happens after the ball leaves the field, but for now remember this: if you are behind your own 22 meter line and kick it directly to touch on a fly, the ball is brought back in at the point it crosses the line. Therefore, a long kick for touch can get you out of trouble when the opposition is breathing down your goal line. This is also true when you have been awarded a penalty kick anywhere on the field. However, if you kick it directly into touch when you are ahead of your 22, the ball comes back in from where it was kicked – meaning no yardage gained. You can dribble the ball or give it a good whack with your foot anytime it is loose on the ground, but possession is 9/10th of the law in rugby. It’s always best to secure the ball for your side.

Tackling

You must tackle in rugby. When you do and your opponent is on the ground, he has no choice but to release the ball, leaving it fair game for either side. Tackling well and decisively is vital. You should hit them low, squeeze their legs together, and twist them so you land on top. The technical definition of a tackle is when a player is held by an opposing player and at least one knee is touching the ground (falling down unassisted doesn’t count). Remember, if you are tackled you must release the ball or you will receive a penalty. You may pick it up immediately upon gaining your feet. You are allowed a split second to place the ball to your team’s advantage when tackled. The art of tackling is one of the more reluctantly embraced skills in rugby, but when done right it can be extremely satisfying.

Scoring

Well, first in our hearts is the TRY. It has similarities to a touchdown in football, but with a significant difference. A try is accomplished by bringing the ball into your opponent’s ingoal and touching it to the ground. Control, downward pressure, and simultaneous hand/ball/ground contact are essential. A try is worth 5 points. The priority is to get the ball over and down, but if possible, you want to place it near the middle. The reason for this is that after a try, you have a chance to make it 7 points by kicking the ball through the posts for a conversion. The kick is made from any distance back, but in line with where the ball was touched down for the Try. It is far easier for a kicker to make a conversion when he is in front of the posts as opposed to at an angle. The kicker may use a Place Kick or Drop kick (a drop kick is where he drops it first and kicks it on the rebound).

The other way to score is by Going for Post (kicking a field goal). This is worth 3 points. Most commonly it is made when a penalty is called within the range of your team’s best kicker. It may be place kicked or drop kicked from the point where the penalty was awarded (the Mark).

If a team should touch the ball down in its own in-goal (better you than them), two things can happen. If your team is responsible for bringing the ball in, a scrum will be awarded to the other team (5 meters back from the try line). If the ball traveled into the in-goal on the other team’s impetus, your team will be awarded a 22 meter Drop Out. A drop out means that your team may drop-kick the ball from any point behind the 22 meter line. The other team must retreat immediately to the other side of the 22.

Line Out

If the ball is kicked, carried, or otherwise escorted into touch, its re-entry onto the field is by way of a Line Out. A line out is a little like a jumpball in basketball. Two columns of forwards (one column per team) line up 5 meters in from the touch line and perpendicular to it. A player from the team who didn’t touch it last before it went into touch gets to throw the ball down the tunnel. It can be thrown any distance as long as it flies straight between the columns. Teams use signals to let their players know where the thrower intends to throw it. Certain players in the line out are designated as Jumpers. Usually during a line out, the backs line up in much the same way as during a scrum, with one notable exception – the Backs (or anyone not directly participating) must remain 10 meters back until the line out is completely over. This is different than in a scrum where they must only remain behind the #8’s or last person’s foot.

Penalties

For minor infractions of the law a simple scrum down will do with the non-offending team being given advantage. A forward pass is one such infringement. The Knock On is another (a Knock On is where you drop or bump the ball forward with any part of your upper body). A scrum may also be called when a ruck or maul goes too long without the ball coming out or if the referee judges it to be dangerous. After the whistle, he will usually give the Mark with his foot and indicate, with his arm angled down toward one team or the other, who gets to put the ball in. The hookers then usually line up at the mark and the rest of the pack comes in around them. A free kick is awarded for slightly less secure infractions than a penalty kick (hooker striking too early for the ball, for instance). The difference is that you are not allowed to go for post. The referee indicates a free kick by extending a bent arm toward the team who gets to take it. For a Penalty Kick, the referee extends his arm upward toward the team to whom he’s awarding it. A penalty kick is given for penalties such as: Obstruction, offsides, hands in a ruck, play deemed dangerous by the referee, etc. A penalty kick is awarded at the place the infraction occurs. A mark will be given and that is the point through which the kick must be taken. To execute a penalty kick, you must move the ball visibly through the mark with your foot. This could mean anything from a short tap (after which it may be picked up and moved in any legal way) to a long punt (the space directly above the mark counts as the mark). The opposition must retreat 10 meters immediately when a penalty kick is awarded which creates quite an advantage.

Advantage

In rugby, a referee does not have to call a penalty if he feels that no advantage was gained by the offending team or that the other team was able to capitalize on it. For example, a referee may see a knock on occur, but wait to blow the whistle until it becomes apparent who has made subsequent gains. If the non-offending team scoops up the ball and gains 10 meters, the penalty may never be called at all. This is called “playing the advantage.” The advantage law helps to keep the game flowing. File this for another day, but keep in mind that even if you do spot an infraction, do not stop until you hear the whistle. The referee may not have seen it or may be playing the advantage.

The Referee

There is only one referee in rugby. The Ref has 48 signals he can use throughout the match. When the referee makes a call, his word is law. He cannot change a call once it has been made. It is no use arguing, so don’t – you can be penalized if you do. If you do need to make a comment to the referee, for any reason, do so through your captain. Different referees have different styles. It is a smart rugby player who learns to “play the ref.” Many calls in rugby are completely up to the referee’s judgment — especially those concerning foul play. If something gets out of hand, go to your captain who can speak to the referee. The referee is the sole determiner of what constitutes foul play and a good referee will keep things clean. A player can be ejected from a game as the most severe resolution of a problem. The team cannot substitute in for the ejected player making it one player short.

The Party

If there is one thing that sets rugby apart from all the other sports you’ve seen or played, it is that after a match, you lay differences aside and have a few drinks and eat some food. There is a spirit of camaraderie among rugby players. You must have a passion for the game and despite all rivalries, it is a passion shared by everyone who plays it. As the sport is unique and intense, so are its players. Meeting people of all varieties, from all parts of the country or world, is one of rugby’s greatest attributes.