A Deadspin primer on American football's weird, half-drunk English grandfather, rugby.
The basics: A rugby game is a contest between two teams of 15 players—30 men on the field at one time, each with their specific job to do. But unlike football, each player can and will run, pass, kick, and tackle throughout the game. That game is made up of two 40-minute halves, with the clock ticking up, as in soccer, and only stopping for substitutions, injuries, and when the refs gives out a yellow or red card or stops a fight.
The field is roughly 10 yards wider than a football field. The goalposts are on the goal line, as in football days of yore, forming the old-school 'H' we recognize from NFL films. The end zones, as it were, are called try zones, and that's where the magic happens.
Scrum: A scrum is a way to restart play after a minor infraction. Scrums happen for a variety of reasons: if there's a forward pass or a knock-on (i.e., a player fumbles the ball and knocks it forward with his hands or his arms); if the ball doesn't travel 10 meters on the kickoff, or if it goes out on the full on the kickoff (i.e., it sails out of bounds without bouncing first); if a line-out throw (i.e., a throw-in) isn't straight; if there's a penalty, and the team elects to restart the game with a scrum; if the ball becomes unplayable at the bottom of a ruck (see below) or a maul (likewise). The referee will indicate a scrum by blowing his whistle and holding his arm parallel to the ground, pointing toward the team that has the put-in.
The word "scrimmage" comes from "scrummage," which is the fancy term for a scrum. Once the scrum engages, its players are said to be "scrummaging." In some ways it does resemble the battle between offensive and defensive lines in football, mainly in that it is a bunch of huge, unattractive men pushing against each other and grunting. It differs, however, in that the men are not arranged in a line, but in an upside-down pyramid starting with the front row. Each prop reaches around (heh) the hooker's waist and grabs the inside waistband of his shorts. The hooker puts his arms around the backs of the props, stretched out like Christ on a cross, and grabs their jersey under their armpits. The locks then push their heads in between the legs of the hooker and prop in front of them, reaching out their outside hand and grabbing the short of the props directly in the crotch. It's cute. The back rows (6, 7, 8) then bind on to the locks, forming a tight pack of big dudes. The team opposite them does the same. They crouch down about one meter from each other, front rows looking into each other's eyes, and the referee yells, "Crouch, touch"—the props touch each other on the shoulders to make sure the gap is correct—"pause, ENGAGE!" And with that, 16 men, each pack weighing almost a ton, crash into each other with a collective grunt that rings through the stadium.
The scrum-half, No. 9, must then feed straight (though they all cheat) into the tunnel made by the front row. The hooker, held up by the props with his weight on only one foot, then hooks the ball back toward the back of his own scrum, where, if all goes according the plan, the No. 8 will gather it at his feet and either pick it up and run it off the back of the scrum, or wait for the scrum-half to make his way to the back, and spin the ball out to his back line. Open play then continues.
Forward pass: It's illegal to throw the ball forward in rugby. Any pass must travel backward or laterally. If a pass goes forward, the referee will blow his whistle, and a scrum will be awarded to the other team.
Line-out: The line-out is roughly the equivalent of a throw-in in soccer, but way cooler. It restarts play after a ball has gone out of bounds on the sideline. This is called "into touch." Some or all of the forwards for both teams line up perpendicular to the touchline, at least 5 meters and no more than 15 meters away. There must be gap of one meter between them. The team throwing in calls a play, and big tall guys run around and are lifted by their massive thighs high into the air. They could drop a basketball into the hoop from the height of their jump. The hooker throws the ball in, over his head as in soccer, and not with one arm as in football, keeping it straight in the gap between the two lines. It is tapped off the top to the scrum-half, or caught and brought down to the ground, where teams often form mauls. Any interference with the player in the air results in penalty. Throws have to travel straight along the gap between the teams, and players must not close that gap.
Maul: Mauls often form after line-outs, or when a player with the ball is held up off the ground. His teammates bind onto him with their arms, and together as a pack they drive down the field. The opposing side, similarly bound together, attempt to stop the maul's forward motion. A maul must be entered from behind (heh again) not from the side, and if it turns, leaving a defender in front of the ball, he must disengage and enter from the correct side (this is called "through the gate"); if not, he is offside. The defending team must not purposely collapse a maul, which not only is dangerous, but will earn a penalty. If a ball becomes unplayable in a maul, a scrum is awarded to the defending team.
Free kick: Free kicks are awarded against a team that has committed a minor infraction. It is signified by the referee holding out a bent arm toward the team that will take the free kick. Unlike a penalty, if a free kick is kicked directly into touch, the kicking team will not receive the line-out. Again, free kicks are awarded for a number of violations: a put-in isn't straight; there's early engagement in the scrum; a hooker lifts his foot before the ball is put into a scrum; and other minor, random, and basically unimportant infractions. Free kicks are not that cool.
Tackle: A tackle, as one might expect, is fairly self-evident. A player running with the ball is tackled by a defender on the opposing team. After being tackled, the player with the ball must release it as close to immediately as possible. The tackler must roll away from the tackle or get back to his feet. In rugby, once your feet are off the ground, you are out of the play. If a tackled player doesn't release the ball, or the tackler doesn't release him or roll away, it is a penalty. Rugby tackles must be made below the neck and shoulders, and a player must attempt to hold on with his arms in the tackle. Spear tackles are also illegal. Ronnie Lott would not have enjoyed this portion of the laws.
Ruck: Unlike in American football, play does not stop after a tackle for 40 seconds of over-telestrated tedium. The players on each team rush to the spot of the tackle and form a ruck in an attempt to gain possession of the ball. They use their bodies either to shield the ball or push over it to get it to their side. When a player from each side has engaged over the ball, a ruck is formed. Other players may join in, but only from behind (yeah, we know)—"through the gate." Side entry is an offside penalty. Once the ruck is formed, the feet furthest back in the ruck form two parallel offside lines running across the field. Defending players not in the ruck must stay behind the back feet until a player (usually the scrum-half) is able to dig it out and either run or pass to continue open play. You may not intentionally lie on the ball to make it unplayable; you may not dive off your feet into a ruck; once in a ruck, you may not use your hands to try to get the ball; and you may not pull an unbound player (such as the scrum-half) into a ruck. All of these actions result in a penalty, and sometimes a guy punches you or steps on your face to let you know you've done wrong. Being in a ruck is much like being in the bottom of the pile in football, except without a helmet, facemask, or pads. It's pretty fun, really.
The lines on the field: A rugby field, to the uninitiated, can look like what's left over on the mirror after Lindsay Lohan passes out with a nosebleed. But all the random white lines have their purpose (although I suppose so do Ms. Lohan's), and I will attempt to explain them here. The try lines are like the goal lines in football. They run across the field where the end zone would be. The goal posts are on the try line, like in those old NFL Films clips. The dead ball lines form the back of the try zone, where the back of the end zone and the goal posts would be in modern football. The halfway line is halfway between the try lines, and marks each team's half of the field. Kick-offs are taken from here. The dotted lines that lie 10 meters on either side of the half line are called (creatively) the 10-meter lines; they mark where a kick-off must travel in order to be legal. The solid lines running across the field between the try line and the 10-meter lines are the 22-meter lines, and their functions will be explained in their own blurb. The dotted lines running parallel to the touch lines indicate the part of the field in which the line-out must take place. The sidelines are called touch lines, and indicate out of bounds. Any part of the ball or player touching the touchline is "in touch"—out of bounds.
Try: A try is rugby's touchdown. In fact, the word touchdown comes from rugby. In order to score a try, the player must not only cross the try line, he must actually touch the ball down in the try zone, with possession and downward pressure on the ball. It is not enough simply to cross the line. Because of the nature of the conversion kick, players, when they can, will attempt to run to the middle of the try zone and touch the ball down under the posts. A try is worth five points.
Conversion: The conversion, or conversion kick, is rugby's extra point. But way better. Instead of little dudes with one-bar facemasks kicking the ball just a handful of yards for one point, the conversion kick in rugby must be taken in a straight line back from where the try was touched down (hence all the running underneath the posts). This means that a try scored in the corner results in a conversion kick taken from an acute angle right on the touchline, which is super hard. The kicker has one minute to attempt the conversion kick, and kicks it from a tee, though he is allowed, should he so choose, to drop kick. The opposing team may run out toward the kicker in an attempt to block the kick after he has started his forward motion to the ball. This is distracting as hell and causes the kicker to move even a kick straight in front of the posts back a little farther, and kick it a little quicker. Because of the unpredictability of the spot and the difficulty of the kicks, a conversion kick is worth two points, as opposed to the one point of the NFL's wimpy little foregone conclusions.
Penalty: A penalty is a major infraction of the rules and can be anything from offside at the ruck to a high tackle, to collapsing a maul or a scrum to telling the referee what to go do to himself. It is indicated by ref's blowing his whistle and holding a straight arm toward the victimized team. Once a penalty has been awarded, a team's captain can choose from one of four options:
• Penalty kick for goal: When a penalty is committed within the range of a team's goal kicker, the captain will point to the posts, and his kicker will have a chance to kick the ball through the posts for three points. Usually a dude runs out with a water bottle and a tee, and the kicker looks very serious over the ball, but is really just letting all of the ladies check him out for a minute longer on the Jumbotron. If his kick goes over, his team will score three points and receive the kickoff. If not, the other team can either run it out, if they can field it, or have a 22-meter drop-out.
• Penalty kick for touch: If a team isn't too far from the posts, or wants more than three points and a bit of field position, it can opt to kick for touch. The ball will be punted into touch, and that team will get an offensive line-out where it crossed the touchline in the air. If touch is missed, the opposing team can play on.
• Scrum: If a team's big boys are dominating up front, the captain can choose to have an offensive scrum where the penalty was committed.
• Tap & go: If a team wishes to play on quickly, any player may tap & go. To do this, he grabs the ball and runs to the spot where the referee is holding his arm up. This is called the mark. Then he must drop the ball out of his hands onto his foot, kick it back up to himself, and catch it. Then play goes on. The offending team must be back 10 meters after the penalty, and if our man is quick enough, he can tap & go before his opponents have retreated, either running past their tired, surprised faces, or causing one of them to tackle him inside 10, thereby earning his team another penalty and an extra 10 meters.
The 22s: The 22-meter lines fill several important roles in a rugby match. Most importantly, they mark the border of where you can safely kick for touch from inside your own half. A kick to relieve pressure on your defensive end taken from behind the 22 and directly into touch gives your opponents a line-out from where the ball crosses the touch line. Any kick taken outside of the 22 that goes directly into touch without hitting the ground or another player results in a line-out back where the kick was taken. This is bad.
The 22s also mark the spot where play restarts after a ball has gone into your defensive try zone. It's like a touchback in football. If the other team kicks the ball and it rolls into your try zone, you may touch it down and your team has a drop kick from your 22 meter to restart play. A 22-meter drop-out also restarts play after a missed kick for goal has sailed through the try zone or into the stands.
Types of kicks: A team uses a variety of kicks out of hand (that is, in open play) at different times for different reasons:
• Punt: This is a kick that looks just like a punt in football. It can be either aimed straight out into touch, leaving play to be restarted from a line-out, or booted over the heads of the defenders into open space, changing the territorial game as in football. Spiraling punts of over 70 meters are not uncommon.
• Up & under: This is a kick high into the air that is meant to be chased. A player will drop the ball on its end onto his boot and kick it over the defensive line, chasing it down along with his other players and attempting to retrieve it upon its descent. It's a bit like throwing an alley-oop to yourself with your foot.
• Chip kick: Like a mini up & under. Many times, when an offensive player has broken through the line and has one or two men to beat, he'll drop the ball onto his boot and chip it over the defender's head, causing him to turn his back and chase it. It's a bit like dumping the puck down into the zone and getting it back onto your stick for a goal in hockey. Very Gretzky.
• Grubber: A grubber kick is booted end over end so that it skids along the ground and bounces up unpredictably to defenders. .
• Box kick (heh, etc.): This kick is made by a scrum-half when he is standing at the back of a ruck, usually to relieve pressure or gain territory. He grabs the ball, turns his back to his opponents, and kicks it over his shoulder, high into the air. It's pretty cool. Cooler than the kind of box kick you were thinking of.
Yellow card: A yellow card is awarded for a serious infraction such as a high tackle, spear tackle, not wrapping up in a tackle, or for repeated infractions. Unlike in soccer, where it's just a little warning from an overwhelmed ref being whined at by Europeans, a player who receives a yellow card must leave the pitch for 10 minutes, and his team plays a man down until he returns.
Sin bin: Rugby's penalty box, where a player who gets a yellow card must sit until his 10 minutes are up.
Red card: Same as in soccer. Given either for an egregious first offense, such as eye gouging or landing an actual punch, or for getting two yellow cards in one match. Your team will be down a man the rest of the game.
The jersey numbers of ruggers also indicate their position, sort of how a football player a number in the 80s is probably a wide receiver. The above diagram shows offensive and defensive alignment during a scrum (it also shows a bloody thumbprint). Here's a quick(ish) guide:
1. Loosehead prop: The props are affectionately referred to as "the fatties" and are usually the biggest of all the players on the field. The loosehead is the first man on the left in the front row of the scrum, with his head on the outside of his opposite number. Hence the name. A loosehead's job is to prop up the hooker as he hooks the ball. Hence the name again.
2. The hooker: Hooker is the position hardest to explain to your grandmother when you take up the game, for obvious reasons. Hookers play in the middle of the front row of the scrum, and when the ball is put in (see above), they hook the ball with their foot out to the back of their own scrum's No. 8, restarting play. The hooker is also almost always the player who throws the ball into the line-out.
3. Tighthead prop: The same general position as loosehead, except on the right side of the scrum, and with his head on the inside of the opposite loosehead. He too is bound to be a big boy.
4 & 5. Collectively referred to as "locks" or "second rows," Nos. 4 and 5 form the second row (novel) of the scrum by putting their arms around each other and their other arms in the shorts of the props in front of them, cramming their head between the legs of the props and the hooker. It's awkward. You can usually tell a lock by their horribly cauliflowered ears. They are generally the tallest of the forwards and usually jump for the ball in the line-out. Collectively, Nos. 1-5 form a group called the tight five, the engine of the forward pack and the rough equivalent of an offensive or defensive line in football. They are similar to linemen in sheer bulk and in their underappreciated willingness to do the hard work in the trenches.
6. Blindside flanker: Blindside scrums down on the outside of the locks, with an arm around their ribs, on the short side of the field during scrums. A flanker's job is to make as many tackles as he possibly can, covering as much ground as possible while doing it. The blindside or openside flanker is analogous to the strongside linebacker in football.
7. Openside flanker: Same position as No. 6 except he scrums down on the open side of the field. He would be equivalent to the weakside ‘backer. No. 7's cover the other team's speedy backs as they attempt to use their quickness and flair to matriculate the ball down the field. 7's are speedy too, but in the way that heat-seeking missiles are speedy.
8. The 8 man: The No. 8 is at the very tip of the upside-down man-triangle of the scrum. His job is to protect the ball at the back of the scrum while his scrum-half digs it out and gets play underway again. In open play, he has much the same job as the 6 and 7. The 6, 7, and 8 form a group called the back row, or the loose forwards, thus called because they are less bound into the scrum as are the tight five. Their job on the rugby field is that of the linebackers on a football team, except of course, they can carry the ball when their team has possession. Nos. 1 through 8 make up the forward pack. They are generally bigger, apocryphally dumber—I'm a hooker, and I just wrote "apocryphally"—and quite a bit uglier (no comment) than their glamorous teammates in the backs. They get their hands and their jerseys dirty, doing the hard work and sacrificing their bodies to keep or gain possession of the ball. If the backs are Tom Brady, the forwards are Dick Butkus.
9. Scrum-half: The scrum-half moves the ball around the field from the backs to the forwards, digging into scrums and rucks for their ball and distributing it by passing to backs and forwards. They are usually (kind of) small and almost always annoying little bastards. Along with the fly-half, they form the decision-making combination whose jobs most resemble that of the QB.
10. Fly-half: The fly-half is the Tom Brady/Joe Namath of a rugby team. Usually the best looking man on the park (see New Zealand No. 10 Dan Carter), he runs the line of speedy backs, calling plays and passing and kicking the ball from the back line behind the forwards. They are often also the goal kickers for their teams. So they are not only like QBs, but like the coolest field goal kickers you've ever seen. Like Sebastian Janikowski but skinnier and more sober.
11 & 14. Wingers: Like wideouts in football. Wingers linup on either end of the back line and use their speed (they're the fastest on the field) to run like hell up the side line and wait for the ball to come out to them so they can score a try and hog all the glory. Think Randy Moss. Straight cash, homey.
12 & 13. The inside and outside center: They're like a combination of a running back and a slot receiver. Standing outside the 10 they run the ball forward with strength and speed, and distribute it out to the wings.
15. Fullback: Most unlike their lead-blocking counterparts (you can't block in rugby anyway), they are the last line of defense on the field, and they also catch deep kicks and return some of their own. They're really more like a sweeper in soccer.