The Solution To Football Withdrawal Is On Your Television This Weekend: A Guide To Rugby Sevens

For a certain brand of American sports fan, this has to be the worst weekend in sports. The NFL season is over, the NBA has hit its mid-schedule doldrums, and hockey is being played somewhere, we think.

For those of you who are having trouble adjusting to life without football—clutching the remote in your trembling hands, muttering in broken Phil Simms-ese—I am here to offer something of a reprieve from the misery: the USA Rugby Sevens, which air at 4 p.m. ET on NBC this Saturday and Sunday. I am fairly certain that you have no idea what that means. It's OK, just trust me: this is an intervention.

Wait, what? What is this, it looks like...football? But it's not football. WHAT IS IT?

You're fine. We love you. We all love you. It's not football. It's rugby. We love rugby. You can, too.

Rugby. Rugby?

Rugby. More accurately, it's the USA Rugby Sevens in Las Vegas.

Rugby? Sevens? I don't understand.

OK. You've heard of rugby, right? Good. Well, this is Rugby Sevens. Unlike its big brother, Rugby Union, it's played with seven men per side, rather than 15.

This is like rugby's version of 3-on-3 basketball. Sevens is a shorter, faster, more athletic and (slightly) less brutal form of the game. Instead of two 40-minute halves, they play two seven-minute halves with a minute break in between. But they play on the same size pitch—slightly bigger than a football field—so there's plenty of space for the action.

OK. But why is it on my TV?

You haven't heard? Rugby Sevens is the newest Olympic Sport. NBC has a few billion dollars tied up there, and wants to give America's fastest growing sport some exposure ahead of Rio 2016.

But why don't they just play regular rugby?

USA is the two-time defending Gold Medalist in Rugby Union (in 1920 and 1924, if we must get exact), but 15s is simply too brutal to play an entire tournament in the course of the Olympics. The Rugby World Cup takes more than a month to complete for this very reason. It'd be like trying to go from the NFL Wild Card round to the Super Bowl in a single weekend. People would die. But you can play an entire Sevens tournament in a weekend. Which is exactly what they're doing right now, in Vegas.

OK, whatever. But now it's starting and they're kicking and running and it's confusing. What's happening? I'm scared.

It's OK, buddy. Breathe. Here, have a beer. It's the kickoff, just like in football. See? But instead of kicking from a tee at the 35, play starts with a drop kick. The fly half drops the ball and can kick it only once it bounces on the ground. The kick must go 10 meters in the air, and then play begins.

So the guy caught the kickoff and got tackled, but the play didn't stop. Why not?

That's rugby, man. Play doesn't stop when someone gets tackled. That Greco-Roman looking stuff that's happening over the ball? That's called a ruck. When a player gets tackled, he must release the ball once he's on the ground. Then, the tackler must release him. Then there's a contest between one or more player on each team to gain/retain possession of the ball—that's the ruck. The rucking players must stay on their feet, and they can't put their hands in to take the ball. Another player who is not bound in the ruck passes the ball out to their teammates in the backline. Repeat.

There's offside in rugby, right?

Yup. Good work. When a ruck is formed, two parallel offside lines form across the field through the last (hindmost) foot of both sides of the ruck. No player not engaged in the ruck can cross this line until the ball leaves the ruck.

What happens if they do?

Then it's an offside penalty. When there's a penalty in rugby, a team has four options:

  • If they are close enough, they may opt to drop kick for a field goal. That's worth three points, just like in football. The kick is taken from the spot of the penalty.
  • They may also kick the ball out of bounds into touch. We'll get to that.
  • They may ask for a scrum. We'll get to that, too.
  • Or, they may tap and go. That means they drop the ball onto their foot, kick it back up to themselves, and get on with the action. This will happen the majority of the time in Sevens action. There's not enough time to waste on the other shit.

Now they're running around and lateral-ing it to each other. Ooh! I know this one. No forward passes in rugby, right?

Exactly right. No Flacco-level QBs here. Only kicks go forward. The ball can only move backwards out of the hand. It can't even bounce off of your hands and go forward. That's a knock-on. A forward pass or a knock-on results in a scrum, with the put-in going to the non-offending team.

Wait, I thought scrums were gnarlier than this. These scrums suck. Where are all the huge guys who could pass for O-linemen?

The scrum is different in Sevens. In 15s, the forward pack is made up of two sets of eight guys. Scrums in Sevens are made up of front rows only, with three guys from each team. Once the referee says, "crouch, touch, set," the Sevens scrums kind of lean into each other, instead of smashing into each other with a 16-man grunt. The scrum half puts the ball under the hooker's foot, who hooks it back to the scrum half, and play resumes. The result is quicker and safer. There's nary a broken neck to be found.

Yeah, I heard the ref do the "Crouch, touch..." thing. What's up with that?

The referees are miked up the whole game. Listen to him, you might learn something.

He's miked up? What about F-bombs?

Rugby is a gentleman's game, son.

But everyone I knew who played rugby in college was a huge drunken douche.

Rugby in the states is burdened with its Fratty-Light reputation, but these guys are professional athletes and future Olympians—not preppy lax bros in short shorts. I mean, sure, you'll have the occasional dwarf-tossing spree or naked drunken rampage, even at this level. Rugby players just like beer. OK?

Fine by me. Got another one of those? Thanks. Oh, shit! Someone just ran into the end zone. Why is he still running around? He broke the plane! And why is he touching the ball down on the ground?

That's a try, which is rugby's touchdown. There's no breaking the plane. The ball is live. To score, you've got to actually touch the ball down in the try zone (rugby's end zone). Each try is worth five points. And he's running around because the conversion kick (the extra point, but worth two) is taken in a line straight back from where the ball is touched down. If you can, you want to touch the ball down as near to the goal posts as possible to help out your kicker.

That was awesome. But where's the holder? Or a tee?

Don't need 'em. In Sevens, all kicks for goal (conversions and penalties) must be drop kicks—unlike in 15s, where you can use a tee. This makes it even more important to touch down as close to the sticks as you can. Drop kicks are hard.

You can drop a goal from anywhere on the field during open play as well. It's worth three points. Don't expect to see a lot of these in Sevens, unless it's near the end of a game and the score is within three.

It's halftime. Anything else I need to know?

Let's see. What's left? Oh, that funny looking throw-in? That's a lineout. When the ball goes out of bounds ("into touch"), play resumes with a lineout. If your team kicks the ball out, the other team gets the throw.

In Sevens, lineouts are made up of three men. The two groups of three line up parallel to each other and perpendicular to the touchline, with a meter gap in between. Then the ball is thrown into the meter-wide channel between them. Two guys will lift the third into the air. He'll catch the ball, throw it back down to his teammate (the scrum half, usually) and play resumes again.

Another game just started. This is really wide open. It's like street rugby.

A little bit. Like I said, Sevens is played with half the guys on the same size field. There's space everywhere. It's like when Adrian Petersen gets into the secondary, but all the time, and without stopping. The speed and stamina required in Sevens is just amazing. It's like football with just running backs, receivers and d-backs. That's why a guy like Carlin Isles—

Yeah, hold up. Who is this Carlin Isles guy NBC is slobbering on about? What's his deal?

Watch that video. That is Carlin Isles, "the fastest man in world rugby." He's an American, and he's supposed to be the next big thing in the sport. Isles ran track and played football at Division II Ashland University. He had a shot at the US Olympic Track team—he runs a 4.1 40 and a 10:13 100—but quit before the trials and took up rugby. Three months after making the team, Isles scored a try in the first minute of his first game—against New Zealand.

Why aren't these guys actually tackling? I want to see some shoulder-charging, dementia-inducing, CONCUSSION SMASHES!

Them's the rules. The shoulder charge is illegal and has been forever. Even rugby's back-alley cousin, rugby league, has outlawed them. Tacklers must hit below the neck, and wrap up with both arms. Failure to do so results in a yellow card. Football could learn a thing or two here.

There are cards? Like in soccer? That's lame. They don't mean shit, right?

Wrong. A yellow card (given for foul play, like illegal tackles) sends the offender off the field, and his team plays a man down for two minutes. It's called the Sin Bin. Red cards take you out for the game.

The cameras keep showing the crowd. It looks pretty nuts. Why is everyone dressed up? Are they drunk?

Yes, they are most likely drunk. The Sevens Series is the globe-trotting Mardi Gras of rugby. In Vegas there will be ex-pat rugby fans from all over the world, and dressing up is de rigueur. Just don't be this guy.

Noted. So this is fun. But I'm American. I like winning. Are we going to win?

You never know, but probably not. We did pretty well last weekend in Wellington, upsetting eventual winners England in pool play. But we didn't come close to winning, and we're next to last out of 16 teams this year.

That said: we're at home, we've got this Carlin Isles guy, and it's Sevens. Anything could happen. Unlike 15s, Sevens is unpredictable, and USA Rugby has never been stronger.

So who will win? New Zealand is good at rugby right? Will they do that war dance thing?

It's called the haka. And yeah, New Zealand is good. New Zealand is always good, and they'll be pissed off after losing last week. They could win. The Pacific Island nations are perennial Sevens powers as well. Look out for Fiji and Samoa. They play fast, physical, powerful rugby. And if an island nation wins, they very well might celebrate with a haka. Hakas are awesome.

Speaking of Pacific Islanders, I only come to Deadspin for Manti Te'o news. Will he be there?

He's probably hiding under a cardigan somewhere. But there will be a huge Islander contingent. Lennay Kekua was here last year. I know because she tweeted about it.

I'll be keeping an eye out for her, Manti and any and all Tuiasosopos.

Football is dead. Long live rugby. Enjoy the Sevens, everyone!

SEE ALSO: A Rugby Glossary & Position Guide