Rugby union is the closest sporting equivalent to a demolition derby. Why are they lifting each other up in the air? Why was that not a penalty for straight-up killing someone? Why am I hurting just watching it on TV?
Let’s get into it. Engage!
Two teams of 15 active players compete for territory in order to run past, through, and over their opponents in an effort to ground the ball inside the in-goal area, or to kick the ball through the uprights at the end of the field. Players tackle and drive through opponents to win or deny field position, and compete for the ball at stoppages in various ways. At the end of the game, the team with the most points wins!
You already know this: in rugby, there’s no forward passing. Players can only pass the ball backwards or laterally. In open play, the players arrange themselves in a horizontal line across the ground (similar to being at the line of scrimmage in American football), and the offense aims to pass the ball down the line to one another in order to find gaps in the defense. If the defense is playing tight, the ball-carrier might run straight into the opposition, using his or her strength to gain yards after contact to press forward. If the offense can maneuver the ball and their personnel so as to line up with a gap in the defense, a ball-carrier may scythe through the defense (a line break), and streak downfield toward the in-goal. Line breaks are very exciting:
The offense ideally aims to create an overlap, a numbers advantage on the wings where the offense can take advantage of an opportunistic 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 to run the ball through for a score. The defending team naturally tries to arrange themselves so as to impede the offense’s forward progress, playing a mix of man- and zone defense as required.
In open play, the offense must stay behind the ball-carrier, and any player downfield will be offside and may not interfere in the action. (If a player is caught in an offside position, play continues so long as they don’t affect play.) After each tackle, the defense must retreat to and start from behind an imaginary line running along the point at where the tackle was made, or is otherwise offside and cannot interfere in the play. Unlike in American football, play is mostly continuous and does not stop after a tackle.
In addition to not being able to pass forward, any forward movement of the ball caused by hand is a “knock-on”. If you fumble the ball forward, such that the ball touches your hand or arm and bounces forward, that’s a knock-on, unless you catch the ball before it hits the ground. The one exception: if you charge down an opposition kick, causing the ball to deflect forward off your hand or arm directly from the kick, that’s not an infringement, and you’re free to go get it and run it in for a score.
Defenders can tackle anywhere below the shoulders to bring an opponent to ground. Players must use their arms in a tackle—dangerous tackles, such as shoulder-charging and high contact, are not allowed. Getting tackled by a rugby player hurts.
To wildly oversimplify: traditionally, in open play, the bigger players usually operate in the middle of the ground and try to barge through each other, while the (comparatively) smaller players work the sidelines, aiming to pierce gaps in the defense. There are of course exceptions that see all sorts of titans occupy positions that were once limited to the more fleet-footed. For example, the great Jonah Lomu, the late New Zealand winger who is possibly the best-known rugby name to non-rugby folk after surging to prominence as a result of his dominance of the 1995 World Cup, was 6-foot-4, 262 pounds, and could sprint 100m in 10.8 seconds.
The main aim of rugby is to run the ball into the opponent’s in-goal (the rugby equivalent of the endzone), and touch any part of it on the ground, scoring a try. Carrying the ball across the line isn’t enough (unlike in American football), it must be grounded by the attacking team in the in-goal area. It’s not uncommon for one team to make it into the in-goal, only for the opponent to thwart their attempt to ground the ball. The goalposts are located at the front of the in-goal, and grounding the ball against a post will also count for a score. A try is worth five points.
A team can also earn a penalty try, where a player “probably would have earned a try but for foul play of an opponent” (such as repeated infringements in a maul or scrum, detailed below).
After a try is scored, the scoring team will attempt a conversion, which is essentially the same as the PAT in American football. The conversion kick must be taken in line with where the ball was grounded (at whatever distance from the goal the kicker feels is most advantageous), which is why tryscorers run around in the in-goal area in an attempt to ground the ball as close to the center of the goalposts as possible. A conversion is taken as a place kick off of a plastic tee, and is worth two points.
A penalty may be awarded for a number of infringements around the ground, and a kick for a penalty goal is taken at the site of the indiscretion as a place kick. A penalty goal is worth three points.
Finally, a dropped goal is scored when a player pops one through the uprights in general play. A dropped goal must be achieved by a drop-kick—that is, one where the kicker drops the ball onto the ground before striking it with the boot, and is worth three points.
In addition to passing and scoring, you need to understand four more main aspects of the game: the ruck, maul, scrum, and lineout.
After a player tackles an opponent to the ground in regular play, play continues, and a ruck may be formed. Immediately upon being brought to ground, a tackled player must release the ball—ideally rolling their body so as to have their back toward the opposing team, and placing the ball on the ground as far as possible behind him/her toward their teammates. The tackler must correspondingly release their opponent and (amidst the chaos) roll away from the tackled player, so that they do not interfere with the tackled player releasing the ball. (Alternatively, a tackled player might pass the ball before they hit the ground, an offload which can catch the defense by surprise and hit a teammate in good position to gain territory.)
Meanwhile, players from both teams sprint to the site of the crash, and while staying on their feet, can enter the fray, binding onto at least one other player, thus creating a ruck in an attempt to seal over the ball. The offense aims to shield the ball from the defense so that they may pick it up and pass it to continue play, while the defense tries to pilfer the ball by reaching over and grabbing it. Players joining a ruck can only do so through the gate—entering from directly downfield, and not from the side. All non-rucking players must stay behind the hindmost foot of each team’s last rucking player, or else is offside.
So, when a player is tackled to the ground, players from each team (usually two or three) will immediately beeline for the grounded players. The first offensive player to the ruck will enter straight down the middle, aiming ideally to arrive first, clear the tackler out of the way with a tackle of their own, and establish territory one or two steps beyond where their tackled teammate is lying. The second and third offensive players will aim to arrive just as quickly, bullocking any defenders out of the way and standing guard on the left and right, ideally right on top of the tackled player, so that the defense cannot get through to the ball. Conversely, the defense will try to arrive at the ruck first, right on top of the tackled players, so as to get close enough to steal the ball before the offense uses it. Rucking players get low while keeping their feet, tackling shoulder-and-arm-first. The best defensive teams will cause a lot of turnovers at the ruck, while the best offensive teams will limit them.
Penalties in a ruck can be awarded for (amongst other things): if a grounded tackled player doesn’t get rid of the ball (not releasing), if a grounded tackler competes to steal the ball (hands in the ruck) or does not get out of the way fast enough (not rolling away), going to ground in a ruck, joining a ruck from the side, falling on the ball when in an offside position (often referred to as “cynical play”), intentionally collapsing a ruck, or fooling the opposition into thinking that the ball has left the ruck.
Another way for teams to advance the ball downfield is through a maul. Superficially sort of similar to a scrum (to be discussed below), a maul occurs when a ballhandler is tackled by an opponent, and the ballhandler’s teammate(s) bind onto the ballhandler, while all players stay on their feet. At this point, when three players are involved, a maul is formed, and the offense attempts to use their collective strength to charge forward toward their in-goal, while the defense attempts to push back and thwart the offense. The ballhandler will (carefully) drop the ball off to a teammate at the back of the maul to carry while the maul progresses. Players from each team can join the maul in order to assist or impede its forward progress, but again only through the gate. Players dropping off a maul can rejoin it, but not from the side. A maul which gains forward momentum in favor of the offense is a rolling mall. This normally occurs where defensive players are overcome by the power and collective skill of the offense and lose their structure, with individuals falling away and having to rejoin the maul whilst losing territory. All non-mauling players must stay behind the hindmost foot of each team’s last mauling player, or else are offside.
Teams can send as many players as they wish to bind onto a maul, and it’s then a test of strength and (just as importantly) technique to collectively shuffle downfield. If an offense is making forward progress, why doesn’t the defense just send more and more and more players into the maul in order to stop them? Well, sending too many into a maul would leave that team outnumbered in the rest of the field, such that the offense might quickly end the maul and pass down the line to find a numbers advantage or physical mismatch for an easy score. An outmatched team might have to pick their poison against a maul attack.
If a maul does not make any forward progress five seconds after it has commenced, a scrum is ordered. Penalties in a maul can be awarded for (amongst other things): going to ground in a maul, intentionally collapsing a maul; dragging a player out of a maul, or fooling the opposition into thinking that the ball has left the maul.
The quintessential element of rugby, a scrum is ordered after a stoppage in play (usually a penalty), either automatically or at the choice of one team. From the position of the laws of the game and their interpretation, the scrum is seen as the most controversial feature of rugby, with few said to understand its mechanics and even fewer said to be qualified to referee it.
A scrum consists of eight players from each team brutally engaging in a straight-up test of strength and technique. Three rows of players form a 3-4-1 formation, with all eight having defined roles in the scrum. All rugby players wear the jersey number that corresponds to their position (thus, there is no retiring of numbers). The front row consists of a hooker (No. 2) in the middle, flanked on the left by a loose head prop (No. 1) and on the right by a tight head prop (No. 3). Front rowers are strong people, and they bind directly onto the opposition front row. The middle two in the second row are the locks (Nos. 4 and 5), who bind onto their front rowers’ thighs. The outside two in the second row are the blindside and openside flankers (Nos. 6 and 7 respectively), who bind onto the outside of the props. The scrum is backended by the No. 8, who usually binds onto the two locks, but may bind onto a lock and a flanker (possibly changing mid-scrum to add needed firepower on one side).
(The rest of the players, quickly: the scrum-half (No. 9) feeds the ball into the scrum and usually makes the first pass out of each ruck; the fly half (No. 10) is the team’s point guard, usually receiving that first pass from a ruck and often also being the team’s kicker; the left and right wings (Nos. 11 and 14) line up on the very outside and often get the last pass in a sequence to score a try; the inside and outside centers (Nos. 12 and 13) tackle and run down the middle; and the fullback (No. 15) hangs back as the last line of defense and to receive opposition kicks.)
With the scrum lined up and in position, the referee will call “Crouch!”, instructing front row to do so, then “Bind!”, instructing the opposition props to grab onto the back/shoulder of each other’s jersey, and then “Set!”, indicating that the front rows can come together when ready (they always do so immediately). The referee’s “Crouch! Bind! Set!” call replaced the old “Crouch! Touch! Pause… Engage!”, and, frankly, isn’t as cool. (By the way, if you are the proud owner of a good dog, teaching him/her how to perform a scrum is a lot of fun.)
So, the scrums drive into each other with a Simian grunt, and one team’s scrum-half (No. 9) feeds the ball directly into the middle (ha ha ha, yeah right) of the tunnel. That team’s hooker controls the ball with his/her foot, sending it back down the forest of legs to be controlled by the No. 8. A rugby scrum is the purest test of strength in all of sports, and a team with a collectively strong scrum will be able to walk the opposition down the field toward their in-goal, and/or coerce them into committing a penalty. (TV broadcasts often show a graphic of each team’s scrum’s collective weight to demonstrate who is likely to take control.) All non-scrumming players (aside from the two scrum-halves) must stay five meters behind the hindmost foot of each team’s last scrumming player (i.e., the No.8), or else is offside.
With so many moving parts in a scrum, it’s difficult even for referees and players to be able to determine when a scrum infringement has been committed and/or who which player or team is responsible. So, when watching on TV, I suggest you just yell “Oh, penalty! Sir!” with great indignation at every scrum to sound like you know what’s going on. Penalties can be awarded for causing the scrum to collapse, lifting or forcing an opponent upwards, a prop turning in on the opposing prop or hooker (“boring in”), handling the ball in a scrum, or fooling the opposition into thinking that the ball has left the scrum.
When the ball goes out of bounds over the sidelines (“into touch”) or a player handles the ball while out of bounds, play is usually restarted by way of a lineout. The two teams form parallel lines perpendicular to the sidelines, and one player (usually a hooker) throws the ball two-handed overhand directly down the middle (ha ha ha, righto) of the two lines, where players can lift their teammates up in the air to compete to control the ball. The throwing team can adjust the throw of the ball short or long, and engage in some deceptive pre-throw positioning, to try to give themselves an advantage in winning the lineout.
After one team controls the ball from the lineout, normal service is resumed. Teams winning a lineout close to their in-goal often transition directly from catching the lineout into a maul in order to earn a try.
Players can kick the ball in any direction for various strategic purposes. Sometimes, a long kick downfield achieves a similar purpose as in American football—to clear the ball out of defensive territory. Sometimes, when a team is pressing close to the opposition in-goal, they may kick the ball along the ground through the defense, or kick it high in the air, for themselves or a teammate to catch and hopefully put across the line for a try. Players may also soccer the ball off the ground in open play to get it to a more advantageous position.
A team might also kick the ball into touch. If it’s kicked in general play and it bounces over the sideline, the lineout is taken where the ball crossed the sideline. If it’s kicked out on the full, the lineout is taken either where the ball crossed the sideline (if it was kicked from within the defensive 22-yard line), or in line with where the kick was taken (if kicked from outside the 22). A team may boot a penalty kick into touch if they are too far out to score or want to go for a try, and they then take a lineout where the ball went into touch.
Games last for two halves of 40 minutes each, with overtime of two 10-minute periods if necessary. However, in each half, if the ball is not dead when 40 minutes is reached, play continues until it becomes dead—that is, the attacking team continues their attack (perhaps for several minutes) until scoring, giving away a penalty, or kicking the ball out of bounds. If there is a turnover without the ball going dead, play continues.
There is one referee, plus two touch judges/assistant referees, and (in professional matches) a Television Match Official (TMO) to review difficult calls. Rugby is traditionally referred to as a gentleman’s game, and the players are more or less respectful to the referee (by convention referred to as “Sir”), and to each other.
The field measures 70 meters wide and 100 meters goal line-to-goal line. Players do not wear substantial protective gear other than a mouthguard and optional soft-shell helmet or padding. They sub more or less on the fly, answering soccer-style number cards calling for the appropriate substitutions. Players subbed off cannot usually rejoin the match, except in the case of wounding or injury.
You’ve heard about the sin bin: a player who repeatedly infringes the rules, or makes a fairly serious infringement, is shown a yellow card and sent off, without being able to be replaced, for 10 minutes. A second yellow card, or a very serious infringement, results in a red card and being kicked out of the game for good.
The Global Context
Rugby is played in nations all over the world. The pinnacle of the sport are the men’s and women’s World Cups, held every four years. New Zealand’s men’s team (the All Blacks) have won the last two World Cups, and their dynasty is without a doubt one of the greatest teams in the history of sport. England’s women are the defending champions heading into this year’s World Cup in Ireland.
The most prominent rugby nations come from all over: the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland), Oceania (New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa), southern Africa (RSA, Namibia), western Europe (France, Italy), Asia (Japan), South America (Argentina). Professional leagues exist all over the world, with the biggest money competitions being Premiership Rugby in England, the Top 14 in France, and Super Rugby, which features 18 teams based in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and (since 2016) Argentina and Japan.
Teams across the world play with vastly different styles, with the weather having a lot to do with it—in dry weather teams are more free to run and play free-flowing rugby with long passes, while in pouring rain the game is more ground-bound, with emphasis on forward-driven rugby. Rugby fans speak of different styles being related to the half of the globe in which the game is being played, so, next time you’re watching a game at the pub, whenever something—anything!—happens, I suggest turning to the nearest Guinness-drinking patron and solemnly announcing “that’s some good Northern Hemisphere rugby, that is.” And bam, you’re a rugby expert.
Oh! You’ve all been waiting to see the haka. Here it is!
Man, that’s good stuff. The other Pacific Island teams also do their own performances before each match (in many sports, not just rugby): Samoa perform the Siva Tau, Tonga perform the Sipi Tau, and Fiji perform the Cibi.
The Complete Guide to Understanding Rugby League
Rugby league is also a terrific sport. Rugby union (“rugby”) and rugby league (“league”), are completely different sports, but since from a teleological point of view they differ in only a few major respects, as much as I would love to, league won’t get a separate write-up. Consider this section the Common Article 3 of rugby league explainers.
League players must still pass backwards, have 13 on each team, and likewise aim to touch the ball down in the in-goal for a try. Tries are worth four points, conversions two points, penalty kicks two points, and drop goals in open play one point.
When a tackle brings a player to ground, no ruck is formed. The tackler rolls away, the ballhandler stands up and rolls the ball backwards with the bottom of his/her foot to a teammate, and play immediately continues. At the same time, all defenders except two must immediately retreat to 10 meters back from where the tackle was made (or to the goal line) before participating in the next play, or else are offside (whereas in rugby, the offside line is at the point of the tackle).
In addition, in each offensive drive, the offense gets only six tackles in which to advance the ball, in a similar manner to American football teams getting four downs to gain 10 yards. In rugby league, though, the downs are not reset by gaining territory—the six phases are all they get, regardless of their forward advancement. Like in American football, league players will often kick to gain territory on their last tackle, rather than turn the ball over on downs, and like in rugby, that kick may be either to gain territory or to set up an opponent for a try.
There are no mauls or lineouts, and although the rules provide for the taking of scrums, in the modern game teams always opt for an uncontested scrum, kicking the ball back into open play immediately.
Rugby league is played professionally in Australia, Canada, England, France, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Wales, with a men’s and women’s World Cup every four years. Australia’s National Rugby League holds an annual State of Origin series—a mid-season three-game series between the league’s best players hailing from the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales. It’s a roughly equivalent concept to American sports’ All-Star games, with the crucial exception that because of its history, to many fans (and even players), it’s even more important and prestigious than the actual season itself. It’s a goddamn war, one of the best fixtures on the sporting calendar every year. Here’s a representative clip for you all to watch, chosen totally at random, showing no bias whatsoever.
I hope you enjoyed this tour through rugby, the most savage gentleman’s game in the world. Strap up your head wounds and get watching.
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes rugby.