The gentle art of Rugby Union

An old rugby adage holds that Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. I believe it is usually preceded by Football is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, which highlights the rivalry that exists between the two sports.

I do not wish to indulge in a long history of the sport, but rather would like to focus on how the game is played. Perhaps the history will be added at a later stage, or perhaps by another.

Playing Rugby: What do you Need?

  • 1 Size 5 rugby ball.
    Rugby balls are oval and can be made of leather (traditionally) or rubber.

  • 14 friends plus you makes 15

  • A 100m x 70m field, with a pair of H-shaped uprights on each end. Some markings on the field would be useful.

    Parallel to the 70m sides, symmetrically, from the middle:
    • A centre line. Duh.
    • A dotted line 10m away.
    • 12m away, the "22".
    • 25m away, the "try line".
    • The extremity of the field forms the "dead ball line".

    Parallel to the 100m sides, there are only two lines: a dotted line 5 metres in.

  • A referee is a very useful addition. Often the ref is the only person who knows where the ball is.

  • Finally, some opposition helps occasionally.
    Though team runs do occasionally go much better without any.

Putting together your Players

You're going to need all fifteen. You might want to get some more people to be subs. The fifteen positions you need to fill are as follows:


  1. Loosehead Prop
  2. Hooker
  3. Tighthead Prop
  4. Lock
  5. Lock (yip, another one)
  6. Blind side Flanker
  7. Open side Flanker
  8. Number 8

  9. Backs

  10. Scrum half
  11. Fly half
  12. Left wing
  13. Inside centre (Oh yes, Baby, note that "re". This is an English game.)
  14. Outside centre
  15. Right wing
  16. Full back

Useful Terminology


A scrum is a set piece that is brought into play after a series of small infringements. The team that did not commit the infringement gets to put the ball into the scrum.

The scrum is formed by grouping together the forwards in a set structure. The front row, comprising the two props and the hooker, followed by the second row pair of the locks, and finally the back row, loose forward trio of the two flankers and the number 8.

The scrum half feeds the ball into the scrum and the hooker strikes his foot to hook it back. The number 8 or, less frequently, one of the flankers, will control the ball at the back of the scrum with their foot and then either pick it up themselves, or let the scrum half retrieve it and pass it to the fly half.


A try is a score of five points (formerly three, also briefly four), which results when one of the players places the ball down beyond the opposing team's goal line.

It is not enough simply to carry the ball over the line. Downward pressure is required. Occasionally the opposing team will get a hand under the ball and prevent the opposing team from grounding the ball. The referee will then award a 5-metre scrum to the attacking team.

Mortice informs me that formerly a try scored half a point, a whole point being made up with the conversion, hence the term "try" -- a try at goal.


A penalty is awarded for a more serious infringement. The penalty is usually kicked, though you can now ask for a penalty scrum. Where an infringement has prevented the otherwise certain scoring of a try, a penalty try will be awarded. The team receiving the penalty (i.e. the team that did not commit the infringement) has three choices:

  1. a quick tap, where the ball is gently kicked back into the holder's hand
  2. a shot at goal (those H-shaped uprights), which netts three points if converted
  3. kicking for touch. Usually the team that did not kick out, or touch the ball last before it went out, gains the throw-in at the lineout. However, in the event of a penalty, the team that kicked out retains possession for the throw-in.

The General Idea

You want to score as many tries as you can. To do this you must put the ball down over the other team's goal line. Very rarely this is performed in one phase or movement. Once you've scored a try, any member of the team, usually a back (players 11-15), may have a shot at goal. If successful (over the cross), the conversion counts as two points.

The game begins with one player kicking the ball from the centre line. It must travel 10 metres (i.e. over the 10 metre line), or else the opposing team is awarded a scrum in the centre of the field. After the kick-off, the receiving team do their best to secure the ball, while the attacking team chase up. About 70% of the time, the receiving team wins the ball off the kick-off.

The first contact situation will happen when the receiver of the ball either takes the ball in themselves, or passes onto a ball carrier, who is a suitably built ramrod. The person in possession of the ball will be tackled and will do their best to make the ball available to their teammates. The basic ways of doing this are:

  • Go to ground and set up a ruck
    Drop to the deck making sure that you lie facing your own team. Put the ball down on your team's side of you and let go (unless you want to concede a penalty).

  • Stay on your feet and let your teammates form a maul
    Hit into the tackler with your shoulder, then turn and face your team while remaining on your feet. They will then bind onto you and push you into the direction of the opposing try line. One of them will rip the ball from you and push it to the back of the maul.

  • Passing the ball to a teammate, just before you get munched is not a good idea.
    It's likely that your teammate is in a worse position to you (your pass would be a hospital pass) or else simply not expecting you to pass, meaning that you lose the ball.

Assuming that the opposing team didn't steal the ball or that you didn't knock on (drop the ball forwards), your Scrum Half should retrieve the ball from the back of the ruck or maul. The Scrum Half will usually pass to the Fly Half who now has three general options:

  1. Pass
    The Fly Half may pass to another back and execute a back line move or else to a forward who acts as a forward runner.

  2. Kick
    Tactical kicks over the heads of the opposition when they have all moved up into a single defensive line can work. Alternatively, when deep within your own half, you may want to kick for touch to move play downfield.

  3. Go themselves
    This is the riskiest, as the Fly Half will need to communicate with the rest of the team to ensure that they get support. Usually the Fly Half only goes themselves if they see a juicy gap in the opposition's defensive line, and can usually rely on the Scrum Half being there with a greedy back waiting for a glory pass that puts them over the try line.

A few No-No's

Do not:

  • Try to pick up the ball or hold onto the ball when you're lying on the ground, unless there is no member of the opposition anywhere near you.
  • Shoulder-charge, or tackle somebody without wrapping your arms around them.
  • Tackle somebody above the armpits.
  • Hit anybody when the ref is looking. Particularly not if you're England captain.
  • Pass the ball forwards.
  • Forget to apply downward pressure to the ball once you're over the try line.

A note on Safety

Rugby is a contact sport. Injuries are expected. A lot can be done to mitigate the injuries that occur, and minimise the number of injuries.

The majority of rugby injuries occur early in the season. This is because your body gets hard as the season goes along. Early in the season, at training, you will bruise at the slightest bump. Later in the season, your body gets used to it and you don't bruise unless you get severely rucked. Do not play in a match if you are not match fit.

Wear protective gear. Headgear, shoulder pads, mouth guards and shin guards are not for wussies. They're to help you to play every game of the season. They are comfortable, give you confidence and preserve your looks. Interestingly, the IRB does not recommend head gear and shoulder pads for children, because they are concerned that the added confidence afforded by not getting hurt in a tackle will make the little ones overconfident and possibly gung-ho.

One of the best features of the game of rugby is that it caters for every shape and size. If you're short and fat you can be a Prop. Tall and slow, play at Lock. Short and quick, Scrum Half, please. Thin and fast but not very strong? Wing. Play in a position that suits your build.

Rugby is a physical game. At adult level, play in a league that matches your ability and fitness. If you're too good, you'll injure people. If you're not that good, you'll get injured.

Blood, Sweat and Beers

Gentle noder, you've made it this far, you're doing well. So why should you play? Is all this pain worth it? HELL YES! Rugby culture is the allure.

Imagine a gathering of a motley crew of fifteen to twenty-two people of different shapes and sizes, with different roles to play, who work together as a unit. Rugby is about teamwork, relationships, togetherness. This is no 45-minute squash or racket ball game in the gym on the way home. Rugby takes up your afternoon and all of your evening too. A night out in the pub, reliving the highs and lows on the field, is not optional.

It's more than a game, it's a way of life.

Mortice says one referee I've played with has even called a 'penalty restart' - instead of a dropkick to restart the game, it's a penalty kick. Bizarre.

Mortice would like to see something on the myriad ways of being offside, but this node is intended to be an idiot's guide to rugby. The offside rule could be a writeup all of its own. Hint hint.

For Byzantine, who asked me to teach him how to play.

Thanks to Mortice and Teiresias for their helpful suggestions =)

Being offside can happen for a number of reasons.

I'm writing this at the end of my first season of rugby, playing at lock (often called Second Row, as you are in the second row of the scrum) for my high school club team, so bear with me if I omit anything.

Like football, there is a line of scrimmage in Rugby - well, more accurately, two lines of scrimmage, one for the offense and one for the defense. If you're on offense, the line of scrimmage can be one of two things, depending on where the ball is. If the ball is in the hands of one of your teammates, the line of scrimmage is that player. You have to be behind the player with the ball, and since, in order to make a legal pass, you must be passing behind you, after one makes a pass they generally slow down, while someone recieving a pass speeds up to burst past the other player and "get him onside."

The other line of scrimmage for the offense exists only when the ball has been kicked by one of your teammates. In that case, the line of scrimmage is the guy who kicked the ball - even when the other team catches it. So if you're near your goal line and make a stop, your team winding up with the ball, and your fly half kicks it downfield to give your team some breathing room but misses the kick for touch (meaning he was intending to kick the ball out of bounds without having it bounce inbounds first, which, when kicking after a penalty, awards a line out to your side where the ball first went out and always gives your side breathing room), and the other team catches it, your fly half must then sprint from where he is to the very front of your line, so that everyone is behind him. Once everyone is behind him, the line of scrimmage is the opposition with the ball. If you were to make a tackle while you were in front of the guy who kicked the ball, then as soon as play got slow a scrum with advantage to the opposition would be awarded near where the tackle was made (or not, depending on the rules you're playing by - these are men's high school rules I'm going off of).

For the defense, the line of scrimmage is the ball, unless one of your teammates has made a tackle. In that case, the line of scrimmage is the back foot of the defender who made the tackle. In order to get in on a ruck or maul you must be bound in with your teammate, which basically means tackle him as well as the guy on the other team. Otherwise you have to make yourself ready off to one side of the action, behind the back foot of the ruck or maul, which is known as fringing.

When a ruck happens, the opposition has gone to ground and presented the ball to his teammates. You don't want them to get the ball. In this case, you can knock them off the ball thus moving your team's line of scrimmage over the ball in a process known as rucking over. Usually two guys ruck over, and to do so, you simply pick up some speed and hit the guy on the other team who's either:

a. being stupid and going for the ball or

b. trying to ruck you over so his team's scrumhalf can safely get the ball out to the backs.

So long as you've wrapped up on the guy, you can push to your heart's content. This is what really forms the ruck and the ruck is the line of scrimmage - because if you're the forward most defender and you're involved in the ruck, after you're past the ball, the ball is behind your line of scrimmage, see?

Its my understanding that you can't enter a ruck or maul from the side, that's offsides. You must enter from the back of your side of the ruck or maul. That's why, when you watch rugby, if the maul isn't goin anywhere one of the guys on the side will unbind, back up, pick up some speed and knock into the rear again - he's being pushed out and offsides.

I hope this covers most of the offsides issue in Rugby! Or at least, what I understand as rugby.

Rugby, a town in Warwickshire, England; 83 miles N.W. of London and 30 E.S.E. of Birmingham. At the foot of the hill on which it stands the river Swift gave Wyclif's ashes to the Avon; close by at Ashby and at Dunchurch the Gunpowder Plot was hatched; the battlefield of Naseby was viewed by Carlyle from its school house in 1842, a few days before Arnold's death; it is within a drive of Stratford-on-Avon, Coventry, Kenilworth. It is at once the center of a great hunting district and the seat of a world-famous public school. This probably accounts for the large number of residential houses there. The school was founded in 1567 by Lawrence Sheriff, a grocer and a staunch supporter of Queen Elizabeth, by a gift of property in Manchester Square, London. After maintaining its position for some time as a good school for the Warwickshire gentry and a few others, specially under Dr. James and Dr. Wool, it became of national reputation under Dr. Arnold, who in raising his school raised at the same time the dignity of his whole profession. Since his time the school has never lacked able teachers, remarkable for independence of mind.

Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

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