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Rugby Basics

Rugby as it exists today is one of the most exciting contact sports in existence, a perfect mix of the speed and movement of soccer and the hard
hitting physical nature of American football. The Rugby World cup is the third most watched sporting event in the world, trailing close behind the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics. While Americans love our football, the rest of the world loves their rugby. Indeed, the 2003 World Cup had a collective audience of over 3.5 billion, and was broadcast in 205 different countries. Maybe it’s time
we Americans see what all the fuss is about. There are two main styles of play, known as Rugby Union and Rugby League.

Field & Equipment

A rugby ball is most similar to an American football in size and shape, although it is larger and most modern versions have no laces. As far as personal equipment goes, there really isn’t much. A mouthpiece is mandatory in regulation play, and there is an optional soft-padded head gear known as a scrum cap, the main purpose of which is the protection of the pack player’s ears in the scrum. Scrum caps are very similar to the old leather helmets of American football. Known as the pitch, a rugby playing field is a large grassy surface 100 meters long and 70 meters wide with uprights on each end. Behind the uprights is the goal area, which has to be 10 meters deep at minimum and is usually 22
meters in depth.

Players & Positions

Two teams are represented on the pitch, with 15 players per side. The players on a team are broken down into two separate groupings, the pack and the backs.Generally speaking, the pack consists of larger, more physical players who are equivalent to defensive lineman in American football. The backs are usually the faster, more maneuverable players comparable to the backfield and receivers in American football. Jersey numbers 1-8 represent pack players, and 9-15 are the backs. The diagram below illustrates the breakdown of the fifteen separate
positions on the field of play:

Game Play

Rugby game play is not terribly complicated; however, it is extremely confusing to many who are unfamiliar with the game. This can be attributed to the fact that while it does share similarities with other sports, it is vastly
different from the other games we try to compare it to (namely soccer and American football). Unlike soccer, carrying the ball is legal, which in many ways makes it more similar to football. However, unlike football, there are no forward passes allowed in rugby, and match play is only stopped for penalties, not between every play. A regulation length match lasts for 80 minutes broken down into two 40 minute halves with a 10 minute break during halftime. The clock constantly runs and play only stops during the match for penalties. Essentially, the average rugby player is constantly in motion.

Objective of the Game

The objective of rugby is to score goals, known as a try, by touching down the ball inside the opposing team’s try zone. Any player may carry the ball and is capable of scoring. A try is worth 5 points, after which a conversion kick is awarded, allowing for the chance to score 2 additional points if successful. There are also other means of scoring, the first being a drop goal. This occurs when a player kicks the ball through the opposing team’s uprights during play, and is worth 3 points. In order for the drop goal to count, the ball must make contact with the ground before being kicked (essentially dropped then kicked, making it a difficult maneuver). A penalty kick can also be granted for certain penalties, allowing for a free kick from the site of the infraction (as long as it is behind the 22 meter line). The penalty kick is also worth 3 points.


At the start of the match and immediately following halftime, there is a kickoff from the 50 meter line. Who kicks off is decided by a coin toss before match play begins. A kickoff also occurs after a team scores a try. This is another area where rugby differs from American football; rugby is make it, take it, with the scoring team receiving the following kickoff.

Ball Movement

Upon receiving the kick, players will attempt to advance the ball up the field either by running, passing, or kicking. Any player can run the ball; however, teammates are not allowed to block defenders from tackling the ball
carrier, and it is illegal to use your teammates as a shield when carrying the ball. Passing is allowed, but the player you are passing to must be behind you
on the field of play. Laterals and forward passes result in penalties. Finally, it is sometimes advantageous for the ball carrier to kick the ball over the defense, allowing themself or another teammate to run it down or receive it (it is acceptable to receive your own or a teammate’s kick).

The Ruck

Let’s assume at this point that the ball carrier is tackled by the defense. What forms out of this is known as the ruck. While being tackled, the ball carrier will attempt to roll so that his back is facing the defense and will shield the ball with his body. All this must be simultaneous with the tackle, as a player on the ground is not allowed to guard or handle the ball at all with their hands. While the tackled player is shielding the ball, pack players from his team (usually 2 or 3) will move over him in an attempt to keep the defense away from the ball, which anyone can take at this point. Assuming the defense has not recovered the ball, another offensive player, usually the scrum half, will come in, retrieve the ball, and pass it out to the backs, allowing play to continue.

The Scrum

As play continues, let’s assume there is a penalty. Depending on the violation, the opposing team is presented with options from the official. Many penalties result in the other team being awarded a scrum. A scrum is the most recognizable of the rugby formations, and you have likely seen pictures of it before. It is a set play in which both team’s pack players bind themselves together to form three rows each (3 men, then 4 men, then 1 man). With both teams having created this formation, the two masses face each other and lock shoulder, with a tunnel naturally being created between the front rows. At the official’s signal, the two teams drive against each other and the ball is thrown into the tunnel by the offensive scrum half. The object is then to drive the opposite team off the ball, carrying the ball underneath your own team (no hands allowed) and into the hands of the scrum half, who is now there awaiting it. Assuming this is successful, the ball is the passed out to the backs and play

The Maul

By now the team with the ball is threatening to score. A player receives a pass and drives through several defenders, drawing very near to the try zone. Before he can enter and touch down the ball, however, he is hit by several defenders. But instead of going to the ground, he retains his footing, turning his back on the defenders who are attempting to tackle him and starts effectively shielding the ball. What is happening can now be referred to as a maul. Essentially, a maul is a standing, mobile version of a ruck. Offensive pack players will now rush in and bind onto the ball carrier, driving him forward in an effort to continue to gain ground. While it is illegal once a maul has begun for the ball carrier to ground the ball, he can hand it off to another player. Usually the scrum half will take the ball from him and pass it off to the backs so that play can continue.

Scoring a Try and the Conversion

The ball has been passed out of the maul and is in the hands of one of the backs, who carries it into the try zone and touches it down, scoring five points for his team. The ball must be touched down in order for points to be awarded. It is also important to consider where the ball is touched down, as the conversion kick is kicked from the same spot on the 22 meter line (or closer/farther back if the kicker chooses). So, if a player scores a try by touching the ball down in the far right corner of the try zone, the ball will be set up even with that point on the 22 meter line for the conversion, making the kicker’s job considerably harder.


As this is only an introduction, I won’t go into detail on the various penalties too much, but here is a list of some major ones to keep in mind:

  • No forward or lateral passing
  • A dropped pass is known as a knock on, and results in a penalty
  • No tackling an airborne player
  • No tackling by the neck
  • When a ball is kicked, any offensive player ahead of the kicker on the field
    is considered off sides and may not participate in play until the kicker has advanced past him
  • Participating in play after a kick while ahead of the kicker results in a penalty

So that’s rugby game play in a nutshell. Of course, like all sports, rugby is much more intricate than what can be written down in one (not so short) article, and this should therefore be considered just the basics

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Want to participate in your local community? Become a  sponsor for San Clemente Triton Rugby Club and support youth in your area.

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Want to participate in your local community? Become a  sponsor for San Clemente Triton Rugby Club and support youth in your area.