Just enough information so you’ll know when to cheer while you’re watching games at the bar and not look like an idiot.

I hope you use this knowledge to sound worldly, have a drink and make a new friend or two.

Rugby as (American) Football

Think of rugby as football, played with the fluidity of hockey on a soccer field. The ball is constantly in play (there are no downs,) and like basketball, the ball can be stolen at any time. And players must quickly organize an offensive fast break before the former offence can scramble back on defence. Additionally, the phases of play like rucks, scrums and lineouts are deliberately designed to allow for both teams to have almost equal chance to win the ball. It’s a fluid game with hard tackles, impressive athleticism and artful ball skills. [One paragraph down already, this is going to be harder than I thought.]

By Royal Air Force official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How does it work?

Ok, that’s the nature of the game. Here’s how it works. Games open with a kickoff (15 players per team) and the ball must travel ten meters forward (the dashed line just beyond midfield,) once the ball crosses the 10-meter line it is in open play and either team can catch the kickoff. In rugby the ball can only be carried or kicked forward; all passes must be backward. Strategically the team with possession will most commonly attempt to pass the ball to a runner ‘in space’ by repeatedly juking or running hard into contact to commit more than one defender to a tackle then quickly passing the ball to a (now) open man. Once a ball carrier is brought to the ground the tackled player must release the ball (or pop it up to his teammates), both the tackler and the tacklee must attempt to roll away (you’ll see ‘Not releasing the ball’ and ‘Not rolling away’ penalized VERY frequently. It gets kinda annoying to be honest.) After a tackle a ruck forms – you’ll see, players from both teams charge over the tackled player to form a ruck (bridge) over the ball. Players in a ruck work to push the other team off the ball and win it for their team. A series of phases (run/kick, then tackle, then ruck) will continue until a score, an infraction or the ball leaves the field of play. If you hear the word ‘maul’ suddenly turn away from the TV and start looking for interesting people in the crowd, mauls are way too complicated for this conversation – ignorance is bliss on this one.


[Half way there.] There are three ways to restart the game after a stoppage, a kick (penalty kick or free kick,) a lineout or a scrum. Beginning with a kick: if a team is awarded a kick (only ever awarded because of an infraction by the other team) they will either kick out of bounds to gain field position or kick at the posts. The exact rules about who gets the ball back after a kick goes out of bounds is the only truly confusing law in rugby, so it’s better to say that you didn’t see it because you were busy ordering another round. If the ball is played out of bounds a lineout is used to return the ball to play. A lineout is the classic rugby photo you always see where both teams lift players into the air to catch a ball thrown in from the sideline. As to which team gets to throw the ball in (and where from) depends on a couple of confusing factors so again, it’s better to take a sip of beer and say you didn’t see it. The last means to restart play is a scrum! A scrum is used to restart the ball after a minor infraction or if the ball is unplayable (think a jump ball in basketball or a face-off in hockey.) Scrums are rugby’s most iconic image and you’ll know it when you see it. Both teams ‘pack’ down (8 players each) and push over the ball. It usually takes several attempts to get each scrum set fairly. It’s aggravating to all rugby fans and you’ll hear the commentators reminisce about the old days. Most frequently the defending team gets to roll the ball in when the ref calls for a scrum but not always-yet another good opportunity to have a sip of beer and claim you were distracted.

Beauden Barrett try versus Ireland


(Last paragraph! Now you’ll know when to cheer.) The last thing is scoring. There are only two ways to score in rugby. The first is a try. To score a try the offensive player must apply downward pressure to the ball in the try zone (end zone.) A try is worth five points and provides the opportunity for a two point conversion afterwards (kicked anywhere along the lateral plane where the ball was downed, often right next to the sideline.) The other way to score is a kick through the uprights either from open play, called a drop goal (somewhat rare) or from a tee after a penalty (obnoxiously common.) Both drop goals and penalty kicks are worth three points.


There you have it, an American’s guide to rugby in four paragraphs. For more detailed information on rugby (like the laws around kicking) dig into The 1014. Welcome to rugby!!!


Author: Gareth da Cunha


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