What is Rugby?

All about Rugby Union: the great game of rugby explained

Rugby Union, the ‘game played in heaven’: rugby fans can’t get enough of it. It’s fast; it’s brutal; it’s strategic; it’s a game for all shapes and sizes. Rugby Union is everything you want in a sport. Read on to find out what is rugby: an explanation of the sport of rugby union, as well as links of where to find more information about rugby.

Rugby union is a fifteen a side full-contact sport played with an oval ball on a 100m by 70m field. Sound easy? Well the reality is a little more complicated. While some of rugby’s intricate elements may have the causal viewer scratching their heads, the sport is well worth the investment of learning how it’s played. You’ll struggle to find a sport that mixes brutality, skill, strategy and that incorporates body shapes of all sizes and varying levels of athletic ability like rugby does. Even if you don’t understand how everything is done, let’s face it – not even the most hardened rugby fan knows all the rules. However, you’ll still stand back and marvel at some of the amazing tries and big hits that rugby brings.

The sport also has a rich history, with official rules emerging from Rugby School in the town of Rugby, Warwickshire, England in 1845. Club competitions began in 1864, and international matches began in 1871.



It’s often said that rugby union is a game for all sizes. If you are 6’ 7” string bean or 5’ 10” and 300 pounds, rugby has a position tailor-made for you. Not only that, but it’s a game for people of varying levels of athletic ability too. Whether you’re the athletic hare with magic skills, or the tortoise who never gives up, rugby has a position that will best suit your abilities.

Of the fifteen players on the field, eight are forwards and seven are backs. Stereotypically, the forwards are bigger and do all the ‘hard work’. They make lots of tackles, smash the ball into each other and contest the scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls. Retaining position is a hard job in rugby, and forwards take primary responsibility for that. The backs are typically smaller than the forwards, are faster and more athletic. They do most of the try scoring, running, kicking and fancy ball passing.

Check out this article: Rugby Positions Explained for more information on the different rugby positions.

Rugby 101

Some basics on Rugby Union

Apart from being a game for all sizes, the other aspect of the game that rugby fans love is how contestable every single component of the game is highly contested. From the kick off, scrum and lineout, to simply retaining the ball after being tackled, every part of the game is fiercely contested by each team.As mentioned earlier, rugby union is played on a field 100m by 70m with an oval ball. One each end of the field is a try line with an ‘H’ shaped goal post. Points are scored by either touching the ball down past the opposition’s try line (5 points) or kicking the ball through the top half of the goal post with a drop kick or penalty (3 points). An additional two points are on offer after a try is scored if a conversion is kicked. Rugby Balls

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Rugby is famous for its unique components of the tackle, ruck, maul, scrum and lineout.

The Tackle and Ruck

In rugby, even getting the ball back after being tackled is contested. A tackle is where the player carrying the ball is brought to the ground by players of the other team. For safety, it is important that the tackler does not grab the ball carrier above the shoulders, and the tackler must use their arms – they can’t just charge in with their shoulder.

Once the ball carrier is brought to ground players rush in to try and grab the ball. You can only try and get the ball if you are on your feet, supporting your own body weight. Once you fall to the ground you need to try and stay out of way. A lot of penalties occur when players continue to influence the game while on the ground.

Once two or more players are contesting for the ball, a ruck is created. Now everyone, unless someone already has their hands around it, must stop trying to get the ball with their hands. Now the only way to get the ball is to smash the opposition off it and walk over it until it emerges on your side of the mass of bodies that has been created.

As you can imagine, this is one of the contentious parts of the game, mainly because of how ambiguous it is to referee. There are so many moving parts to the ruck, and it can change so fast that it makes referring extremely difficult. Also, players, particularly open side flankers have become expert at pushing the envelope and making the referee’s life difficult.

The Maul

The maul is another contentious part of rugby union. A maul is where the ball is held off the ground and walked forward in a big huddle of players. The other team creates their own huddle and tries to stop them. If the maul becomes static the ball must taken out of it or a scrum is awarded to the other team. Also, the maul cannot be deliberately collapsed. The only way to stop it is by physically halting its movement through force, or somehow working your way through the centre of it, and grabbing hold of the ball carrier. The mauling team needs to be careful that the ball carrier stays properly attached to the maul at all times.

Some people decry that a maul is simply organised obstruction and should not be allowed, while others celebrate its uniqueness and rich rugby romanticism. The maul is useful for not only advancing the ball up field, but it also ties up a lot of the forwards, leaving space for the backs to manipulate.

What is a Rugby Scrum?

A key aspect of rugby is that the ball cannot travel forward off a player unless it is kicked. Therefore passes between players must go backwards. If the ball is passed forward or ‘knocked- on’ (dropped or knocked forward), a rugby scrum is awarded to the opposing team.

If you have heard of rugby, you have no doubt seen footage of the scrum. It is one of the most celebrated elements of the game due to its uniqueness.The eight forwards from each team form a structured huddle and smash into each other. The halfback rolls the ball into the scrum and hopefully it emerges out the back, ready to enter open play. Rugby Scrum Positions

For more information, read this article on the rugby scrum.

What is a Rugby Lineout?

Naturally the ball must stay in the field of play at all times. If the ball goes over the sideline a rugby lineout takes place, usually at the point the ball went out. The team who did not kick it out gets to throw the ball in. The forwards from each team line up one metre apart and the (unfortunately named) ‘hooker’, wearing jersey number two, throws the ball down the middle of the lineout. If the lineout is communicated and executed well the hooker’s teammates will know the point they have to jump and catch the ball.

For more information, read this article on the rugby lineout.

Rugby Strategy

In general, a team looking to score points will look to move the ball up the field, either by running and passing, getting tackled and recycling the ball back to their teammates, or kicking. This is where strategy comes in, as teams need to determine the best avenue for advancing the ball based on the other team’s and their own strengths, as well as weather conditions. Naturally, strategies and approaches to the game can differ greatly. However, in general:

  • If a team takes the ball behind their 22 metre line, a team will look to kick the ball deep downfield and hope to contest an opposition lineout. Alternatively, they might kick downfield and try and pressure the opponent’s return kick, hoping to make a net gain by taking repossession of the ball further downfield.
  • If a team takes the ball around the middle of the field they will often kick an ‘up and under’, a very high kick that puts the opposition catcher under pressure and hopefully get the ball back in broken play. Otherwise the team may simply try to run the ball either by passing through the backs or smashing it up in the forwards. If there is space, a team may just try to kick for the sideline further up the field, making sure to bounce the ball before it goes out.
  • If a team has the ball close to the opposition line they will usually try to smash the ball closer and closer using the forwards, taking care to recycle back the ball. Perhaps they will eventually get the ball over the line, or create enough space to give the backs ago. If nothing eventuates they might just pass to a back to attempt a drop kick. Either way, often the opposing team is placed under enough pressure to concede a penalty, and the team will kick for goal.
  • The golden chalice for a team is winning a lineout or scrum close to the opposition tryline. A team will try an attacking move in the backs, knowing all the forwards are tied up and there is extra space. In the case of a lineout, they may also try to create a maul and walk the ball over for a try.

Watching Rugby


What is great about rugby is the international aspect. It is one of the few sports genuinely contested at an international level. While football/soccer is certainly played by more countries and players, and the FIFA World Cup is highly prestigious, it is debateable whether International Football is the actually the highest level of the game. The Premiership seems to be far more parochial, and its best teams would almost certainly defeat any International team at the World Cup.

In rugby union, international rugby is certainly the highest level of the sport. Countries with an eternity of history between them face off in bitter contests, smashing each other all over the rugby field. There is also a gentlemanly aspect to rugby, in which the teams will wage bitter warfare on each other for 80 minutes, only to be best of friends once the game is over.

The flagship of International Rugby Union is the Rugby World Cup, played every four years between the top twenty international teams. Click here for an article about the Rugby World Cup winners since 1987, and here for a review of the 2011 World Cup, hosted by New Zealand and won by the All Blacks.

The other two international competitions are the Rugby Championship and Six Nations. The Rugby Championship is a yearly tournament played between Southern Hemisphere countries New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, and as of 2012 Argentina.

The Six Nations is the annual equivalent in the Northern Hemisphere, played between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and France.


Rugby Union also has exciting club competitions, lead by the Heineken Cup in the Northern Hemisphere (click here (http://rugbyfix.com/heineken-cup-rugby/) for description and history) and Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. The Heineken Cup is played between the best clubs in Europe, while Super Rugby is contested between teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

At the next level below those competitions are a variety of domestic competitions. These include the English Premiership, the Pro 12 featuring teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, the French Top 14, South Africa’s Currie Cup, and New Zealand’s ITM Cup.

Hopefully this article has been helpful in defining what is rugby, and given you an avenue into watching and understanding the great game. Don’t worry if it takes a while to fully understand all the nuances – most hardened rugby fans still don’t know them 100%, but that simply adds to the enjoyment of the game played in heaven.

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