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Rugby union

A Rugby match in the Stade de France
A Rugby match in the Stade de France

Rugby union is a team sport that was (according to legend) developed from the rules used to play football at Rugby School in England. Two teams, each of 15 players have the task of outscoring the opposing team. Players clutch an ovoid ball in their hands or arms, and may pass it backwards or laterally across the pitch, or kick it in any direction. The opposing players attempt to halt the ball-carrier by tackling him or her with their arms and bodies. When tackled, the ball carrier must release the ball, at which time a contest for possession of the ball commences (either a ruck or a maul).

The International Rugby Board (IRB), founded in 1886, governs the sport and also publishes the game's laws . Until 1995 when Rugby Union became an "open" game, the IRB claimed to rigorously enforce the amateur rule. However, especially during the period leading up the 1995 decision, this was doubted by some, who dubbed the situation "shamateurism". Despite this skepticism, the move from amaterism to professionalism has been one of great success and has undoubtedly increased the quality of Rugby being played. However, professionalism has meant a huge increase in the gap between the top nations and the second tier. Alongside the success stories there have been some famous rugby clubs have not coped well with the new era.


Method of play

The aim of rugby is to score more points than the opposition. Teams score points in several ways:


  • touching the ball down on or over the opponents' goal line (a try, currently worth 5 points).
  • after scoring a try, the scoring team attempts a conversion: a player takes a kick at goal in line with where the touch-down occurred. Scoring the goal earns 2 points.
  • kicking the ball above the crossbar and between the uprights of a large 'H'-shaped set of posts. This may either occur from a place kick following a law infringement (a penalty goal) or kicked from the hand, providing the ball strikes the ground before being kicked (a drop goal). Both types of goal score 3 points.


Various set-pieces occur in play, principally:

Restart Kicks

At the start of each half, one side kicks off. One side, determined following the toss of a coin, takes a drop kick from the middle of the centre line to start the first half. The ball must travel at least 10 metres into the opposition half. The other team kicks off the second half. The kicking side frequently kick the ball high and aims to drop it just over the 10 metre minimum, which is marked by a dashed line across the pitch. This tactic gives their players time to chase the lobbed ball and hope to catch it before the defenders can do so. Alternativly the kick may be a long kick deep into opposition territory, sacrificing the chance to regain possession for territorial gain.

Similarly, there is also a 22 metre drop-out. This is awarded if the attacking side is responsible for sending the ball into in-goal, but instead of their player grounding the ball and scoring a try it is first grounded by a defender. If the ball is kicked into in-goal by the attackers and instead of being grounded there by either side it continues, under its own steam, through the in-goal area and goes dead by going out of play then the defenders have the option of choosing either a 22 drop out OR a scrum at the place where the attackers kicked the ball. The 22 metre drop out is taken at any point along (or behind) the 22 metre line.


A player may tackle an opposing player who has the ball by bringing him to ground and holding him. If a ball carrier is held by an opposition player but still has forward momentum he may continue to slide over the goal-line and score a try. One knee touching the ground, or the ball touching the ground, is sufficient for a ball carrier to be deemed to be grounded. A tackled player must release the ball, and the tackler must release him and move away, allowing the ball to become available, or for a ruck to form. If the ball-carrier is held but is not on the ground, then it is not a tackle and a maul may form.

Players will often deliberately go to ground rather than form a maul, a strategy to take advantage of the rules governing rucks and mauls. Once a player has gone to ground and a ruck has formed, the opposing team are not allowed to pick up the ball, and have to try to secure posession by pushing the team in posession out of the way. In a maul situation, the team not in posession is allowed to actively compete for the ball by trying to wrestle it from the carrier. Therefore, it is easier to retain posession of the ball in a ruck (in which the opposition cannot touch the ball) than a maul, and a ruck will often allow a team to recover the ball quickly and move it on so as to launch another attack before the defenders have had time to re-organise.

There are a number of laws governing how to tackle, the most notable of which are that the tackler cannot tackle above the shoulder (the neck and head are out of bounds), and the tackler has to attempt to wrap his arms around the player being tackled to complete the tackle. It is illegal to trip a player using feet or legs, but hands may be used (this being referred to as a tap-tackle or ankle-tap).


A ruck is a contest for possession. Once a tackle has grounded a player, he must release the ball and try to move out of the way, as must the tackler. The first player(s) arriving from either side may pick up the ball; however as soon as two players, one from each side, bind together - usually by locking shoulders as they face each other - with the ball at their feet they have formed a ruck, as more players arrive they may join the ruck, but MUST do so from their own side. In a ruck no player may use his hands to win the ball, instead each side attempts to push the other side back, and players use their feet to hook the ball backwards towards their own side - an action known as "rucking the ball" where it will be picked up by the scrum-half who waits behind the ruck. Players in a ruck may not deliberately go to ground themselves. If the ball becomes trapped in a ruck then the referee will award a scrum to the side going forward.

Most infringements occur in rucks. Players may seek to slow down the speed of the recycling of the opposition's ball or speed up their own by using their hands illegally, or by lying over the ball, or going to ground deliberately. Such infringements result in penalties.


A maul exists if the ball carrier is held up after a tackle and one player from each side binds onto him and tries either to rip the ball away or push him forwards. Once a maul has formed other players may join in, but as in a ruck, they MUST do so from their own side. If the maul stops moving forward, then the referee awards a scrum to the side NOT in posession when the maul began. The tactic of the rolling maul occurs when mauls are set up, and the ball is passed backwards through the players hands to one at the rear, who rolls off the side to create a new maul. This tactic is extremely effective in gaining ground and takes great skill and technique both do properly and to try to prevent. It is illegal, on safety grounds, to pull down a maul, so that players fall to the ground. Referees are aware that many sides will try to stop a maul by deliberately collapsing it and will watch carefully for this illegal tactic.


Referees generally call scrums for knock-ons, where a player drops the ball forwards, or for other accidental misdemeanours. If a penalty is awarded for a more serious offence, the team to which it is awarded may elect to have a scrum rather than take a penalty kick. This is usually called for if they are the attacking team, are close to the opposition goal-line, and want to wrap up all of the defending forwards in one place to give the backs more space - or if they believe they can force the scrum over the goal-line and score a "pushover" try.

See Scrum (rugby) for a more detailed look at the scrum.


When the ball goes into touch the referee calls a line-out. The forwards of each team line up a metre apart between 5m and 15m from the touchline. If the ball went out from a penalty, the side who gained the penalty throw the ball in, if not the other team do so. Both sides compete for the ball, and some players may lift their team mates.

See Line-out for a more detailed look at the line-out.

Team positions

A rugby union team consists of 15 players, eight forwards numbered 1 to 8, and seven backs, numbered 9 to 15. Depending upon the competition, there may be up to 7 replacements.

The main role of the forwards is to gain and retain possession of the ball. They take part in set pieces of the scrum and the line-out. Generally, forwards are larger than the backs, which makes them stronger but slower. Forwards also have a role in taking the ball forwards, but generally do so by driving into the opposing forwards.

The role of the backs is to move the game forward by running or kicking the ball. The fly-half controls how to do this. The backs tend to score more tries. The backs tend to be smaller than the forwards and as a result more agile and faster, but less strong.

The following diagram locates the various positions in the 15-man team. All members of the starting 15 wear jerseys numbered from 1 to 15 and keyed to their positions (though alternatives exist); these numbers appear on the diagram below. The first eight players, known as forwards or the pack, play in the scrum. The remaining seven players play as the backs(two "half-backs", four "three-quarter" backs and a "fullback").

Loosehead Prop (1) Hooker (2) Tighthead Prop (3)
Lock (4) Lock (5)
Blindside Flanker (6) Number 8 Openside Flanker (7)
Scrum Half (9)
  Fly Half (10)
Inside Centre (12)
Left Wing (11) Outside Centre (13)
Right Wing (14)
Fullback (15)

A referee controls the match, usually assisted by two touch judges.

See Rugby union positions and Rugby union numbering schemes for more information.

The rugby union nations

The major Rugby Union playing nations are those which play in the northern hemisphere Six Nations Championship: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales; and those which play in the southern hemisphere Tri Nations Series: Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The minor nations include those nations which have qualified for the Rugby Union World Cup: Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Japan, Namibia, Romania, Samoa, Spain, Tonga, United States, Uruguay. For further details see the List of international rugby union teams. Rugby Union is the national sport of Wales, New Zealand and Pacific countries such as Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa (although these three are more into sevens than fifteens.)

As of October 2003 the International Rugby Board had 94 members. The rugby-playing world often sees a distinction between the Northern hemisphere and the Southern hemisphere teams (traditionally, play takes place in the hemispheric winter), and the Southern hemisphere has often dominated international tournaments. After decades of domination by New Zealand, South Africa, and most recently Australia, England in 2003 achieved the pinnacle of success as the best team in world rugby with a dominant 2002 and 2003 culminating in a nailbiting extra-time win against Australia in the final of the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup. New Zealand and France also reached the semifinals.


International teams

The major international teams (represented on the IRB) are:

See also:


Major Tournaments

Rugby Union World Cup

  • Men's and women's versions of the Rugby World Cup take place every 4 years.

England won this most recently in on Saturday 22nd November 2003, with Jonny Wilkinson scoring a last minute drop-goal to win the match 20-17 in extra time, beating Australia in a closely contested match.

Six Nations Rugby Tournament

The first steps towards the modern day Six Nations tournament took place in 1871 when England lost by one goal to Scotland at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh. In the 1880s, both Wales and Ireland joined and the Home International Championships emerged. France joined the tournament in the 1900s and in 1910 the term Five Nations first appeared. However, the Home Nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) excluded France in 1931 amid a run of poor results, allegations of professionalism and concerns over on-field violence. France then rejoined in 1939-1940, though the Second World War halted proceedings for a further eight years. France has played in all the tournaments since WWII the first one of which was played in 1947.

In 2000, Italy also joined the tournament, leading to the modern-day Six Nations competition that takes place annually.

  • If a team wins all five of their games they achieve a Grand Slam;
  • If one of the Home Nations beats the other three, this is called the Triple Crown.
  • The Calcutta Cup is contested in the annual Six Nations match between England and Scotland.

France won the Grand Slam and Six Nations championship in 2004, while Ireland won the Triple Crown.

Tri Nations Series

The Tri Nations Series is an annual international Rugby Union series held between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The series is played on a home and away basis with the three nations playing each other twice.

Since the inception in 1996 of the Tri Nations series, the games played in it between Australia and New Zealand also determine the winner of the Bledisloe Cup each year.

Other Tournaments

International Trophies

  • Antim Cup — Georgia and Romania
  • Bledisloe Cup — Australia and New Zealand
  • Calcutta Cup — England and Scotland
  • Cook Cup — Australia and England
  • Freedom Cup — New Zealand and South Africa
  • Gallaher Cup — France and New Zealand
  • Hopetoun Cup — Australia and Scotland
  • Lansdowne Cup — Australia and Ireland
  • Mandela Challenge Plate — Australia and South Africa
  • Millennium Trophy — England and Ireland
  • Puma Trophy — Argentina and Australia
  • Trophée des Bicentenaires — Australia and France


Main article: history of rugby union

The legendary story about the origin of Rugby football, whereby a young man named William Webb Ellis "picked up the ball and ran" while playing football at Rugby School is almost certainly a complete fiction. Pundits have dismissed the story as unlikely since an official investigation by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. However, the trophy for the Rugby Union World Cup bears the name of "Webb Ellis" in his honour, and a plaque at the school 'commemorates' the 'achievement'.

Playing football has a long tradition in England and football games had probably taken place at Rugby School for two hundred years before three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845. Until the formation of the Football Association (FA) in October 1863 each football team would agree on a set of rules with opponents before a match. Teams which competed against each other regularly would tend to agree to play a similar style of football.

Rugby football has a claim to the world's first "football club", formed at Guy's Hospital Football Club , London in 1843, by Rugby School old boys. A number of other clubs formed to play games based on the Rugby School rules. Blackheath Rugby Club, founded in 1858 ranks as the world's oldest surviving rugby club.

Blackheath Rugby Club was a founder members of the Football Association. But when it became clear that the FA would not agree to rules which allowed running with the ball in hand (a fundamental part of the rugby game), Blackheath withdrew from the FA just over a month after the initial meeting. Other rugby clubs followed this lead and did not join the FA.

For the next few years rugby clubs continued to agree rules before the start of each game as they had always done, but on January 26, 1871, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) formed, leading to the standardisation of the rules for all clubs in England that played a variety of the Rugby School laws. Soon most countries with a sizable rugby community had formed their own national unions. In 1886, the International Rugby Board (IRB) become the world governing and law-making body for rugby. The RFU recognised it as such in 1890.

The 1890s saw a clash of cultures within the game, between working men's rugby clubs of northern England and the southern clubs of gentleman, a dispute revolving around the nature of professionalism within the game. On August 29, 1895 21 clubs split from the RFU and met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, commonly called the Northern Union. NRFU rules gradually diverged from those of Rugby Union, although the name Rugby League did not become official until the Northern Rugby League formed in 1901. The name Rugby Football League dates from 1922.

A similar schism open up in Australia and other rugby playing nations. Initially Rugby League in Australia operated under the same rules as Rugby Union. But after a tour by a professional New Zealand team in 1907 of Australia and Great Britain; and an Australian Rugby League tour of Great Britain the next year; Rugby League teams in the southern hemisphere adopted Rugby League rules.

For clarity and convenience it became necessary to differentiate the two codes of rugby. The code played by those teams who remained in national organizations which were members of the IRB became known as Rugby Union. The code played by those teams which played "open" rugby and allowed professionals became known as Rugby League.

On August 26, 1995 the IRB declared Rugby Union an "open" game and removed all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with the game.

In North America, rugby developed into American football and into Canadian football.

See also

National Rugby Unions of the IRB

Andorra | Arabian Gulf | Argentina | Australia | Austria | Bahamas | Barbados | Belgium | Bermuda | Bosnia & Herzegovina | Botswana | Brazil | Bulgaria | Cameroon | Canada | Cayman Islands | Chile | China | Chinese Taipei | Columbia | Cook Islands | Croatia | Czech Republic | Denmark | England | Fiji | Finland | France | Georgia | Germany | Guam | Guyana | Hong Kong | Hungary | India | Ireland | Israel | Italy | Ivory Coast | Jamaica | Japan | Kazakhstan | Kenya | Latvia | Lithuania | Luxembourg | Madagascar | Malaysia | Malta | Moldova | Monaco | Morocco | Namibia | Netherlands | New Zealand | Nigeria | Niue Island | Norwegian | Papua New Guinea | Paraguay | Peru | Poland | Portugal | Romania | Russia | St. Lucia | St. Vincent and the Grenadines | Samoa | Scotland | Serbia and Montenegro | Senegal | Singapore | Slovenia | Solomon Islands | South Africa | South Korea | Spain | Sri Lanka | Swaziland | Sweden | Switzerland | Tahiti | Thailand | Tonga | Trinidad and Tobago | Tunisia | Uganda | Ukraine | Uruguay | U.S.A. | Vanuatu | Venezuela | Wales | Zambia | Zimbabwe

External Links

  • Planet Rugby for news, etc. WARNING: popups
  • BBC site (no popups!)

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Last updated: 02-27-2005 04:54:16