Rugby - a bluffer's guide

Rugby-graphic Watching sport is a challenging and potentially tiring pastime. It takes skill, knowledge and years of practice to do it well. But unlike the actual sport, it's dead easy to cheat. Here's how.


If you've been trying to watch the Six Nations but are a little baffled by it all, don't worry. We're more than a little bit obsessed with rugby (especially this year with an exciting six nations and Rugby World Cup to enjoy) and we've pulled together this rugby bluffer's guide so you can get a grips with it too. 

Read on to find out about the origins of rugby, why American Football is nothing like rugby and why some kid cheating at football started the whole thing off… 

What's the origin of rugby? Did some kid really pick up the ball and run? 

William-webb-ellis William Webb Ellis (later a clergyman) invented the game while a schoolboy at Rugby School. The legend is that he caught the ball (which was allowed then) and ran (which wasn't) with it during a game of football, though some claim that the story is apocryphal. We suspect somehow he'd have just ended up getting beasted if he 'cheated' during a game of football. However, the rules of football were apparently fluid in 1823 when Ellis is thought to have come up with his innovation. Those that claim that Ellis did not in fact invent rugby so much as adapt it from existing sports point to ancient Irish games with similar rules such as Caid which was an ancestor of current Gaelic football.  

Why are there two codes of rugby? What's the difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union? 

Rugby League originated out of a split between the Rugby Football Union and a group of players in 1895. It was a ruck over wages and resulted in two rival codes with League claiming it offers a faster, more entertaining game to please crowds. On the other side of the argument, Rugby Union fans will tell you that for all its colourful kits and fireworks, League doesn't hold a candle to the Union which was there first! 

What's the difference between rugby and American football? 

If you wanted to be snarky (and we do), rugby is for tough, rugged men and American football is for blokes who like padding, watching people wave pompoms and interminable delays in play. Besides a similarly shaped ball, American football and rugby are quite different with different movements of play and very different rules. 

How many people play in a Rugby Union game? 

It's 15 a side with additional substitutions for tactical reasons or for injury. In international matches, up to seven substitutions are allowed. Rugby teams are divided into the forwards and the backs. The eight forwards are the bigger, stronger players and get involved in the scrum and line outs. Backs are smaller but faster and tend to score the majority of trys. 

Who plays in the RBS 6 Nations? 

The home nations, which are made up of England, Wales and Scotland. Our close neighbours in Ireland also play alongside France and Italy. Should one team win all of their six nations matches, it's known as a grand slam. Which is generally deemed to be a good thing, though doesn't often happen.

How is a ruby pitch laid out? 

A rugby pitch is generally 100m long and 70m wide and divided at the halfway with goal lines at either end and the "twenty two", a line 22m from the goal line and the "dead ball line" which is between 10m and 22m behind the goal line. 

How does scoring work? 

Points in rugby can be scored in a fairly wide range of ways: a try is grounding the ball in the in-goal area which is worth five points. Score a try and your team gets a conversion attempt (kicking the ball over the bar and between the goal posts) which is worth an additional two points. A penalty, like a drop goal, is scored in the same way and both net three points.

What's a scrum? 

Rugby-scrum Scrums offer the ref a way of restarting the game following an infringment. Three rows of forwards from each team "engage" whilst the scrum half from the non-infringing team gets to throw the ball into the scrum. From there the objective is for each team to push forward towards their oppositions goal all the while trying to get at the ball with their feet. Typically the ball pops out of the scrum before being cleared by the scrum half.

What's a line out? 

Rugby-line-out When the ball leaves the field, a lineout is awarded. To form it, players from each team form parallel lines at least 1m apart and at least 5m from the sideline. A player, usually the hooker (the smallest man in the scrum around whom the group form), throws the ball between the two lines of players who attempt to grab the ball. Rugby League does not have lineouts. 

How long does a game last? 

Rugby matches are split into 40 minute halves with a half time break. Injury time is also added. 

How many referees does a rugby match have? There seem to be loads… 

Rugby has three match officials, a referee and two assistant refs. During big events, you'll also hear references to the television match official aka the video referee. They assist with tricky calls and communicate with the ref by radio. 

What can't you do in rugby? 

You can't pass the ball forwards, tackle above the shoulders, collapse a scrum, ruck or maul, refuse to release the ball when on the ground and you have to be careful to avoid being offside. If your team is awarded a penalty you can "tap" it by kicking it a short distance and then run on to gather it back up and keep running, punt it (kicking the ball a decent distance from your hand), take a place kick (in the attempt to score a penalty) or call for a scrum. 

What happens if someone misbehaves? 

Players can be red carded which means they're off for the rest of the game but rugby is a little more tolerant than football with a sin bin where they can be removed from play for 10 minutes and not replaced. 

When can I watch the Rugby World Cup? 

The Rugby World Cup is running from the 9 September from 23 October this year but you can see lots of rugby in the meantime. The RBS 6 Nations featuring all the home nations along with France, Italy and Ireland is on now and runs until 19 March. 

Let us know your own definitions for rugby terms you think people should know in the comments and tell us what rugby players you'd like to see interviewed here. 

Picture of William Webb Ellis statue by charliedave

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