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Rugby Rules & Regulations

The game of rugby can appear complicated and illogical for those who are unfamiliar with it. Most of these issues are easily resolved with the introduction of a few central principles at the core of the game. There are, as with most organized sports, a seemingly enormous list of rules for every possible event and circumstance. Although the details of a situation do ultimately decide the outcome, almost all of those same situations are dictated by the core principles that make up the heart of the game. However, before those principles are introduced, it would be helpful to go over the surface-level fundamentals of rugby.

The Basics of the Game

Just like most other sports, the object is to have more points than the other team at the end of a game. The team with the ball is thought of as the offensive team, just as the team without the ball is on defense. The specifics of the game are also what make rugby uniquely different from most of the other sports to which it is compared (American football and association football, also known as soccer). Complicating things is the fact that there are two different codes (or types) of rugby commonly played throughout the world: Rugby Union (which will be referred to as just ‘Union’) and Rugby League (this will show up as just ‘League’). The games themselves are very similar in most respects, but there are a few key differences that make for two distinct versions of the same game. These differences will come into play later, but for now the focus will remain on the core principles inherent in both versions of the game:

Core Principle No. 1: No throwing forward. Throwing the ball forward, or touching it so that you make it go forward, is illegal unless the ball is kicked. To pass the ball legally you must throw it either directly to your side or behind you. The ball may be kicked forward, but touching the ball any other way that causes it to go forward is a penalty – either a forward-pass penalty (if you pass the ball forward) or a knock-on penalty (if you hit the ball with something other than your foot and it goes forward).

Core Principle No. 2: There is no blocking in rugby. When you have the ball, it is essentially you against the entire other team. If you have the ball, and someone on your team purposefully gets between you and an opposing player who is trying to tackle you, then your teammate is guilty of obstruction, which is a penalty.

Core Principle No. 3: The ball is the offside boundary line. Play will continue until one of three things happens: One team scores, one team commits a penalty, or the ball goes out of bounds. While the ball is in play, its spot on the field determines where each player on both teams needs to be to stay onsides.

  • Pretend there is a line that extends from the ball across the width of the field at all times. If your team has the ball, your teammates are onsides as long as they stay behind that line.
  • It’s a little different for the other team, as its players are likely coming after whoever has the ball on your team. The other team must come toward the ball-carrier straight on or at least from a forward direction. They’re not allowed to tackle the ball carrier from the side or behind.
  • The nice thing about being offside is that it can be negated without a penalty necessarily being called. Should a player go offside, they only have to get back onside before they make a play on the ball. If they don’t, it’s a penalty.

That’s certainly not all that governs a rugby match, but those are a few of the farthest-reaching parts. Before we go further into how the game is played, however, let’s look at the different positions on the field.

Also, the majority of this guide will focus on the various facets of the Union code (or version) of rugby. Some of the bigger differences between Union and League will be mentioned later, but for a full breakdown, please refer to the "League Rugby vs. Union Rugby" guide.

Players

There are 15 players on a side (or team) in a Union match; for League there are 13. Focusing on Union for now, here’s a list of the positions, with the number next to each position corresponding (usually) to the jersey number that player would wear. For a complete breakdown and description for each of these positions (both Union and League), please check out the “Rugby Positions Explained” article under the ‘Guides’ tab.

Though both forwards and backs are on the same team, they’re usually in two separate groups on the pitch during a match. The group of forwards is called the Pack, and the backs make up the Back Line. The forwards do most of the hitting and tackling, while the backs do most of the ball carrying and passing.

Rugby Strategy

Because a continuous style of play is inherent, one team might go from offense to defense and back to offense in a ten-second span. Basically, you are on offense if your team has the ball, and you are on defense if the other team possesses the ball. On both offense and defense, the main strategies are pretty simple.

Offensive Strategy

On offense, the ball carrier will run toward the other team’s try line in an attempt to score a try or goal. When the ball carrier is met by a player on the other team, the ball carrier can pass the ball to a teammate, kick it forward, or try to run through/around the other player. This last option usually results in the ball carrier being tackled, providing an opportunity for the defensive team to contest possession of the ball, or try and take it away from the offensive team.

When the ball carrier is tackled, something called a ruck forms. A ruck is essentially a contest where the team with the ball attempts to retain possession of it while the defensive team tries to take it away.

  • During a ruck, the ball carrier who was tackled MUST release the ball and place it on the ground, or that team will be penalized.
  • At least three people from each team will bind together by locking hands and arms to become a bigger and stronger obstacle for the other team to go through.

Each team’s group will attempt to push the other over the ball. If one side attempts to go around the other, they’ll be called for offside. Possession is awarded to whichever side keeps the ball behind them while it’s still on the ground. Play is resumed as soon as the ball is picked up from the ground by someone not involved in the ruck.

Sometimes the ball carrier will run into a player on the other team but not get brought to the ground (tackled). When this happens, a different kind of contest for possession takes place. Players from each side (again, at least three) will bind and try to drive the player still holding the ball toward one end of the field or the other, depending on if they’re attacking or defending. This is called a maul and it can continue as long as the ball (and ball carrier) doesn’t stop moving.

If the ball stops moving, the ball carrier must either release it to the ground or pass it. Again, if this doesn’t happen, the ball carrier will be called for a penalty. For more information on attacking tactics, please go to the ‘Guides’ section and read the various guides on offensive strategies.

Defensive Strategy

Defensive strategy boils down, once again, to a few key elements. When on defense, the players on that team will ideally put themselves in a roughly straight and flat line across the width of the pitch, with one or two backs hanging behind in case the team with the ball kicks it away. They line up across from a player on the offensive team that is usually at least the same size, if not the same position, as the defensive player. This is done in attempt to create a series of 13 to 15 even, one-on-one matchups (because there are 15 players per side).

While this sounds simple in nature, remember that there is no stoppage in play just because the ball has gone from one team to the other (unless it’s because of a penalty, or if the ball went out of bounds). Forming the defensive line quickly is crucial. The longer it takes to form, the greater the chances of the offense being able to easily and quickly move the ball down the pitch.

The team on defense will try to stop the ball carrier from scoring and hopefully get possession of the ball. The defensive team can accomplish this by stripping the ball loose from the ball carrier, intercepting a pass, tackling the ball carrier and winning a ruck or maul, or forcing the ball carrier out of bounds. Of course, as soon as the defensive team takes the ball away, they become the attacking team. This also occurs when the team with the ball goes out of bounds or commits a penalty. Again, further information about defensive strategies can also be found in the ‘Guides’ section.

Scoring

Now that the basic mechanics of the game have been introduced, let’s shift the focus to how scoring happens during the course of a match. There are four different ways to score points. They are...

The Try

A try is scored when the ball carrier touches the ball in the opposing team’s in-goal zone. To be awarded a try, the ball carrier must maintain control of the ball all the way to the ground with some part of the upper body. The ball cannot be thrown or dropped down. If a defending player hits the ball carrier before the ball is grounded (touched down in a controlled manner), no try is awarded and play will continue. Scoring a try is good for 5 points.

The Conversion Goal

After a try is scored, the team that scored has the chance to add two more points by attempting a Conversion Goal. The kick takes place at least 10 meters out from the try line, at a point that’s straight out from where the ball was grounded in the in-goal zone.

The Penalty Goal

If one team commits a penalty close to its in-goal zone, the non-offending team can elect to try for a penalty goal. The ball is placed on a tee at the spot of the penalty and kicked at the uprights. If it goes through, it’s worth three points.

The Drop Goal

During the course of normal play, the ball carrier can attempt a Drop Goal l by dropkicking the ball at the other team’s uprights. For a Drop Goal to be awarded, the ball must touch the ground before it’s kicked. If it’s just punted (kicked without touching the ground), no Drop Goal will be awarded. A successful Drop Goal is worth two points.

Penalties

Although rugby is designed to be a continuous game, play will stop occasionally, if the ball goes out of bounds or one team commits a penalty, also known as an ‘infringement.’ Below are some of the more commonly committed penalties.

For a complete list of the penalties and infringements that can be called during a match, check out IRB’s Laws of the Game site.

When most penalties are committed, the referee will allow for advantage play to take place. Advantage play occurs when the referee calls one team for a penalty, but does not immediately stop play because the non-offending team still has a chance to effectively play the ball. This gives the team with the ball an ‘advantage’ over the other team. If the non-offending team cannot make a play, or a member of the offending team prevents the ball from being played, the referee will stop play and award a penalty to the non-offending team.

Once a penalty has been awarded, the offending team must back up 10 meters towards its try line, or behind it if they’re within 10 meters. The only way this doesn’t happen is if a scrum takes place, either because the referee orders it (which usually happens after a minor penalty like a knock-on), or the non-offending team chooses it.

The non-offending team has a few options. If it is close to the other team’s try line, a player from the non-offending can attempt a penalty goal, a free kick, or again, have a scrumdown. With a free kick there are two options: The kicker can punt the ball down the field and out of bounds, which results in a Line Out (one of the set pieces coming up later) for that player’s team. The kicker can also quickly start play back up by tapping the ball with his/her foot and charging ahead. This second option is a good choice if the offending team is slow to back up 10 meters, because it cannot make a play on the ball carrier until it does so. If a defensive player goes at the ball carrier before this, another penalty is awarded to the offensive team.

  • Collapsing the scrum: Sometimes during a scrumdown, a player in the front row of one pack will attempt to pull down an opposing player who is directly across from him/her. This is done in attempt to create a weak part in the other team’s scrum, making it easier to push that pack off the ball. Because all the forwards in a pack are connected during a scrum, if one player falls several more usually will, as well. Sometimes it happens naturally, but if the referee decides that one player is intentionally trying to force the other pack to the ground, that player will be called for collapsing the scrum.
  • Foot up: During a scrum, it is the hooker’s job in each pack to secure the ball for their team after the ball is rolled into the scrum. When the hooker puts his/her foot out before the ball is put in to the scrum, it’s called a ‘foot up’ (or Leg Up). It’s not legal, but if observed by the referee, it usually results in only a warning and another scrum-down.
  • Forward pass: When one player passes the ball to another, the ball must be thrown in a sideways or backwards direction. Any pass thrown in a direction even slightly forward from the ball carrier is a forward pass, which is and illegal. (Core Principle No. 1)
  • High tackle: This is one of the more serious penalties a rugger can commit. A high shot/high tackle is when a player attempts to tackle the ball carrier above the shoulders, usually by the head or neck. It’s a more severe penalty because of the increased likelihood that the player who receives a high shot/high tackle will be seriously injured.
  • Knock-on: A knock-on is similar to a forward pass in that it’s called any time a player touches the ball (other than kicking) and causes it to move in a forward direction. For example, if one player threw the ball to another player, but it wasn’t caught cleanly and it bounced off the second player’s hand and fell forward, that player is guilty of a knock-on. (Core Principle No. 1)
  • Obstruction: Blocking for the ball carrier is illegal and any purposeful attempt by one offensive player to be in between the ball carrier and a defensive player is obstruction. Occasionally, an offensive player will suddenly be between the ball carrier and a defensive player – after the ball carrier quickly reverses direction, for example. However, as long as the player between the ball carrier and defender makes a visible effort to not get in the defensive player’s way, obstruction usually won’t be called. (Core Principle No. 2)
  • Offside: Just like it says in one of the Core Principles of Rugby, the ball behaves as the onside/offside boundary line. That line extending the width of the field at all times, and moving as the ball moves. If your team has the ball, your teammates are onsides as long as they stay behind that line. It’s a little different for the other team, as it is likely coming after whoever has the ball on your team. The other team must come straight on toward the ball carrier or at least from a forward direction. The opposing players are not allowed to tackle the ball carrier from the side or behind. Again, should a player be offside, they only have to get back onside before they make a play on the ball. (Core Principle No. 3)
  • Over the top: When a ruck occurs, the offensive and defensive groups involved in the ruck will try to push each other off the ball to gain possession. Members of the defensive group must go through the offensive players who bound up over the ball. Any attempt to jump over the ruck (or come over the top) to get the ball is an infringement.

Set Pieces

The only instances in which play is stopped occur after one team scores, one team commits a penalty, or the ball goes out of bounds. Either of the last two situations result in a dead ball, which just means that play has stopped. After one team scores, play is always resumed by another kick-off, but after a penalty or dead ball, play is resumed by using one of two set pieces. This all depends on the circumstances that led to the dead ball – these are lineouts and scrums.

The Lineout

A Lineout takes place after the ball goes out of bounds. Two groups of players from each team, usually forwards, will line up perpendicular to the spot where the lineout takes place (usually where the ball went out of play) and five meters out from the touch line, with a few meters of space between the lines of players. A player from the team that didn’t cause the ball to go out of bounds will throw the ball in the alley between the two lines of players, and both sides attempt to catch it. Teams will usually have one or two players in each line jump up and grab it while being lifted by their teammates. Technically, play resumes as soon as the ball is thrown in, not after it’s caught.

The Scrum

Scrums start play back up after a minor penalty or stoppage takes place (at the referee’s discretion) or the non-offending team chooses it after a penalty.

A scrum (or scrumdown) is when both packs bind together (with each other, not both teams combined) and are brought together. The team possessing the ball rolls it in the alley (the space between the two packs) and the packs begin to push against each other in an attempt to secure possession of the ball. The ball is won in a scrum by slowly rolling it to the back of the pack, where a player not in the scrum (except occasionally the eight man) will pick the ball up, resuming play.

Rugby Union vs. Rugby League

The two codes of rugby share many of the same characteristics, especially regarding penalties, methods of scoring, and the physicality. However, there are enough differences to warrant a list that accurately illustrates how League and Union differ.

  • Number of players per side: In Union, there are 15 players on the pitch for each team, unless one gets sent to the sin bin or sent off. In League, there are only 13 per side, with the same exception made for penalized players.
  • Markings on, and size of, the pitch: The dimensions of the pitch are similar for both codes, though Union pitches have larger in-goal zones than League pitches do. The lines on each pitch are noticeably different as well.
  • Right to contest the ball: This is probably the characteristic that most deviates League from Union. In League, the team with the ball has six attempts to move the ball down the pitch and score – the end of one attempt signified by the ball carrier being tackled. After the sixth attempt, the ball automatically goes to the other team. In Union, however, play doesn’t reset after every tackle, and the defensive team can contest the possession of the ball – meaning that during rucks, mauls, scrums and lineouts, they can go after the ball rather than just wait until the attacking team runs out of attempts.
  • Jersey numbers associated with positions: In Union, the forwards wear jersey Nos. 1 though 8, while backs wear 9 through 15. In League, however, the order is reversed, with backs wearing Nos. 1 through 7 and forwards wearing 8 through13.

Points awarded for scoring: The methods of scoring are the same in both codes, but the points awarded in League are slightly different. Here is a breakdown of the scoring for both codes:

  • Try: 5 for Union, 4 for League
  • Goal/Goal Kick: 2 points for both Union and League
  • Penalty Kick: 3 for Union, 2 for League
  • Drop Goal: 3 for Union, 1 for League

Using the Knowledge

That's the game of rugby on a very technical level. Of course, as with all sports it's much easier to understand how the game is played by actually watching it. Hopefully the information found here will encourage you to do just that!

With everything that goes on during a rugby match, it's sometimes difficult to understand exactly what's going on. This guide will shed some light on the rules of rugby.
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