Rye Rugby Club

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Rugby, A Spectators Guide


It looks like a 30-person version of tackle-the-pig. They're going to kill each other out there! Are there any rules to this game?

To the uninitiated, a rugby game may well look like semi-organized mayhem. Bodies crash, the ball is kicked and passed in ways that seem mysterious or even illegal to football fans, and plays with unfamiliar names like 'ruck', 'maul', and 'scrum' continuously form and break up without rhyme or reason. There's no question that it looks rough out there on the field, yet the injury rate in rugby is about the same as in basketball. And there are plenty of rules - yet you need only know some basic ones to understand the fundamentals of the game (it's rumored amongst rugby players that not even the referees know all the rules). This guide tells you enough about rugby to help you sort our what's happening on the field. And who knows? After watching a couple of matches you may even be tempted to don a pair of cleats and join in.


One easy way to understand some of the basics of rugby is to be aware of three major differences between rugby and football:

  1. In rugby, the ball cannot be passed forward, -rather, the ball moves laterally from player to player. There is no quarterback in rugby that passes the ball downfield to a receiver - every player on the field is eligible to run with the ball and can pass laterally to any teammate, who then continues downfield.
  1. There is no blocking in rugby. No player can shield or protect the ball carrier, and only the player with the ball can be tackled.
  2. Play in rugby is continuous. The game does not stop when the ball hits the ground or the player with the ball is tackled. Instead, the player who is tackled must immediately let go of the ball, making it available to any player on either team.


Each team consists of fifteen players: 8 forwards, 6 backs, and a halfback, or 'scrumhalf'. The forwards tend to be the larger, stronger players on the team - they must do much of the pushing, pulling, and scrambling required to win possession of the ball. The backs are the smaller, faster players - they run or kick the ball down field once possession is gained. The scrumhalf is the link between the forwards and the backs; once the forwards gain possession of the ball, it is the scrumhalf's job to pass the ball to the backs.


Rugby is played on a field 110 by 75 yards with 20 yard end zones. Goal posts are similar to those in football. The object of the game is to carry or kick the ball into the end zones and touch it down for a try (touchdown). The games consist of two 40-minute halves, with a 5minute halftime. There are no time-outs, other than for injuries. An injured player has one minute to either 'shake it off' and resume playing, or leave the field. Teams can replace a maximum of four injured players during a game.


Try: Similar to a touchdown, except that the ball carrier must not only get the ball into the opponent's 'end zone', they must then touch the ball to the ground. (5points)

Conversion: After a try, the scoring team can get 2 additional points by place-kicking or drop-kicking the ball through the opponent's uprights and above the crossbar.

Drop goal: At almost any time during the game, and from any point on the field, any player can attempt to drop-kick the ball through the opponent's uprights and above the crossbar. To drop-kick, the kicker drops the ball on the ground and kicks it on the first bounce. (3 points)

Penalty kick. After certain penalties, the team that did not incur the penalty can choose to try for a penalty goal. The kicker either drop-kicks or place kicks from the point where the penalty occurred. Again, the ball must pass between the uprights and over the crossbar of the opponent's goal. (3 points)


There are two ways of getting the ball downfield and across the opponent's 'try line' (the rugby equivalent of the goal line). Any player, usually one of the backs, can pass laterally to a teammate who is moving up the field. Ideally, a player will run upfield with the ball until they are about to be tackled, and at the last moment will pass to a teammate who is 'in support', or running close by ready to receive a pass. Support is one of the key factors in the game, for a team that supports well has a greater chance of maintaining possession of the ball.

The second way of making progress up the field is to kick the ball forward. The goal of kicking is to move the ball toward the opponent's try line and recover the ball with a better field position; the drawback is that you risk losing the ball to the other team.


Now, you may be thinking, "Running with the ball and kicking it downfield seems fairly straightforward, but what's all that rigmarole that goes on after the player gets tackled?"

Once the ball carrier is tackled and on the ground, they must immediately release the ball and make an effort to get away from it. The ball then becomes fair game for either team, just as it is in football when someone fumbles. But rather than scramble madly after the loose ball, the players must try to win possession by pushing the other team away from the all.

The mass of shoving bodies that forms around the ball is known as a 'ruck' - during a ruck, players cannot reach down and pick the ball up off the ground. Like horses pawing at the turf, the players must use their feet to move the ball back to their own scrumhalf.

Sometimes the ball carrier manages to stay on their feet after being stopped by an opponent. In this case, both teams again try to gain possession of the ball. The ball carrier's teammates will try to protect the ball and get it to their own scrumhalf, while the opposing team tries to wrestle the ball away from the ball carrier. The formation which results is known as a 'maul' - it differs from a ruck in that the ball is up off the ground, and players can use their hands in trying to win possession of the ball.


Occasionally a player will break one of the myriad of rules that govern the game: they may accidentally pass the ball forward, or forget to release the ball when tackled, or get caught with their hands in the ruck. In these cases play is re-started with a scrum, which is formed by the forwards from each team. Each set of forwards binds together into the scrum formation. When the opposing scrums 'come together', i.e. squat down and lock shoulders, the whole formation resembles a 32-legged spider maneuvering for position. The scrumhalf from the team that did not incur the penalty then puts the ball into the middle of the 'tunnel' formed between the opposing front rows.While the opposing scrums shove against each other, the hooker from each team tries to hook the ball back with their foot through the legs of their own scrum, and the scrumhalf from the team that wins the ball then picks it up and passes it to the backs.

It a player from one team kicks or carries the ball out-of-bounds ('into touch' in rugby parlance), the other team then gets to throw the ball into a 'lineout'. The forwards from each team line up parallel to each other, five meters from the touch line. One player stands on the touch line and lofts the ball between the two lines of players, and the forwards from both teams leap up to grab the ball. The player tossing the ball in is not throwing it at random; before the ball is put into play, one player from the team that is throwing in the ball calls out a code - a series of numbers or words - that lets the receiving team know what player in the lineout should receive the ball.


  • Knock-on: hitting the ball forward accidentally with the hands.
  • Forward pass: passing the ball forward rather than laterally.
  • Offsides: being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In general, the offsides law dictates that when the forwards are struggling to gain possession of the ball - for instance, in a ruck or a maul - the backs cannot move in front of the ball. The offsides law also makes it illegal to kick the ball to a teammate that is downfield from the kicker.
  • High tackle: tackling the ball carrier above the collar - it's illegal to tackle up around the ears.
  • Playing the person: tackling or interfering with someone who is not carrying the ball.
  • Shepherding: interfering with an opponent who is trying to tackle the ball carrier.
  • Failure to release: not letting go of the ball when tackled.
  • Not in straight: during either the scrum or the line-out, the player putting the ball into play must not give their team an advantage by tossing it toward their own side. The player must toss the ball directly down the center of the lineout, or down the middle of the tunnel formed at the scrum.

Some of the above penalties are settled by a scrum - the team that did not incur the penalty gets to put the ball into play. for the more serious infractions including offsides and high tackling, the team that incurs the penalty must drop back 10 yards from the ball - the team with the ball can either run with it, kick it downfield, or try for a 3 point penalty goal.



There are fifteen players on each team consisting of eight forwards and seven backs. The forwards are involved in the line-outs and scrums and have the task of winning possession of the ball for the backs. The backs play more to the open field and attempt to out-maneuver their opponents by passing, kicking, or running with the ball. Only 2 injury substitutions are permitted. The players are also forbidden to wear any protective equipment save soft padding to protect an existing injury.


Rugby is played on a field 110 by 75 yards with 20-yard end zones. Goal posts are similar to those in football. The object of the game is to carry or kick the ball into the end zones and touch it down for a try (touchdown) Games are played with two 40 minute halves with a five minute break in between.


Play begins with a kick-off; a player with the ball may run with it or kick it or pass it to any other player either laterally or behind him. His opponents may tackle the man carrying the ball at any time. Except for tackles, scrums, rucks and line outs, no other contact is allowed. Tackles must be made using an arm and shoulder. High tackles are not permitted.


A set scrum occurs when a team is guilty of a minor infraction, such as a player propelling (knocking) the ball forward with his hands, or when play is stalled because the ball is being smothered in a ruck or maul. At that point the referee will ask for a scrum and both packs of forwards will bind together in an enormous huddle that causes the novice spectator to question the players' sanity. The scrum half is responsible for putting the ball in between the two packs and they in turn try to heel the ball with their feet through the back of their scrum to be picked up by the scrum half and passed to the backfield. When the ball exits the scrum, the scrum ceases and open play resumes.


When a man is tackled and the ball comes to the ground between two or more opposing players, a ruck is formed. The rules are the same as the scrum, but only the feet can be used to convey the ball out.

If a ball is held by one or more defenders, and another teammate joins in, a maul is taking place. Teams that are constantly able to control the ball in rucks, mauls and scrums hold a mighty advantage over the opposition.


When the ball is kicked, or carried out of bounds it is said to have gone into "touch," the ball is brought back into play by means of a lineout. At the point where the ball passed into touch, the two packs of forwards line up opposite each other perpendicular to the sideline. The team not responsible for the ball going out of bounds now has a player throw the ball in between the two lines of players who attempt to catch the ball and control it or pass it back to the scrum half waiting beside the line. The ball must be thrown in straight between the two lines and the only players allowed to go for the ball are the forwards who are in the line-out, the scrum halves of each team and the two men who usually throw the ball in; all others must remain ten yards away from the line-out until it has ended.


There are four ways to score in rugby:

  1. The Try. When a man carries the ball across his opponent's goal line and touches the ball down, he is awarded a try and five points.
  2. The Conversion. After a try is scored: the team scoring may kick the ball through the uprights off the ground from any point on a line perpendicular to where the ball was touched down. If successful, the kicking team is awarded two points.
  3. A Penalty Goal. A team is awarded a penalty kick if the opponent is guilty of a major penalty. The team offended against may attempt to place kick the ball through the uprights from the point of penalty, which is worth three points.
  4. The Dropped Goal. At any time during the game any player may attempt a drop kick over the opponent’s goal and is also worth three points.


Penalties are issued against a team for various infractions. Off side, blocking, intentionally throwing the ball forward, or illegally playing the ball with the hands in a scrum, are the most common. In this event, the team offended against receives a kick from the point of the infraction. The kick may be a drop kick, a punt, or a place kick, or it may be merely tapped with foot and then passed to the kicker's teammates. Field position generally dictates the type kick taken.


Probably the most difficult law in rugby for the novice is the off side rule. It is, basically this: no player may participate in play unless he either has the ball or is behind the ball. When the ball is kicked forward by a man’s teammate from behind, that man is off side until he either retreats behind or is passed by the kicker. Off side May also occur when a player crosses the off side line of a scrum, ruck, maul or line out. The penalty is uniform, a "free" kick from the point of infraction, or a scrum, in the case of off side after a kick, at the point where the kick was taken.


Just when a new spectator thinks that he (she) has a rough idea of what is going on, Law 8 will come up to bring back confusion.

The referee shall not whistle for an infringement during play which is followed by an advantage gained by the non-offending team.

The advantage law allows the game to keep moving providing something good occurs to the side that did not break the Laws. If a team knocks or throws forward and their side is awarded a scrum, it is because the opposition committed an infringement first and the referee was applying advantage. Some referees will indicate a penalty but not whistle it up to let the spectators know the advantage is in effect, keeping the added confusion to a minimum. These are the exceptions, however, so if you want to appear to know what's going on when someone questions a referee's call, mumble "advantage" and shuffle away looking thoughtful.

(from the Princeton Athletic Club Website)