The following is an unofficial, abbreviated set of rules or Laws as to how the sport is played.
NOTE: There are changes to the Laws for different age groups, which help protect growing athletes from injury and aid in keeping the game moving. For a complete and official explanation, please refer to the link below.
Rugby is an impact sport. The contact, while vigorous, is much less dangerous than in American football since there is no blocking, no rigid protective equipment allowed, and there are stringent rules on tackling. The emphasis on possession and the requirement that only allows contact near the ball decreases the number of physical collisions. Dirty, or dangerous, play is not allowed by the laws, nor is it tolerated by the players. Rugby is still considered "a sport of ruffians and thugs played by gentlemen." Many players consider the sportsmanship aspect of the game its most important and significant attribute.
A full-length rugby field, known as a "pitch," is approximately 100 meters long by 70 meters wide with a 20 meter try (end) zone. Many rugby fields in America measure 100 yards long by 75 yards wide, with try zone areas of 10 to 20 yards reflecting the tendency to use football fields. The object of the game is obvious -- outscore your opponent. A player with the ball may advance the ball by running, kicking, or passing the ball. He may kick it forward, but may only pass the ball laterally or behind him. Other members of the team in possession of the ball must stay behind the ball to participate in the play. There is no blocking for the ball carrier. Any player on the pitch may run with the ball. The opponents may tackle the ball carrier at any time. Tackles must be made with the arms wrapped around the opponent's body below the shoulders. A player may not leave his feet to make a diving tackle or to hurdle an opponent. Above the shoulder tackles, and other tackles deemed to be dangerous, are against the laws and are severely penalized.
Each team, or "side," consists of 15 on-field players: broken up into eight forwards and seven backs. The forwards (collectively called the "scrum" or "pack") work as a group. The forwards have four primary responsibilities: win the ball in set play, win or maintain possession of the ball in the loose play, provide support, and create an advantage by skill and intensity. The backs (collectively called the backline) usually run and advance the ball up field. To do this the backs must focus on five responsibilities: receive the ball from the forwards, advance the ball beyond the gain line, provide support, create advantage, and provide defense in depth. While the forwards usually focus on possession and the backs on advancing the ball, one of the most exciting aspects of rugby is that all players are involved in all aspects of the continuous flow of the game. Rugby forwards often handle the ball and must be adept at passing and catching, while backs must be prepared to contest for possession of the ball.. As a result of the continuos flow of the game, players must learn to think and react for themselves.
The Pack (Forwards)
Front Row: Consists of two props, #1 and #3, and the hooker, #2. These are the pillars of the scrum. They are usually fairly strong, and generally squat in stature. The props direct the power of the other forwards into the opposing pack and provide the support for the hooker, who attempts to hook the ball with his feet.
Second Row: The locks, #4 and #5, stabilize the scrum and are the real power behind the push when the ball comes into the scrum. At the line-out they are usually the tallest and best jumpers.
Loose Forwards: The flankers, #6 and #7, and the eight-man, #8, are often the most mobile and active of the forward pack. On defense, they are always after the ball and usually first to the breakdown (when an opponent goes to the ground with the ball). Offensively, they are usually running with the backs and provide the base for second phase play from the loose ball.
The Backline (Backs)
Scrum-half: #9 is the primary field manager of the team. He must work with his forwards to cleanly get the ball and pass it out to his backs to press the attack. The Scrum-half runs the offense and must communicate with both the forwards and backs. He is the player who puts the ball into the scrum and passes the ball to the backs. The scrum-half also receives the ball from the forwards in line-outs, rucks, and mauls. In rucks and mauls, the scrum-half directs the forwards to counter the opposition and retrieve the ball.
Fly-half: #10 is usually one of the more experienced rugby players on the team. After receiving the ball from the Scrum-half, the Fly-half directs the backline attack. He will pass the ball, kick, or run to take advantage of the opponents' mistakes.
Centers: #12(inside) and #13(outside) are usually the hardest hitting, and best runners on a rugby team. They must tackle like American football linebackers and run like a tailback. They must be skilled both defensively and offensively. In the backline, they are the likeliest to become involved in a ruck or a maul.
Wings: #11 and #14 are the wheels of the team. Teams like to get the ball to their wings quickly and let the wheels have room to maneuver and run. Defensively the wing is often the last player between an opponent and a score and the only protection from an opponent's run along the sideline (known in rugby as the touch line). Weak side wing acts as full back when fullback is involved with a play (crashing in the offense, tackling in the defense).
Fullback: #15 is the rugby equivalent to the free safety. While it may appear he does little, the fullback is one of the most difficult positions on the field. He is the last line of defense between the opposition and end zone. He must make a quick decision to come into a play or hang back, and he is the one who most often makes the lonely last tackle before a score. Offensively, the fullback will join the backline attack to overwhelm the opponent's defense.
Try: 5 points. A player grounds the ball in his opponent's end zone (try zone). The ball may be run or kicked into end zone and then touched down for a score. In order for a try to count, it must be placed down on to the ground under control with downward pressure with the hands.
Conversion: 2 points. After a try is scored, the team that scored may kick the ball through the goal posts. The kick is taken at any point on a line perpendicular to where the ball was touched down in the try zone. This can lead to some very difficult attempts from near the sidelines when the try is scored at the extremes of the try zone.
Penalty Goal: 3 points. A team is awarded a penalty kick if the opposition is guilty of a major penalty. If the ball is kicked through the goal posts from a place kick or drop kick, 3 points are awarded. If the kicking team is too far from the goal posts to try for points, they will usually kick to gain a territorial advantage. The most common major penalties are off-sides, hands in the ruck, and falling over the ball to kill play.
Drop Goal: 3 points. At any time during a match, a player may attempt a drop kick through his opponent's goal posts. The ball is dropped on the ground and then kicked through the uprights. If the kick is good, 3 points are awarded.
Phases Of Play
There are two basic phases of play in rugby. The first phase is called Set Play, including the scrum, line-out, drop-out, free kick, and penalty kick. This phase of play is generally well organized, planned, and has formations established from which plays can be run. The second phase is known as Loose Play or "second phase ball," occurs when the called play is over or a breakdown occurs. A breakdown occurs when a player is tackled or a mistake is made. This phase is largely improvised and highly spontaneous. This is where an enterprising team can create magic and develop movements of great beauty. This is where the action is!
Scrum: The most unique and identifiable formation in rugby is the scrum. A scrum will take place following a minor rule infraction, the most common of which are forward passes or knock-ons (knocking the ball forward, usually with the hands), or when the ball becomes unplayable. The eight forwards bind together and the front row binds on the opposition. The team not responsible for the rule infraction or stoppage of play is allowed to put the ball into the scrum between the front rows. Each team then attempts to hook the ball to their side, or push the opposition off the ball. The ball is then heeled back through the forward pack to the eight-man where the Scrum-half is waiting to secure the ball. While the ball is in the scrum, no player is allowed to handle the ball-only feet are allowed.
Line-out: Under the new variations of the laws, the line-out has become the most common set piece. After the ball has been kicked or run out-of-bounds, the forwards line up in a straight line perpendicular to the touch line where the ball went into "touch" (out-of-bounds). The team not responsible for the ball going into touch is given the right to re-start play by throwing the ball between the two groups of forwards. Most line-outs consist of seven forwards formed in a line, although the standard minimum number is two. The team throwing the ball in will call a signal and throw the ball where they have a superior jumping advantage. The ball must travel five meters. After gaining possession of the ball, the forwards usually (but not always) pass the ball to their Scrum-half who passes it out to the backs who then attack up field. Many teams also have plays that can be initiated from the line-out to take advantage of the mass of the forwards
Dropout, or 22 meter drop-kick: After the attacking team puts the ball into their opponent's end zone and the ball is then grounded by the defending team, the defending team is given a dropout (drop kick) to be taken behind their 22 meter line. Play re-starts when the dropout is taken and the ball crosses the 22 meter line. (If the attacking team had grounded the ball, then a try would have been awarded).
Penalty and Free Kicks: Following more serious infractions of the laws, a penalty, or free kick, is taken. The type of kick taken (a punt, place kick, drop kick, kick for goal, or just tapped on the foot) is usually determined by a team's field position, match score, and time remaining. The kick only requires a foot tapping the ball free through a mark. As a result, teams will often develop running plays for the forwards. Here are the primary differences between the two kicks:
Penalty Kick: The referee signals by holding his arm at a 45 degree angle with his foot marking the location of the penalty. The kicking team may attempt to kick through the uprights for 3 points. Any other type of kick may also be taken. The opposition may not advance forward until the ball has been kicked. A significant advantage of the penalty kick is the line-out gained. If the ball goes out of play (rugby term is in to touch) from a penalty kick, the kicking team may take a line-out at the spot where the ball went in to touch.
Free Kick: The referee signals a free kick by holding his upper arm out with his elbow bent, hand in the air, and foot marking the location of the free-kick. Any form of kick may be taken, but points may not be scored directly from a free kick.
Second Phase Or Loose Play
Loose play occurs when the ball leaves the set formation. The divisions between forwards and backs then tend to blur. The key to successful second phase is what happens after contact, usually a tackle initiating a ruck or a maul. A rugby player, when tackled, must release the ball-either on the ground or to a teammate-immediately after contact is made with the ground. The attacking team's objective is to maintain possession and forward momentum. It is to the attacker's advantage to keep the play moving after the breakdown. In the defense, it is generally the object of the forwards to gain control of the ball and provide a stable platform to initiate the counter-attack.
Possession: Rugby is a possession sport; if a team does not have the ball, it can not score. Almost all individual skills are geared to maintaining or gaining possession of the ball. It is important to not only retain possession of the ball, but also to prevent the opposition from getting possession of the ball. The focus of loose play is to ensure that one's team maintains possession of the ball, especially after a break down in play.
Attack: If the ball is not moved forward, a team cannot score.
Support: Support is critical to the effectiveness of possession and attack. As the ball moves from player to player, members must support the ball carrier, i.e., be where they can catch a pass, pick the ball up from the ground, or field a kick. The attacking team does not want the ball to die and stop their attack.
A ruck is a loose variation of a scrum. A ruck is formed when two opposing players are bound together over the ball. Each pack of forwards (and sometimes backs) will bind into the ruck and attempt to win possession of the loose ball. As with the scrum, only the feet can be used to get the ball out of the ruck.
When the ball carrier has been held up by his opponents, but not taken to ground, members of his team (usually forwards) will bind onto him in attempt to protect the ball (maintaining possession of the ball) and provide a stable base to get the ball out (initiate an attack). The opposition is attempting to take the ball away. Unlike a ruck where the ball is on the ground, in a maul the ball is being held by one team while the other team attempts to grab it away. Once possession is secure, the ball is usually tossed to the waiting Scrum-half who runs or passes the ball.
Concept of Advantage
One of the least understood, but most exciting aspect of Rugby is the concept of advantage. In most sports Americans play, the flow of the game stops after a rule infraction. In rugby, however, if one side commits an infraction and their opponents gain an advantage from it, the game continues until the advantage no longer exists. The advantage may be tactical (good attacking opportunity) or territorial (a gain in ground).
Example 1: a player makes a forward pass, but an opponent intercepts it and starts his attack up field. He has a tactical advantage, so the referee ignores the forward pass.
Example 2: A player knocks-on (knocks the ball forward) and drops the ball. His opponents kick it ahead and follow up. They have gained a territorial advantage from the knock-on, so the referee lets it go.
The referee will usually signal a possible advantage situation by holding one arm straight out to his side. If no advantage is gained, the referee will blow his whistle and award a scrum, free kick, or penalty kick as determined by the infraction.
Knock-On And Thrown Forward
The only way to attack and gain ground is to run or kick. A player cannot throw or knock the ball forward. A pass must be a lateral or backwards. A knock-on means a player has fumbled the ball forward, toward his opponent's goal. A pass thrown forward (towards one's tryline) is a forward pass. These are probably the two most common law infringements in rugby. If no advantage is gained by the non-offending team, a scrum will be awarded to the non-offending team.
With its roots as an English game, one of the most confusing aspects of Rugby is the concept of Off-side/On-side. For each condition there are variables that may or may not make a player offside, or put a player on-side. The most important aspect of off-side is the location of ball. Generally, if you are in front of the ball you are off-side and unable to participate in the play. The off-side law for open play is not the same as that for scrums, rucks, mauls and line-outs. In open play you are off-side when you are in front of a player on your team who has the ball or who has last played it, i.e. kicked the ball. Being off-side means you can not play the ball until you are put on-side again. You can be put on-side by the ball being run ahead of you, you retreating to get behind the ball, or by the player who last played the ball running past you. There is nothing wrong in being off-side. Every player is bound to be off-side at some point in the game. You become penalized only when you are off-side and you try to play the ball. Remember - simply being in front of the ball does not get you penalized for being off-side. You are only penalized if you are in front of the ball when your team has it, or you have not been put on-side again, and you play the ball.
For players actually taking part in a line-out-(i.e. all forwards, both scrum-halves, the player throwing in, his opposite number) the off side line is the line-of-touch until the completion of the line-out. After that, the off-side line runs through the ball itself. If you are in a line-out, keep on your side of the line until the ball is caught. Then keep on your side of the ball until the line-out ends.
For players not taking part in a line-out-(i.e. all remaining backs, and forwards not involved in the line-out)-the off-side line ten is meters behind the line-of-touch, or the goal-line, whichever is nearer. Until the line-out ends, stay behind that line.
A line-out starts when the ball leaves the hands of the player throwing in. It ends when one of four things happens:
The ball leaves the area of 5 to 15 meters from the touch line and one meter on either side of the line-of-touch.
A player carrying the ball leaves the line-out.
The ball is thrown more than 15 meters from the touch line.
A ruck or maul forms and the entire ruck or maul has moved beyond the line-of-touch.
If you are off-side when a player on your team kicks ahead, and you are within ten meters of an opponent waiting for the ball, you must retreat until you are ten meters from him, or you will be penalized. Just by staying near him you are affecting the game. You must retreat at once: nothing he may do can put you on-side.
On-side means you are no longer off-side, so you can take part in the game again. Any off-side player (including one off-side under the 'Ten-Meter' Law and retreating) can be put on-side by his team in these four ways:
A teammate who kicked the ball when behind him now runs past him.
Any other teammate who was on-side when the ball was kicked now runs past him.
A teammate with the ball runs past him.
He retreats behind any of these teammates.
Any off-side player (except one off-side under the 'Ten-Meter' Law) is put on-side if an opponent does one of these things:
Carries the ball ten meters.
Kicks or passes the ball.
Intentionally touches it but doesn't hold it.
Rucks And Mauls
In a ruck (ball on ground) or a maul (ball being carried) the off-side line is the ball. The actual off-side for players entering the ruck/maul runs through the tail-end of the ruck or maul, i.e., the hindmost foot of a player on your team. You must enter a ruck/maul from the rear. Once in, the player must remain bound or retreat behind the entire ruck/maul. Backs, or players not involved in the ruck or maul, may advance to the rear foot of the last player in the ruck or maul.
For everyone except the Scrum-half and the forwards bound in a scrum, the off-side line is the hind foot of the last player of his team's scrum. No player may advance in front of that "line" (foot) until the ball emerges from the scrum.
For the Scrum-half, he can continue to stay even with the ball. He cannot grab one of the opposing players and they are not supposed to obstruct him. This means the Scrum-half whose team lost the hook can go forward, just not past the ball.
There is a special variation of this rule for youth rugby. The off-side line for the scrum-halves is different. If team A wins the "hook," or put-in, the Scrum-half for Team A may follow the ball as it makes its way to the rear of the scrum. The opposing Scrum-half from Team B may not advance past the original off-side line as defined by start of the scrum.
This final segment is a quick review of how to play rugby for a new player. Rugby is an unfamiliar sport for most Americans, so there is a great deal a player needs to learn to play effectively.
Rugby, at its very essence, is a soccer game where the players pick up the ball and run with it. Legend has it that the first Rugby game was a soccer game that a player in a fit of frustration, picked up the soccer ball and started to run with it. A somewhat colorful beginning for what has become one of the most enjoyable sports in the world.
The Object of the Game, as defined in the laws:
"two teams of fifteen players each, observing fair play and according to the Laws and in a sporting spirit, should be carrying, passing, and kicking the ball to score as many points as possible."
First, the field, the pitch as it is known in the Rugby world, is officially 70 meters by 120 meters, which of course is liberally interpreted at the local level. There are fifteen players on the pitch per side. The object of the game is to score by bringing the ball down field, crossing the goal (try) line, and putting the ball down with downward pressure in the try zone. This first of three methods of scoring is worth five points. The second is the after try conversion that is kicked directly out from the try zone where the ball was placed which is worth two points. Finally, any other kick that goes between the goal posts is worth three points.
The matches have two forty minute halves with a five minute half-time. The only substitutions allowed are for injuries, and these are limited. For that reason, a player with a minor injury may get a minute or two to regain his composure, work out the cramps, or stem the flow of blood. If the player cannot play on, he leaves the field. Time taken out for injuries is made up in the last part of the match.
Teams themselves are broken down into two groups, the forwards and the backs. The forwards are similar in function to the offensive line in American football, while the backs are similar to the backs. The forwards generally gain possession of the ball, and the backs generally advance the ball. Rugby is a possession based sport that places a premium on keeping the ball. In addition, once the set play is completed, there is little difference between the forwards and backs. Both groups can pick up the ball and run, can kick, can tackle, and get into rucks/mauls. The only ways to advance the ball down the field are kicking or running. It is illegal to pass the ball forward. The player with ball may be stopped by tackling. Play does not stop once a player is tackled. If a player is tackled and taken to the ground, the tackled player must release the ball and cannot play the ball again until he regains his feet. Depending on whether the player is on his feet (a maul), or on the ground (a ruck), a struggle ensues to either maintain, or gain, possession of the ball and get it out to the backs. Once a ruck is formed, hands may not be used to gain control of the ball. This is done by either pushing the opposition off the ball, or moving the ball back with his feet.
For a minor infraction of the laws (rules of the game), or if the ball becomes tied up in a ruck or a maul, the referee will call for a scrum. A scrum is the large cluster of shoving people, or more correctly the forwards of each team trying to gain possession of the ball by pushing the opposition off it. Major infractions of the laws will result in either a penalty kick, or a free kick, depending on the severity of the infraction. When the ball goes out of bounds, the play is reinitiated with a line-out. This is when both teams line up opposite each other in two parallel lines and the team with the line-out throws the ball down the line between them. Once the ball is in the air both teams jump to catch the ball.