An Introduction to Rugby Union

Starting life as just an offshoot of football, rugby union is today a major outdoor sport in its own right. One of the two forms of rugby football (along with rugby league), it is generally considered the more popular, being played by men in over 100 countries in five continents and by women in 52 countries. Indeed, according to statistics from the International Rugby Board, approximately 3 million individuals aged 6 to 60 years regularly play rugby union.

A substantial reason for such figures is rugby union’s cross-sport appeal. It is typically compared to an array of other sports such as football (with the game tracing its origins back to the beautiful game), American Football (largely due to the emphasis on ball-in-hand in both games) and rugby league (for obvious reasons). As such, for any sports fan, there is something familiar and therefore attractive about rugby union. However, while such similarities make the basics of rugby union easy to pick up, to understand the game properly requires more than a little effort and patience (which is where we come in!).

Such nuances are perfectly logical considering the physical nature of rugby union. Statistics have shown that injuries in the sport have increased commensurately with the growth in rugby’s popularity. A look at the injury record of England’s Jonny Wilkinson, for example, will give you a sense of the physical demands of rugby union. As such, setting out detailed regulations on what can and cannot be done is the best possible safety guarantee both to individuals starting out in the game, and experienced professionals.

Nevertheless, the expansion of rugby union over the last two centuries is proof of how, with the proper safety precautions and on-field attitude, the enjoyment you get from playing or watching far outweighs any risks. Rugby union’s status as a worldwide sport is confirmed by the 85 national members of the International Rugby Board, and the old image of the game as divided into northern and southern hemispheres with just a few teams from each composing the sport in full is long gone. Instead, the modern rugby union is thriving, with the old core of England and the Home Nations, Australia, South Africa, France and New Zealand expanded to incorporate teams from Argentina, Fiji, USA, Italy, Japan, Canada and even Romania.

The Famous Haka

Frequent international and club level competitions illustrate the sport’s prosperity, while its global reach is confirmed every four years with the World Cup. First established in 1987, this tournament is today considered one of the world’s sporting highlights behind the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics. Whereas the 1987 affair saw a cumulative audience of 300 million, just 16 years later the 2003 tournament attracted an incredible 3.5 billion viewers all together, with the event broadcast in 205 countries. The nearest equivalents at club level, the Heineken Cup in Europe and the Super 14 in the southern hemisphere attract millions of viewers in their own right, with the events broadcast in over 100 and 40 countries respectively.

Facts such as these have led to increasing calls from the International Rugby Board right down to the players for rugby union to be re-instated as an Olympic event. First included between 1900 and 1924 (with the USA remarkably winning two gold medals in 1920 and 1924 during highly truncated competitions), the Olympic board have been lobbied by many countries since the 1980s to reconsider their cancellation. There are positive omens as well, with the shorter ‘Sevens’ form of rugby union currently a part of the Commonwealth Games.

The greatest argument in favour of rugby union as an Olympic sport is the sheer number of adherents to the sport. At its best, the game is an incredibly entertaining, physically and mentally challenging affair. Moreover, with the proper guidance, it’s very easy to understand, both as a spectator and a player. With that in mind, put your learning cap on and get involved!