The Game of Rugby Union
Strap yourself in; this is going to be one hell of a ride. The basics of rugby union are simple, but understanding the many rules of the sport are another thing altogether. The reason for this is simple and alluded to above – rugby union is a highly physical sport and players are given nowhere near the same degree of protection as they are in American Football, for example. The rules are there to account for every contingency and ensure the officials can prevent any dangerous situations arising. So, if you want to get involved in the game, you’d be well advised to pay attention!
The rules are today monitored by the International Rugby Board and are forever being discussed, with amendments always under consideration. The nature of any sport is such that a degree of subjectivity is involved in decision-making on the field. Therefore, the IRB depends to an extent on the expertise and common sense of the referee as well as what they term the ‘proper spirit’ of the players and the coaches.
Getting to grips with all the regulations is a task and a half. However, the following is a detailed interpretation of the full IRB rule book, intended to give beginners a complete sense of the do’s and don’t’s of the sport without the detail required for top flight rugby matches. For a full version of the laws of the game, check out the IRB website.
Rugby union in short
Rugby union is a physical sport contested by two teams of 15 or 7 players in which the outcome is decided on a points basis. However, unlike football or racquet sports, the ways in which points can be scored are manifold. The most obvious objective is to score a try – achieved by carrying the ball to the opposition’s goal area and touching the ball down. That said, other methods provide (lesser) point rewards, achieved by kicking the ball into a defined area in the opponent’s goal (marked by goalposts).
The surface will usually be grass but may also be sand, clay, snow or artificial grass. Concrete and asphalt surfaces are forbidden.
Rugby Union Pitch
The playing field should be a maximum of 100 metres long by 70 metres wide. At either side of the pitch is a Touch-in goal, which represents each team’s goal area, and must be between 10 and 22 metres wide. At the end of each touch-in goal is the Dead-ball line and is connected to the two Touch lines‘, which also demarcate the boundaries of the playing field.
The field is split in half by the Half-way line and on either side are two vertical unbroken lines, known as the 10 metre line and the 22 metre line respectively. The adjacent rectangular area to the touch-in goal is therefore unsurprisingly known as The ‘22’. One broken line runs on either side vertically and is known as the 5 metre line.
Four broken lines run horizontally on the pitch, representing distances to the touchline. These are the 5 metre lines and the 15 metre lines respectively.
Front and centre of both touch-in-goal areas are the goal posts. The distance between the two posts must be 5.6 metres and there must be a distance of 3 metres from the floor to the crossbar which joins the two goal posts. There must also be at least 0.4 metres extra height on the goal posts above the crossbar (although most rugby pitches will have very tall goal posts to better outline the goal area). If padding is used on the goal posts, then it must not exceed 3 centre metres over the goal-line.
There are 14 flag posts, located outside the touchline. 2 are placed at the intersection of each touch-in goal lines, two are placed on each dead-ball line, two are placed on each 22 metre line and 22 are situated on the halfway line.
The match ball must be oval with dimensions of 280-300 mm in length, 740-770 mm measuring end to end, and the width circumference must be 580-620 mm. It must also weigh between 410 and 460 grams.
The ball is usually made of leather, but can be from synthetic materials.
Number of players – the team
There can be no more than 15 players on each team at any time during the match.
Seven substitutes are permitted per Union in international matches, although the figure can be higher or lower for other matches. Two front-row substitutes are five other substitutes are acceptable, but changes can only be made with the referee’s permission and when the ball is dead. The substitution(s) can be temporary or permanent.
A temporary substitution is usually for wounded and/or bleeding players who need time to get patched up. The departing player must be return within fifteen minutes, however, or the substitution becomes permanent. The only situation where the player may return is if he/she is part of the front-row and one of the on-field forwards is injured, suspended or sent-off.
Permanent substitutions are usually only necessary for serious injuries and should be done on the advice of the match or team doctor.
Dealing with front-row suspensions or sendings off
Should a front-row player be suspended temporarily, sent off or injured and the team has no front-row substitute available, all future scrums in the match will be uncontested. This means the teams do not push or compete for the ball and the team putting the ball in must win it back.
Unsurprisingly, the uniform of choice is a jersey, shorts, socks and studded boots. Optional clothing includes shin guards, ankle supports, mitts, small shoulder pads, a mouth guard/gum shield and head gear.
The maximum duration of each match is 80 minutes with added time only for injuries and stoppages during normal time. The match is split into two 40-minute halves and half-time can be no longer than 10 minutes, after which the teams swap playing ends and the game continues.
Time keeping is ultimately the referee’s responsibility, but he/she can take advice from a timekeeper official and/or the touch-judges.
Extra time is an option in certain cup matches (including the World Cup knockout stages) where scores are equal after 80 minutes. Added time is composed of injuries (typically no longer than a minute before the player is treated off the field), substitutes and dealing with foul play.
The match officials are made up of the referee, two touch-judges and other off-field figures like the time-keeper, the referee and touch-judge reserves, the all-important computer referee and the match doctor.
Duties of the referee
Simply put, according to the IRB, the referee should be considered ‘the sole judge of fact and of law during a match’ from the toss before the match with the captains until the final whistle. The referee therefore keeps the time and the score, deals with substitutions and allows treatment to injured players, and basically adjudicates on anything which requires a decision during the match. It is also enshrined in the laws that the players must ‘respect the authority of the referee’ and not dispute his/her decisions. This extends to disciplinary matters, and temporary suspensions and sendings off are unquestionably the responsibility of the referee.
The referee is permitted to consult with other officials regarding any of his/her duties. This is most common in cases of foul play and a contentious try. Touch judges may flag to inform the referee that he has information, for example, and the computer referee can also assist, as he/she has access to video replays.
The referee’s whistle
The whistle indicates the start and end of each half of the match and is blown in game to stop play or to indicate the scoring of points. In case of foul play, the whistle is blown once to stop play and, after making the offender aware of the infringement, then a second time to award the penalty.
The referee must also blow the whistle when the ball has gone out of play, or if the ball hits the referee and an advantage is gained by either team.
Duties of the touch judge
A touch judge is located on either side of the ground and follows the game from the touchline. They remain in touch at all times except for a kick at goal (when they stand behind the goal posts) or when reporting an offence to the referee. The touch judge can assist the referee if requested but may be overruled.
The touch judge’s basic duties revolve around proper signalling. For example, to indicate a successful kick at goal, the touch judge holds his flag up. Similarly, to signal the ball has gone in touch, the touch judge holds the flag up and points to the team entitled to a throw in. The flag is then lowered when the ball is thrown back in. For foul play, the touch judge holds the flag horizontally and points infield.
Mode of play
Once the game is underway, players are permitted to throw or kick the ball, tackle a player with the ball and take part in a scrum, ruck, maul or line-out.
The advantage rule is applied a great deal in rugby union to encourage the game to flow, indicated by a shout from the referee. To define it, an advantage means an infringement where the punishment is delayed by the referee because the offended team may benefit more from play continuing. This can mean the infringement passes, should the offended team genuinely benefit in tactical or territorial terms.
The advantage is the first common situation where the subjectivity of the referee plays a substantial party. The referee must consider what defines a tactical (whether the team can play the ball freely and progress) or territorial (ground gained) advantage. However, if the referee feels the advantage has not been gained, he may blow the whistle and award the foul to the team.
Advantage cannot be played after a collapsed scrum or a wheeled scrum (moved more than 90 degrees), or if a player is lifted in the air in a scrum, or if the ball comes out of the scrum without having been played.
Method of scoring
Try of the Century
Try (5 points)
When an attacking player grounds the ball in the opposition’s in-goal. A conversion kick is also awarded to the offensive team.
Penalty try (5 points)
Awarded by the referee when foul play prevented a ‘probable’ try. Treated as though the try was scored between the goal posts.
Conversion (2 points)
An opportunity to kick at goal awarded to a team after scoring a try. May be a place kick or drop kick, and is taken on line with where the try was scored.
Penalty goal (3 points)
A successful kick at goal, with the ball soaring between the posts and over the crossbar. Taken where the penalty was awarded or, in case of certain infractions, in front of the goal posts. Should a kick at goal hit the post or crossbar then the ball is in play and active. However, the ball must not be touched by a team mate or the ground for a goal to be scored.
For kicks at goal, all the kicker’s team must be behind the ball, and all the opposition must be on their goal line and not overstep until the kicker moves to strike. They may then charge but cannot shout during the kick. Any infraction will mean another chance is given to the kicker, if he/she missed.
Defined as anything against ‘the letter and spirit of the Laws of the Game’. Type of foul play fall into various categories:
- Obstruction – All result in a penalty kick being awarded to the opposition.
- Charging or Pushing – When two players go for the ball and the challenge is not shoulder-to-shoulder.
- Running in front of a ball carrier – By a teammate in order to block off any tackles on the carrier.
- Blocking the tackler – Similar to above. Preventing the ball carrier from being tackled fairly.
- Blocking the ball – Standing or moving somewhere to prevent the ball being played.
- Ball carrier running into a teammate at a set piece – Comes under the same category and usually done after a ruck, scrum, maul or lineout for protection from opposition tacklers.
- Flanker obstructing opposition scrum half – Preventing him/her from moving around the scrum.
If considered intentional, a caution or a sending off may be necessary. A caution means temporary suspension for 10 minutes playing time. If another offence follows by the same player, it must be a sending-off. Included are the following offences:
- Time wasting – A free-kick is awarded to the opposition as a result.
- Throw into touch – Includes the touch-in goal and dead-ball line. If in-goal, then a penalty is awarded 5 metres from the goal line. Kick is awarded on the 15 metre line if the offence takes place between there and the touchline. Otherwise, the penalty is awarded where it occurred.
Always results in a penalty kick and means a caution, after warnings to the player.
Dangerous play and misconduct
(All result in a penalty kick being awarded to the opposition)
- Punching or Striking
- Stamping or Trampling
- Playing/Tackling an opponent without the ball (except in a scum, ruck or maul)
- Dangerous charging – Defined as a tackle without holding onto the player.
- Rushing in a scrum, ruck or maul/Lifting players off their feet in all three/Not binding into a ruck or maul/Intentionally collapsing a ruck, scrum or maul.
- Bad sportsmanship
- Misconduct while the ball is out of play
- Late charging the kicker
- Dangerous tackling (early or late, above the shoulder line, or with a ‘stiff-arm’ (meaning a strike), or tackling anyone whose feet are off the ground)
- Tackling the jumper in the air
Sanctions for foul play
- Verbal warning – Given to an individual by the referee.
- Yellow card – Means a temporary suspension.
- Sending off – Means a player can take no further part in the match.
Offside and onside
To be offside is to be in front of a teammate with the ball or in front of whoever last played the ball on your team. An offside player is only penalised for being offside when he/she interferes with play though, either by trying to play the ball or obstructing the flow of the match.
Being put onside
There are numerous ways for an offside player to be put onside again, either by his/her teammates, the opposition or by his/her own actions:
- Movement by the player – Re-positioning behind the last teammate who played the ball.
- Movement by a teammate – Someone carrying the ball moves in front of the offside player.
- Action by the kicker – The same thing; moving forward from an onside position.
- Running forward – By anyone in an onside position.
- The opposition moves 5 metres with the ball
- The opposition kicks or passes the ball 5 metres
- The opposition touches the ball intentionally without holding on
10 metre law
Essentially, an offside player must be 10 metres or more away from an opponent after the ball is kicked forward, or he will concede a penalty kick for interference. This is only disregarded if the opposition charges down the kick.
Should a player interfere with play in an offside position unintentionally, a scrum is awarded to the opposition (if the offside player’s team gains an advantage).
Knock on or throw forward
Defined as a loss of possession and the ball moves forward as a result of contact with the arm or hand. The only possible exception to this offence is in the case of a charge down (running at the kicker and throwing yourself at the ball) when the ball subsequently goes forward.
A throw forward is largely self-explanatory, but it does not include the ball bouncing forward (e.g. if you throw a pass which goes astray and the ball bounces forward).
Unintentional knock on
A scrum is awarded to the opposition.
Unintentional knock on at a lineout
A scrum is awarded to the opposition, but 15 metres from the touchline.
Knock on or throw forward in the in-goal
A scrum to the opposition on the perpetrator’s 5 metre line and 5 metres from the touchline.
Intentional knock on or throw forward
A penalty kick is awarded to the opposition.
Kick off and restart kicks
Both the kick off and the restart kick (taken after points are scored by the team who conceded) are taken on the halfway line. The kick off is decided by a coin toss and whoever received the kick off in the first-half takes the kick in the second period.
During both kicks, all the kicker’s team must be behind the ball and the opposition must all be behind their 10 metre line. The kick must reach or go beyond that line or the opposition can choose a scrum at the centre with their put in. Similarly, the ball must land in the field of play or the opposition can choose what to do (accept the lineout, have the kick retaken or accept a scrum with their put in). It also must not go in the in-goal and be touched down or go dead.
The drop out
When the ball is made dead in the in-goal or past the dead-ball line. Means a drop kick by the defending team anywhere on or behind the 22 metre line, which must go past the 22 metre line and land in the field of play. For a drop out, the kicker’s team must be behind the ball and the opposition must be behind the 22-metre line too.
Falling to the ground with the ball without being tackled
It is an offence to not make the ball available when on the ground. Any player who goes down must immediately get up with the ball (if not tackled), pass the ball, or release the ball. A penalty kick is awarded to the opposition for any infringement.
Similarly, no player is permitted to lie on the ball, fall on the player with the ball, or fall on players lying near the ball.
A tackle is defined in rugby union as the use of physical force within the rules to bring the ball carrier to the ground (one knee or both knees on the ground). It cannot take place when a maul is in process (see below). However, to adhere to the rules, the tackler must ensure they then…
- Release the player after they both go to ground.
- Move away from the tackled player
- Get up before playing the ball
Failure to do any of these will result in a penalty kick for the opposition. However, once tackled, the ball carrier must also do the following things;
- Release the ball by putting it on the ground in any direction immediately (or concede a penalty kick). This also means opposition players on their feet must have access to the ball.
- Not lie on the ball or near it, and must make it available as quickly as possible
It is worth noting that a carrier can score a try if his momentum takes him over the try line, or reach out with the ball for the line. Should a player take the ball on, they must remember that they…
- Must be behind the ball if receiving it from a teammate
- Cannot be tackled by anyone on the ground
- Can take the ball from an opponent if he/she is reaching for the goal line
A ruck is formed when one or more players on their feet come together scrum-like with the ball on the ground. Feet are then used to win and keep possession. To maintain a ruck means adhering to a number of rules:
- The heads and shoulders of all bound players must be no lower than the hips, making the ruck appear like a raised scrum (Free Kick for any infringement)
- To ‘bind’ to a ruck means putting an arm around the body of a teammate – you cannot simply place a hand on another player (Penalty Kick for any infringement)
- Must try and stay on your feet and should not ‘ruck’ players on the ground (Penalty Kick for any infringement)
- To be onside during a ruck, you must ensure you are behind the foot of the teammate hindmost in the ruck. As such, you must join or leave the ruck from behind (Penalty Kick for any infringement)
The ruck ends when the ball reaches either team’s goal line, or if it leaves the raised scrum. Should the ruck be made unplayable (not moving or the ball doesn’t leave the ruck quickly enough) by either side, a scrum is awarded to the offended team (defined as whoever moved it last).
A maul is formed when the ball carrier is held by at least one opponent and a team mate in a scenario very similar to a ruck. It operates according to the same fundamental rules as a ruck but the ball is being held by a player, as he/she has not been tackled.
The maul ends when the player with the ball leaves the maul or when the ball is on the ground or over the goal line. However, the maul cannot remain stationary for more than five seconds or the referee will deem it unplayable and award a scrum to the team not in possession of the ball. A degree of subjectivity is involved though as, if the referee can see signs that the ball is moving within the maul, it can be kept going for longer.
A player can only make a mark by being on or behind his/her team’s 22 metre line and cleanly catching the ball, then shouting ‘mark’. The referee signals the mark by blowing his whistle (similar to how things are done in Australian Rules Football).
Once this has been done, the player is entitled to make an unimpeded kick and the opposing team must be at least 10 metres away. This does not count at kick-off or with restart kicks, but does apply to drop outs. If the player who made the mark has his kick charged down, a penalty is awarded to his team.
To be in touch is to drift outside the parameters of the playing field. There are a number of regulations on legitimately putting the ball into touch:
When the ball leaves the playing area or the carrier touches/crosses the touchline, no matter how insignificant. The result is a lineout with the opposition throwing the ball in, except if the ball is put into touch as part of a free kick (in which case, the team who kicked the ball receive the lineout but the ball cannot go directly into touch unless taken in the 22).
Kicking directly into touch
When the ball does not land in the playing area first. If a kick is taken outside the 22 and it drifts directly into touch, there is no gain in ground to the team and an opposition lineout is actually taken where the ball was kicked.
If the ball is kicked directly into touch while in the 22, there is a gain in ground and an opposition lineout is taken where the ball went into touch.
The quick throw-in
Can be taken when the ball has gone into touch before a lineout has formed. However, for a quick throw in, the ball that went into touch has to be used and must travel 5 metres or more along the line before being touched or hitting the ground. Failure to do this correctly means the opponent receives the throw-in.
A lineout is formed after the ball has gone into touch and provides the safest way for both teams to contest the ball as it returns into play. The lineout is composed of two single parallel lines of players, each one representing one of the teams. The start of the lineout cannot be any closer than 5 metres from the touch line. There must also be at least a 1 metre gap between the two lines of players.
Each line has to have two players minimum but the maximum number is decided by whoever takes the throw-in. All other players not involved in the lineout must be at least 10 metres behind the touchline. If the lineout is close to either side’s goal line then all the defending team not involved in the lineout must be on or behind that line. Failure to follow any of these rules will result in a free kick for the opposing team.
The throw-in is then delivered by one of the players. He/she must ensure that the ball’s trajectory is straight and enables both sides to contest the ball. However, there are a number of infringements which either side can make during the throw-in, most of which result in a penalty kick on the 15 metre line to the opposition:
- Moving into an offside position (crossing the line of touch, which is located between the two lines of players)
- Stepping across the line of touch
- Using an opponent as leverage when jumping for the ball
- Holding, charging or shoving an opponent during the throw-in
- Supporting a teammate below the shorts from behind or below the thighs from the front
Free kicks on the 15 metre line can also be given in certain situations during the throw-in:
- Using a teammate as leverage when jumping for the ball
- Lifting a team mate to catch the ball
- Supporting a team mate before he/she has jumped (N.B. Once the player has jumped, he/she may be supported in the air by a teammate but not before)
- Jumping or supporting before the throw-in
- Gripping a teammate below the waist before he/she has jumped
- Blocking the throw-in by being less than 5 metres from the touch line
- Failure to lower the supported player immediately after the ball has been received
- Using the outside arm alone to catch or deflect the ball (N.B. Must use both hands or the inside arm)
- Moving into the space between the 5 metre line and the touch line, then progressing to the opponent’s goal line before the lineout has ended
- Peeling off (leaving the lineout to catch the ball) before the throw-in has been taken
- Moving within 10 metres from the line of touch after peeling off, or remaining static after peeling off
A muddy scrum
A scrum is a frequent and necessary part of the game, used to restart play after a stoppage or certain infringements. A scrum is contested by both teams at the point where the stoppage/infraction took place.
Each team contributes 8 players organised into three rows – the front row containing three players, the second row containing two players and the remaining players behind them. The scrum is formed when these players interlock heads, engage with the opposition and proceed pushing against one another while one of the teams (dependent on which team caused the stoppage) puts the ball in. This is then contested by all scrumming players with their feet, as they attempt to hook the ball back on their side for the scrum-half (who delivers the ball) to retrieve and distribute.
For more information on which players form a team’s scrum, see the section on ‘Positions in Rugby Union’. In short, the front row is made up of the two prop forwards and the hooker, the second row is composed of the locks, and the back row is typically made up by the two wing forwards and the number 8.
To ensure the scrum engages properly, the referee marks the point where it must be formed. Before engaging, both teams’ scrums must be no more than an arm’s length apart. Then the front rows crouch (the referee shouting ‘crouch!’), ensuring each player’s head and shoulders are no lower than their hips (for safety reasons), and the props touch each other’s outside shoulder (the referee shouting ‘touch!’ and then ‘pause!’). When the referee is satisfied, he/she will call ‘engage!’ and the heads of each front row player must interlock, ensuring they are not pressing against a teammate. Persistent infringements in this regard will result in a free kick for the opposition.
After engaging, the scrum half must throw the ball in immediately after the referee calls him to do so, or face conceding a free kick. The scrum half also must throw the ball into the tunnel created by the scrum along the middle line, to ensure a proper contest. He/she will also hold the ball during the delivery with one hand on either point. Any backward movement applied to the ball, or any other failure to complete the above, will result in a free kick to the opposition.
To make things even more complicated, there are a number of other rules to consider once the scrum is in action. Infringements will result in a penalty kick unless indicated:
- Offside (N.B. The offside lines are between the two teams of scrumming players and, for non-scrumming players, at the hindmost point of their team’s scrum. The scrum-half is only offside if both feet are ahead of the ball though)
- Raising both feet and swinging for the ball
- Kicking the ball repeatedly out of the tunnel
- Intentionally collapsing the ball, either by lowering your body or twisting it
- Lifting an opponent in the air
- Kicking or handling the ball in the scrum
- Falling on the ball while it is coming out of the scrum
- Holding onto an opposing flanker for extra leverage
- Anyone not from the front row attempting to play the ball (Free Kick)
- Scrum-half making the opponent think the ball is out of the scrum when it is not (Free Kick)
- Bringing the ball back into the scrum once it has left (Free Kick)
The scrum concludes when either the ball is out or when the scrum itself reaches either side’s goal line (when the ball can be touched down for a try), or if the last player in the scrum (usually the number 8) unbinds and takes the ball on.
Both the goal line and the goal posts count as part of the goal area. Therefore, if an offensive or defensive player touches either with the ball in-hand, it must be called a try or a touch down respectively.
The term pushover try is occasionally heard and refers to the successful conclusion of a maul, scrum or ruck for the attacking team, with one player touching the ball down in the goal area after any of the above reaches the goal line.
Try in touch
If any part of the body is in touch when the ball is grounded, no try can be awarded and lineout is instead awarded to the opposition. However, this does not mean when the player is airborne, as in touch means contact on the ground beyond the touchline.