Spectator’s Guide to Rugby

The fol­low­ing is an excerpt from the USA Rugby and is avail­able for down­load here: Spectator’s Guide to Rugby.

Ori­gins of Rugby

Rugby is the pre­cur­sor of Amer­i­can foot­ball and has been played in the United States since about 1870.

Amer­i­can foot­ball, as well as bas­ket­ball, owes many of its char­ac­ter­is­tics to rugby. In fact, bas­ket­ball was invented by James Nai­smith as an indoor alter­na­tive to Rugby when the New Eng­land win­ters required an indoor game. Some of rugby’s char­ac­ter­is­tics such as quick switches between attack and defense, ball han­dling and com­mit­ting defend­ers to attack space are all found in bas­ket­ball. Some peo­ple liken rugby to tackle bas­ket­ball on grass.

Sim­i­larly, Amer­i­can foot­ball evolved with many of the same prin­ci­ples, strate­gies and tac­tics as Rugby. How­ever, there are sev­eral obvi­ous dif­fer­ences. Rugby is played at a fast pace, with few stop­pages and con­tin­u­ous pos­ses­sion changes. All play­ers on the field, regard­less of posi­tion, can run, pass, kick and catch the ball. Like­wise, all play­ers must also be able to tackle and defend, mak­ing each posi­tion both offen­sive and defen­sive in nature. There is no block­ing of the oppo­nents like in foot­ball and there are a max­i­mum of seven sub­sti­tu­tions allowed per team. A match con­sists of two 40-​minute halves.

Rugby is con­sid­ered to be a gender-​neutral sport as almost forty per­cent of all play­ers in the U. S. are female.

Rugby Ethos

All play­ers, coaches, offi­cials, par­ents and fans are encour­aged to remem­ber that rugby holds a unique place in Amer­i­can sport. Rugby is not about hooli­gan­ism or vio­lence; how­ever that is often the image of rugby that is pro­jected in the United States. The con­duct of every player, coach, offi­cial, par­ent and fan has a last­ing effect on the image of rugby in our coun­try. The IRB Play­ing Char­ter states:

Rugby owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is played both to the let­ter and within the spirit of the Laws. The respon­si­bil­ity for ensur­ing this prac­tice lies not with one indi­vid­ual — it involves coaches, cap­tains, play­ers and ref­er­ees. It is through dis­ci­pline, con­trol and mutual respect that the spirit of the game flour­ishes and, in the con­text of a game as phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing as Rugby, these are the qual­i­ties which forge the fel­low­ship and sense of fair play so essen­tial to the game’s ongo­ing suc­cess and survival.

Rugby is val­ued as a sport for men and women, boys and girls. It builds team­work, under­stand­ing, co-​operation and respect for fel­low ath­letes. It is because of, not despite, rugby’s intensely phys­i­cal and ath­letic char­ac­ter­is­tics that such great cama­raderie exists before and after matches.”

To help fur­ther the pos­i­tive val­ues that rugby engen­ders, USA Rugby has part­nered with the Pos­i­tive Coach­ing Alliance© (PCA). Through its coach edu­ca­tion and devel­op­ment pro­grams, USA Rugby pro­motes the “Double-​Goal Coach,” who wants to win but has a sec­ond, more impor­tant, goal of using sports to teach life lessons; and the prin­ci­ple of “Hon­or­ing the Game.” This includes hav­ing respect for the rules of the game, oppo­nents, offi­cials, team­mates and self.

Field of Play

Rugby is played on a field, called a pitch, which is longer and wider than a foot­ball field, more like a soc­cer field. Addi­tion­ally, there are 1022 meter end zones, called the in-​goal area, behind the goal­posts. The goal­posts are the same size as Amer­i­can foot­ball goalposts.

The Ball

A rugby ball is made of leather or other sim­i­lar syn­thetic mate­r­ial. It is easy to grip and does not have laces. Rugby balls are made in vary­ing sizes (three, four or five) for both youth and adult play­ers. Like foot­balls, rugby balls are oval in shape, but are rounder and less pointed than foot­balls to min­i­mize erratic bounces.

Play­ers & Positions

Rugby has 15 play­ers on each team. Every­one on the pitch plays offense and defense, and the num­ber of each player sig­ni­fies that player’s spe­cific posi­tion. Jer­sey num­bers above 15 are worn by sub­sti­tute players.

Play­ers num­bered one through eight are for­wards, typ­i­cally the larger, stronger play­ers of the team whose main job is to win pos­ses­sion of the ball. They would be the equiv­a­lent to Amer­i­can foot­ball line­back­ers and line­man. Play­ers num­bered nine-​fifteen are backs, the smaller, faster and more agile play­ers. Their main role is to exploit pos­ses­sion of the ball won by the for­wards. Backs may be equated to run­ning backs, wide receivers and quar­ter­backs in Amer­i­can football.


Start­ing the Game

Just as in Amer­i­can foot­ball, rugby begins with a kick­off to the oppo­nent from mid-​field. Pro­vided that the ball trav­els beyond the10-​meter line, any player from either team may gain pos­ses­sion of the ball. You may occa­sion­ally see play­ers lift each other to gain advan­tage here.

Mov­ing the Ball

Rugby is con­tin­u­ous like soc­cer. There is no block­ing in rugby. Addi­tion­ally, rugby does not have downs and it is not required to reach 10 yards and stop. The per­son with the ball leads the attack and there are sev­eral ways to move the ball. Any player may carry, pass or kick the ball and play is not stopped and there­fore con­tin­ues when the ball hits the ground or when a player is tackled.

  • Run­ning: When run­ning the ball, play­ers may con­tinue to run until they are tack­led, step out of bounds or run beyond the goal line. Play­ers run the ball to advance toward the opponent’s goal line.
  • Pass­ing: The ball may be passed to any player. How­ever, it may only be passed lat­er­ally or back­ward, never for­ward. Play­ers pass the ball to an open team­mate to keep it in play and fur­ther advance it.
  • Kick­ing: Any player may kick the ball for­ward at any time. Once the ball is kicked, play­ers of either team, regard­less of whether or not the ball hits the ground, may gain pos­ses­sion. Play­ers typ­i­cally kick the ball to a team­mate in an effort to advance it or to the oppos­ing team to obtain relief from poor field position.


There are four ways for a team to score points in rugby:

  • Try: Five points are awarded to a team for touch­ing the ball down in the other team’s in-​goal area. This is much like a touch­down in Amer­i­can foot­ball but requires the ball actu­ally be grounded.
  • Con­ver­sion: Fol­low­ing a try, two points are awarded for a suc­cess­ful kick through the goal posts. The attempt is taken on a line, at least 10 meters, straight out from the point where the ball was touched down. This is like an extra point in Amer­i­can football.
  • Penalty Kick: Fol­low­ing a major law vio­la­tion, the kick­ing team, if in range, has the option to “kick for points.” Three points are awarded for a suc­cess­ful penalty kick. The kick must be from the point of the penalty or any­where on a line straight behind that point. The ball can be played if the kick fails.
  • Drop Goal: Three points are awarded for a suc­cess­ful drop kick. A drop kick may be taken from any­where on the field dur­ing play. A drop goal is sim­i­lar to a field goal in foot­ball; how­ever, in rugby the kick is made dur­ing the course of nor­mal play. The ball is alive if the kick fails.

Restart­ing Play

There are two meth­ods of restart­ing play fol­low­ing a stop­page caused by either the ball going out of bounds or because of an infrac­tion of the laws.


If the ball goes out of bounds, it is restarted with a line-​out. Both teams form a line per­pen­dic­u­lar to the touch­line and one-​meter (three feet) apart from one another. A player of the non-​offending team calls a play and throws the ball in the air in a straight line between the two lines. Play­ers of each team may be sup­ported in the air by their team­mates to gain pos­ses­sion of the ball. This is sim­i­lar to a jump ball in basketball.


Rugby’s unique for­ma­tion, the fore­run­ner of the Amer­i­can foot­ball line of scrim­mage, is the method used to restart the game after the ref­eree has whis­tled a minor law vio­la­tion. A bound group of play­ers from each team form a “tun­nel” with the oppo­si­tion. The non-​offending team puts the ball into the tun­nel by rolling it into the mid­dle and each team pushes for­ward until one player is able to hook the ball with the feet and push it to the back row play­ers of his/​her team. The scrum half then retrieves the ball and puts it into play.


One of the more chal­leng­ing aspects about rugby for a first time rugby observer is the off­side law. Sim­i­lar to soc­cer, the off­side line is con­tin­u­ally mov­ing up and down the pitch. In most instances, the ball cre­ates the off­side line and play­ers are not per­mit­ted to par­tic­i­pate in play if they are on the oppos­ing team’s side of the ball. Sim­ply being off­side is not a penalty, but attempt­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the game from an off­side posi­tion is.


After an offense occurs, if the ref­eree thinks the non-​offending team might ben­e­fit by play­ing on they may play advan­tage. How much ter­ri­tory or oppor­tu­nity is needed before advan­tage is gained depends on the nature of the offense – more for a penalty then for a scrum. Skill­ful use of advan­tage can min­i­mize stop­pages and pro­vide for a more flow­ing game.

Tack­les, Rucks and Mauls

Play­ers in pos­ses­sion of and car­ry­ing the ball may be stopped by being tack­led by the oppos­ing team. Play­ers are tack­led around the waist and legs and, in gen­eral, may not be tack­led higher. Once a player is tack­led, how­ever, play does not stop as it does in football.

A player who is tack­led to the ground must make the ball avail­able imme­di­ately so that play can con­tinue. Sup­port­ing play­ers from both teams (one from each team) con­verge over the ball on the ground, bind­ing with each other and attempt to push the oppos­ing play­ers back­wards in a man­ner sim­i­lar to a scrum. This sit­u­a­tion is known as a ruck. The ball may not be picked up by any player, until the ball emerges out of the ruck. The ruck ends and play con­tin­ues. A team that can retain pos­ses­sion after the tackle and the ensu­ing ruck has a huge advantage.

A maul is formed with a sim­i­lar gath­er­ing of play­ers, except the player in pos­ses­sion of the ball is sim­ply held up, and not tack­led. The maul ends when the ball emerges.

Other Rugby Terms

Drop Kick: A kick made when the player drops the ball and it bounces off the ground prior to being kicked. Worth three points if it trav­els through the goal­posts. Drop kicks are also used to restart play after a score.

For­ward Pass: A vio­la­tion that usu­ally results in a scrum to the non-​offending team.

Infringe­ment: A vio­la­tion of a law.

Knock-​On: The acci­den­tal hit­ting or drop­ping of the ball for­ward. The infringe­ment is the same as that for a for­ward pass; a scrum to the other team.

Penal­ties: Penal­ties occur reg­u­larly in rugby. Unlike other sports, there typ­i­cally aren’t yardage penal­ties and teams do not have to play short­handed. Instead, the non-​offending team is usu­ally awarded a choice to kick the ball to gain field advan­tage. Some of the more impor­tant penal­ties are listed below:

  • Penalty Kick: Awarded after a seri­ous infringe­ment of the law. Offend­ers are required to retreat 10 yards while the oppos­ing team is given the oppor­tu­nity to restart play unop­posed. Teams will often kick the ball up field and out of bounds to gain field advan­tage. When they do this, play is restarted as a line­out where the ball goes out of bounds. If in range, they may attempt a kick at the goal posts, worth three points. Finally, they may sim­ply tap the ball with their foot and run with it.
  • Free Kick: A kick is awarded to the non-​offending team for an infringe­ment by its oppo­nent. Unless a Law states oth­er­wise, a free kick awarded of an infringe­ment is awarded at the place of infringe­ment. Also, a free kick may not be kicked at goal for three points.
  • Sin Bin: On occa­sion, the ref­eree will send a player behind one of the in-​goal areas (the Sin Bin) for seri­ous and/​or repeated infringe­ments for a spec­i­fied period of time. The team is required to play short-​handed until the ref­eree per­mits the player to return. This penalty is fairly rare, but used by the ref­er­ees to main­tain con­trol of the game.
  • Send-​Offs: In extreme cases a ref­eree may send a player off the field for dan­ger­ous or reck­less play. A player who has been sent off is banned from that game and is not per­mit­ted to return or be replaced.

Put In: Rolling the ball down the cen­ter of the scrum tun­nel by the scrum half.

Set Piece: A term for scrums and line-​outs because these are the only chore­o­graphed plays of the game.

Sup­port Play­ers: Play­ers who posi­tion them­selves to increase the ball trans­fer options of the ball carrier.

Tap and Go: A gen­tle kick to one­self, fol­lowed by a pick up, used to restart play after either a penalty or free kick is awarded.

Throw-​In: Throw­ing the ball down the mid­dle of a lineout.

Touch­line: The side bound­ary of the field (sideline).

22-​Meter Line: Balls kicked out of bounds from behind the “22” are restarted by a line­out at the spot where the ball went out. Balls kicked out of bounds from in front of the 22 are restarted by a line­out where the ball was kicked. The excep­tion is a ball kicked out of bounds imme­di­ately after a penalty has been awarded. In this case, the line­out is held where the ball went out and the kick­ing team retains the throw-​in.