So You Want To Watch The Rugby

Friday 25th, September 2015 / 23:20 Written by
So You Want To Watch The Rugby

The Rugby World Cup runs from now until Halloween, and now is a great time to start watching. But, like a lot of sports, it can be difficult to pick up what’s going on in rugby if you’re just watching along. That’s where we come in.

Maybe you’re bored with all the yellow flags being thrown in the NFL this past week. Maybe you’re waiting for hockey season to start. Maybe you’ve got a friend who’s a rugger and he or she dragged you along to a pub to watch a game.

Whatever the reason, you’ve been catching some of the Rugby World Cup and you’re enjoying the hell out of it – and why wouldn’t you? Rugby’s got flow, speed, big hits, skillful passes, kicks from all corners of the pitch, and delightful feats of strength. It’s a great game, but you’re not 100% sure what, exactly, you’re watching.

You’ve probably figured out that the game you’re watching, known formally as rugby union (as opposed to rugby league or rugby 7s – don’t worry about that last one until the Olympics), is played with 15 people, with the object of the game being to score at your assigned end of the pitch. You’ve seen that in rugby a player can score either by touching the ball into end of the pitch or by kicking the ball in between the posts. Touching the ball down into the end of the pitch is called a try and earns you five points, plus the chance to add two more points with a successful conversion kick.

(Unlike in American Football, your conversion attempt must be kicked from the field of play parallel to where it was touched down in the try zone. Because of that, you’ll see ruggers trying to get closer to the uprights before touching the ball down, if they can.)

Another way to score is to kick between the uprights after being awarded a penalty. This will earn you three points. You can also kick a drop goal, which will also earn you 3 points and looks like this:

At the end of 80 minutes – played in two 40 minute halves – the team with the most points wins.

So that’s what you’ll probably have gathered just from watching. You’ll also likely have noticed that teams are required to pass backwards, rather than forward. A forward pass is illegal, and will earn you a penalty.


When the referee – also known colloquially as the Sir, because rugby refs accept zero backtalk and will add penalties for argument or rudeness – is signaling a penalty, he lifts his arm toward the side who drew the penalty and sweeps his other arm in the direction of the team that committed the infraction.

Other things you will see with some frequency in a game that will be penalized include:

  • knocking on, which is dropping or knocking the ball forward off your hands and either into the ground or into another player
  • high tackles around the neck
  • not releasing the ball after you’ve been tackled, as you’re forbidding from playing the ball at all when you’re on the ground
  • being offside


Offside in rugby is one of the most important things to understand, and it’s actually pretty simple: imagine that there is a line extending from the ball to both sides of the pitch. That’s the offside line, and you aren’t allowed to gain any advantage from being on the wrong side of it.

A person on the attacking side would be considered offside if they are forward of the where the ball is – in fact, they’re basically useless to their team because they can’t be passed to if they’re ahead of the ball – and a person on the defending side would be offside if they’re behind the attacking line and attempting to interfere with play. If you don’t mess with the play that’s happening and you’re actively trying to get back onside, you won’t generally be penalized. For a longer explanation of offside in rugby, read this article. But honestly, once you understand that imaginary line, you’ve basically got enough knowledge of offside to know what’s going on.


Besides a penalty kick – which will only happen when the penalty occurs close enough to the uprights to actually make the kick happen – a team can also opt to run the ball unopposed for 10 meters. This only happens in major infringements of the rules. For minor errors, a scrum or a free kick, usually taken to the touchline, is awarded.

Scrums involve what is known as the forward pack – the players numbered 1 through 8, as opposed to the backs, numbered 9 to 15 – who face against the opposing team’s forward pack as a way of restarting play. The scrum half, the player wearing shirt 9, places the ball into the tunnel formed between the two teams in the scrum. Each player at the center of the scrum attempts to hook the ball with their foot – hence the position name for that player, hooker – and send the ball through the back of their pack and out. The packs press against each other, trying to gain an advantage by moving the scrum forward or backward.

It is illegal to pull down the scrum – not to mention incredibly dangerous – and will result in a penalty if it happens. If the scrum turns more than 90 degrees, known as wheeling, the scrum will be reformed with the other team getting to put the ball in. Here’s what happens when one team has a good day of scrumming and the other team does not:

A free kick is usually kicked into touch for a line-out. Line-outs happen when the ball is put out of bounds on either side of the field, or put in touch. When a line-out happens after a free kick, the team who put the ball into touch gets to throw the ball back in after the line-out, but otherwise the line-out goes to the opposing team, like a throw-in in soccer. In a line-out, the hooker whose team was awarded the line-out throws the ball in between the two lined-up forward packs, and the forwards jump up – and are lifted – to catch it.

The strategy here is interesting. The hooker will call out a play to the forwards, usually indicating where he or she is going to try to throw the ball, so that the correct person can be lifted up to catch it. There will be dummy lifts to try to throw the other line of forwards off, and sometimes the other group won’t even try to contest the line-out. In this case, their strategy is just to try to hit the opposition as hard as they can off the ball to attempt to push them back and force a turnover.


One potential outcome of a line-out is what is known as a driving maul – the forward pack who catches the ball pushes itself forward as one giant mass of humans, moving forward and gaining momentum against the other forward pack who are trying to push back against them. A successful maul must remain upright and moving forward for it to continue legally. A driving maul off a line-out, ending in a try, looks pretty cool:

Mauls can also come out of open play – someone running with the ball is held up by an opposing player, and instead of offloading the ball or going to ground, the ball carrier keeps moving forward. If one of their teammates binds onto them, helping to push them forward, it becomes a maul, and at this point a different set of rules for playing the ball happen.

As always, the things to keep in mind in rugby still apply – the ball must not be passed forward, and the imaginary offside line has to be adhered to. This means that players on both teams can’t enter the maul from the side – if you get pushed out of the maul, you have to run to the back of it to keep it going. That being said, you can’t intentionally push or drag someone out of the maul. You also can’t collapse the maul, or intentionally try to bring everyone to the ground, which as you can imagine is crazy dangerous with that many people going forward with that much force.

The only person who can go to ground in a maul is the person who has the ball, in which case the maul is over – you may hear a referee indicate when this has happened – and is now a ruck.

When you see a bunch of rugby players on their feet, grappling with each other over the top of a player laying on the ground, what you’re seeing is a ruck. During the ruck, the giant pile of people working to try to get the ball – or to protect the ball until it can be taken out of the ruck by the scrum half – form their own offside line. Anything forward of the feet of the last person in the ruck is offside. This means the sides of the ruck are off limits, no matter where the ball is within the ruck, so coming into the side of the ruck will get you penalized. Additionally, while you’re on the ground within the ruck, you are essentially dead to the play, which means you can’t hold either the ball or anyone within the ruck. One penalty you’ll see relatively often is holding on, either to the ball or to the tackle. Here’s how all this looks in action:

Rucks tend to be speedy – a clash of people when someone goes to ground, forwards moving up to protect the ball or contest for it, the scrum half digging the ball out and recycling it on to the next group. This is because rucks can, by law, only last five seconds. Any longer, and a scrum will be called to restart play.


Full disclosure here: as a forward, most of what I care about within the game is the stuff you’ve read so far. I genuinely enjoy watching a beautifully contested scrum from two teams with excellent technique. I fully believe you should as well. Yes, the runs through holes in the defensive line by a speedy back are fun, but as a forward I want to impress upon you that backs are try-scoring glory hogs and you should actually be super impressed by the stuff that isn’t try scoring.

For that reason, I’ve had a hard time figuring out where to put the explanation for the kicking that occasionally occurs when a team gets pinned down in their own end and can’t manage to create space to get out. The fly-half, who is the main kicker on the team, will receive the ball and elect to kick it as far down field as they can – though not to touch. The great thing about a rugby ball, like an American football, is that the shape makes for some incredibly random, difficult-to-predict bounces. If the fly-half kicks it to an area where the other team doesn’t have coverage, often it allows their team not only to create space, but to make a play for the ball, especially in the event that it bounces in some weird ways and the other team can’t manage to scoop it up. When it works, it’s pretty awesome:

The problem – at least, as far as entertainment value is concerned – occurs when a back picks it up, gets it to the opposition fly-half, and they kick it back downfield. Sometimes teams get stuck in a feedback loop of kicking back and forth along the length of the field, nobody actually doing anything to advance the play beyond kicking the ball, and it is incredibly boring to watch. This is sometimes referred to as kick tennis or ping-pong. Thankfully, we haven’t seen much of it at this Rugby World Cup.


So now that you can recognize what’s going on in the game, you should also have some basic understanding about the world of rugby as a whole, so that when you see something like Japan beating South Africa you can understand just how mind-boggling it is.

The major powerhouses in world rugby are New Zealand, Australia, England, Wales, Ireland, South Africa, and France – though the positions shift over the years, these are the teams that tend to compete for the wins in major international tournaments year after year. The next tier are some of the smaller nations in the South Pacific – Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga – along with South American champions Argentina and perennial scrappy underdog Scotland. Finally, there are the long shots – USA, Italy, Japan, and Georgia make up the best of these, then Romania, Canada, Uruguay, and Namibia.

While most of the groups for the Rugby World Cup have so far followed this pattern, the big surprise so far has been in Pool B, where Scotland currently sit atop the group and South Africa are next to last.

Coming up this weekend, we’ve got several excellent games to look forward to. On Saturday, the top two teams in Pool A take each other on. England vs Wales is a familiar fixture for fans of the game, and this looks to be another stellar game despite some major injuries, including Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny and both of Wales’s starting props. And of course on Sunday, Scotland take on the US in a match that the Eagles surely hope will bring them up from the bottom of the table in Pool B.

And now, armed with a little more knowledge, you can go and enjoy! Kickoff for USA vs Scotland is at 9 AM EST – and what better way to wake up than rugby?

Eliza Eaton-Stern
Eliza is co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of The Other Half. She did her undergrad at the University of St. Andrews, where she once played air guitar with Prince William, and her Masters at the London School of Economics, where she wrote her dissertation on the history of military veterans in the Paralympic Movement. Despite the amount of time spent in Great Britain, she remains staunchly Midwestern in her feelings about how much cheese should accompany any given meal (lots). She lives in Colorado with her Hockey Hating Husband, where she plays rugby and yells at the TV about a wide variety of sports, including hockey, football, and other football.

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