A geek’s guide to Rugby Union

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Where football is a gentlemen's game played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. Ah, rugby, the sport where a group of 15 players smash into each other with the aim of moving a leather ball between the posts at each end.

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Difference between Rugby Union and Rugby League

There are two codes of rugby: rugby union and rugby league. Supporters of the latter, in which teams comprise 13 rather than 15 players, expect a faster-paced game and is popular amongst the British Commonwealth nations of England, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

It is rugby union that has a more global appeal to nations outside of the former British colonies, gaining widespread recognition in Argentina, Japan, Georgia and the USA. It is rugby union that this geeks guide will delve into.

Newcomers to the game often ponder, ‘why does the game keep stopping?’ ‘How on earth does a scrum work?’ Also, ‘why can't players throw the ball forward?’

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Rugby Union Basics

Aim of the Game

The aim of playing rugby union is to carry the ball over the opponent's line, known as a 'try' line and ground the ball to score a 'try.' Sounds simple really?


Players can run forward, but they can only pass the ball backwards, meaning that teammates must get behind the player with the ball to be able to receive a pass. Players can kick the ball forwards - but their teammates must be behind the ball at the moment it is kicked. The ball may only travel forward by being carried or kicked. When being handled, it must move backwards from the player passing it.

The Ball

A rugby ball is oval, like an American football but without the laces. Being oval in shape, the ball is therefore far less predictable than a round ball in how it bounces. Its design allows it to torpedo quickly through the air when passed or kicked correctly.

The Posts

Arranged in an H-shape, the posts are the target for drop-goals and penalty goals. The ball must fly between the vertical posts and over the horizontal crossbar. Drop-goals are scored from open play, penalties after the referee has spotted an infringement.


In rugby union, there are four ways in which a team can accumulate points:

  • Try (5 points) - When the ball is forced to the ground once over the try line. A penalty try is awarded if a player probably would have scored but was fouled by the opposing team at the last moment. Similar to a penalty being awarded in football when a player is fouled in the penalty area.
  • Conversion (2 points) - Once a try is scored, the team who scored the try can add a further two points by kicking the ball between the goal posts but over the crossbar from a position in line to where the try was scored.
  • Drop Goal (3 points) - In open play, a player kicks the ball through the goal posts but over the crossbar. Usually only attempted by players with excellent kicking skills.
  • Penalty (3 points) - When a penalty is awarded, the infringed team can decide to kick for a goal as opposed to building up a new play.

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The try is the ultimate objective in rugby, awarded after the ball has been grounded by hand anywhere behind the opposition's goal-line. However, it is entirely possible to win a game of rugby without scoring a try, even when conceding one, or more.

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Player Positions

The Forwards


Props have shirt numbers 1 and 3 and anchor themselves either side of the hooker in the scrum - providing weight in the scrum and aid in lifting lineout jumpers (more on this below). In rucks and mauls (again, more below), props are essential in bludgeoning the opposition's defences.


The hooker wears the number 2 shirt and performs two crucial roles on the pitch. Inside the scrum, they are the player to win possession of the ball and ‘hook’ it back (with their feet). In the lineout, they are the player who throws the ball.


Locks wear shirt numbers 4 and 5 are typically the tallest members of the team; thus, they are responsible for winning the balls from lineouts and restarts. Secondary they provide additional strength in scrums, rucks and mauls.


During turnovers (anyone of the opposing team who tries to run with the ball) it is the flanker's role to win possession of the ball by tacking those who are holding. Flankers wear the number 6 and 7 shirts.

Number 8

The number 8 (with the shirt number 8) is positioned at the very back of scrums and once receives the ball carries it forward into open play.

The Backs

Scrum Half

The scrum-half (wearing the number 9 shirt) connects the forwards and backs at the scrum and lineouts; they decide whether to distribute a quick ball to the fast-moving backs or keep it close to the slower moving but more powerful forwards. The scrum-half is a vital cog between the forwards and backs of a team.

Fly Half

The fly-half is one of the most influential players in a rugby team. Not only are they typically the team's points kicker for drop goals, penalties and conversions; but they are also the most creative, searching for chinks in the opposition's armour where they can encourage offensive running. Needless to say, the fly-half is the team's most creative player and wears the number 10 jersey.


The wings wear either shirt numbers 11 and 14 and are the fastest sprinters of the team; providing the injection of speed to outrun the opposition and score tries. At times, they are required to provide some defensive protection. Wings position themselves on the sides of the field.


The centres are vital in both attack and defence. They will tackle the opposing team, plus using their speed and power to breach defences. Although deemed as backs, centres (wearing shirt numbers 12 and 13) can act as weighty forwards as well.

Full Back

The last line of defence; the fullback (wearing jersey number 15) must be confident under a high ball, have an excellent boot to clear the lines and a try-saving tackle that could stop a runaway train. Fullbacks can double up as kickers for points scoring if they are deemed better at kicking than the fly-half.

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Scrum between England and Wales Scrum between England and Wales

The Scrum

The scrum is a means of restarting play, used if there has been a minor infringement (for example, if the ball is passed forward, known as a ‘knock-on’), or if the ball becomes stuck in a ruck or a maul (more on that later).

Eight people from each team lock arms and face each other; they then interlock their heads with those on the oppositions front row. The ball is then placed under the scrum by the scrum-half, between the two front rows, and the hookers compete for the ball, attempting to ‘hook’ it back.

The winner of the scrum can keep the ball on the ground and strive to drive the opposition down the field. Alternatively, they can pass the ball to the scrum-half who will play the ball 'out' to the backs.

The Line Out

If the ball leaves the field by the sides, then a lineout is a way for the ball to re-enter open play.

The forwards assemble in two parallel lines, one metre apart from each other. The hooker from the team who did not take the ball off the field throws the ball high in the air down the space between the two lines of players. Any player in the lineout who successfully catches the ball can either keep it and set up a maul or pass it on.

The hooker is not permitted to throw the ball to his team; they must throw right down the centre of the corridor between the two lines. The only advantage gained for the team who throws the ball in the line out is that the hooker throwing the ball knows when their team will jump, namely the locks.

To catch the ball in a lineout, the catcher is lifted by their teammates while jumping high to catch the ball. The opposition is not permitted to touch a catcher whilst they are in the air, and holding, shoving or levering are all offences punishable by a penalty kick.

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Ben Curry goes over for a try against Worcester Warriors Ben Curry goes over for a try against Worcester Warriors

Why does Rugby Union keep stopping all the time?

In rugby union, it is puzzling why the referee has blown the whistle and stopped play. Below is listed the most common infringements and violations that cause the referee to pause the game.

Playing Advantage

An advantage is when the referee keeps the ball in play despite a violation occurring if the continued play is likely to benefit the team that has been infringed. If the referee determines that there is no benefit to the non-offending side, then the referee will stop the game and bring play back to where the infringement occurred.

Forward Pass or Knock-On

With players running forward, frequently, passes that were intended to go back, often end up going forward. Likewise, players accidentally knock the ball forward when losing grip on the ball. If this occurs, the referee will stop play, and the teams will begin a scrum.

Not Releasing The Ball

When a player has been tackled, two things must happen - first, those who tackled must release the player they brought down, and the person tackled must immediately release the ball. Failing to do so will leave to an infringement being called and a stop in play.

Maul v Ruck

In a maul, the ball is held off the floor and in players hands, and they must remain standing and move along simultaneously.

Alternatively, in a ruck, the ball is grounded and must not be handled by any players, only using their feet to 'ruck' the ball backwards.

Not Rolling Away From The Ruck

When a ruck or maul is formed, any players on the ground must roll away as fast as humanly possible. If they do not, they concede a penalty to the opposition team.

Joining A Ruck/Maul From The Side And Not From Behind

If a player wished to join either a ruck or maul, then they must join the play from the back and not enter from the sides. Participating from the side counts as 'offside' and a penalty is awarded.

Ball Becomes Unplayable

The ball becomes unplayable when it cannot be passed to another player whether in a scrum, ruck or maul. Simply put, when a huge mass of bodies is piled up that the ball is stuck under them! If this occurs, the referee awards a scrum to the team going forward before the ball became unplayable. For a maul, the scrum goes to the team not in possession when the maul began.

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Ireland team win the grand slam at Twickenham Stadium Ireland team win the grand slam at Twickenham Stadium

Rugby Union as a Global Game

Rugby union’s popularity is growing, with countries across the America’s, Africa, Europe and Oceania following and participating going the game. The 15-person game discussed in this article has three key tournaments that fans around the world follow:

Six Nations Championship

The Six Nations Championship is an annual international rugby union tournament between England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. The six nations concerned are the top tiered sides that originate from the northern hemisphere. Played around February/March each year, with each time playing each other once (home advantage is rotated each year) – the winners are awarded a trophy.

Rugby Championship

The southern hemisphere equivalent of the six nations, with Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as participants, the Rugby Championship is also played annually. Before 2012, before Argentina joined the tournament was known as the Tri-Nations Championship. Unlike the Six Nations, the four teams play each other twice, both home and away, with games played from August to October.

Rugby World Cup

The Rugby World Cup is the premier international rugby event, held every four years, with the winners awarded the Webb Ellis Cup (the man credited with inventing the game of rugby by picking up a football and running). The tournament features teams from across the world, however, is heavily dominated by the participants of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship. Four countries have won the competition – New Zealand (thrice), Australia and South Africa (both twice) and England (once).

Words: David Bailey-Lauring

Images: PA / Getty

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