The Rugby Primer

Rugby has two major variations, rugby union and rugby league. League is a game which originated from rugby union; but it is based on a much different set of principles. Rugby Today's focus is on rugby union due to our belief that union is the most compelling and non-exclusionary team contact sport in the world enjoyed by male, female, youth, and older athletes and enthusiasts worldwide. The following is only a general description of the game for those new to the sport.  


The general principles of rugby union matches:

  • Forward passes are not allowed. Dropping the ball forward is also prohibited and is called a “knock-on.”
  • The ball can only be advanced by running or kicking the ball forward.
  • No blocking.  Normally all supporting players must stay behind the ball carrier.
  • Every player on the pitch is eligible and responsible for advancing the ball.
  • A tackled runner must immediately release the ball; the tackler must immediately release the runner.
  • Play is continuous; all stoppage of play must be immediately restarted (unless there is an injury).
  • A “scrum” restarts play after a forward pass or knock-on, a scrum can also be awarded in other situations.
  • A lineout restarts play after the ball travels into “touch” (out of bounds).
  • A “Try” is awarded when the ball is carried or kicked across the goal line and touched down to the ground.
  • A try is worth 5 points.
  • 2 points is awarded for a successful conversion kick after a try.
  • 3 points is awarded for a successful penalty kick or drop goal kick.
  • After points are scored, the ball is kicked back to the scoring team (except in sevens).
  • The game is governed by laws, not rules. The referee is the sole enforcer of those laws. The best source for reading the current laws is the International Rugby Football Board website.
  • The game clock is kept by the referee on the pitch and is stopped only for injury. The time spent attending to injuries is added to the end of each half and is called injury time.
  • Two additional judges are utilized on each touchline to signal when the ball has left the field of play.

The updated full laws of rugby union can be found at the International Rugby Board website. The IRB is the governing body for rugby union. The IRB site also contains a glossary of rugby terms.

The Playing Field
The field that rugby is played on is called a “pitch.” The pitch is 100 meters long by 69 meters wide. The sidelines are called touchlines and there are two in-goal areas which are expected to be at least 10 meters deep with a try line marking the front and a dead ball line at the back. The goal posts are located on the try line and are 5.6 meters apart with a crossbar set at 3 meters.


Other important lines on the pitch include the half way mark at 50 meters. A dashed 10 meter line set each side of the 50 meter line which is used to judge kicks and a solid 22 meter line marked 22 meters from each try line. Other lines include two dashed lines set at 5 and 15 meters marked parallel to each touchline. These lines are used mostly to identify the zones for lineouts.

Rugby union is played in different variations depending on the number of players on the field for each team. The typical game is played with fifteen players per side and lasts 80 minutes. A "three-on-three basketball" like version is also very popular but is played with seven players per team over two seven minute halves. A less often played version is called tens and is played with ten players per squad.

Teams in a fifteens match will consist of two groups of players, the forwards and the backs. Each position has a specific number and responsibilities during the two 40 minute halves of a match. The players are as follows:

#1 Prop
#2 Hooker
#3 Prop
#4 Lock
#5 Lock
#6 Flanker
#7 Flanker
#8 Number 8

#9 Scrumhalf
#10 Flyhalf
#11 Wing
#12 Inside Center
#13 Outside Center
#14 Wing
#15 Fullback

Game start
A coin toss determines the team which will kickoff first. The kicking team will send their forwards to one side of the pitch at the 50 meter line. The opposing forwards will move in front of their opposites, but spread out behind the 10 meter line in preparation to receive the kick.

The kicker, who can be any member of the squad, will set the ball on the ground and start the match on the referee's whistle most often kicking the ball high and short to the opposing forwards (he can also kick it long and deep or away from the forwards if desired). The kick must travel at least 10 meters and land in bounds. The kicker's forwards will charge down the pitch attempting to catch the ball. If a receiving team's forward successfully catches the ball, he will rush up to advance the ball, normally running into the opposition. His supporting forwards will then often bind around him to prevent him being brought to the ground and losing possession of the ball.

The 2nd half of a match is started exactly the same way except the teams have switched ends of the pitch and the team starting the match kicking now receives the ball.


Very often a player will lose the ball forward during a tackle or just while running and receiving a pass, thus knocking-on. If the ball is quickly picked up by the other team, the referee will let play continue to allow the recovering team to take “advantage” of the drop. If no advantage occurs, then the referee will whistle for a scrum to be set. The team that did not lose the ball is awarded the ball for the scrum. A scrum is also awarded anytime a pass is made in which the ball goes forward.

The typical procedure of scrummaging involves each set of front row players binding and the hookers calling for the locks to join the formation. The flankers join on each side of the locks, setting their shoulders below a prop's outside hip. The No. 8 joins at the back between the hips of the two locks. While this is occurring the captain of the forwards can be calling a play while the backs are signaling what play they will be running. Upon a prearranged signal between the hooker and scrumhalf, the scrumhalf will roll the ball into the tunnel underneath the two front rows, now locked together. Each of the hookers will then attempt to ‘hook’ the ball behind him with a sweep of his foot. All of this is occurring while each pack is attempting to push the other backwards in order to drive over the ball.

If the ball is won cleanly, most often the scrumhalf will run to the back of the scrum to retrieve the ball from in under of the No. 8's foot. The scrumhalf will pass it to the backs, to a breaking loose forward, or make a run or kick of his own. The opposing scrumhalf will follow looking for a chance to snap up any loose ball. Very often, the No. 8 will decide to pick up the ball himself to start a forward's play from the back of the scrum.

Following is a simple representation of how player's will line up at the start of a scrum awarded on the left side of the pitch:
    |          opposing team formed up here in defense
    |        9        1   2   3
    |                6  4   5   7
    |                     8
    |       11                   10
    |                                     12
    |                                               13
    |                    15                                  14

One exciting aspect of scrummaging is the “pushover try.” A pushover try is scored when a scrum is set close to the attacking try line. The attacking scrum will keep the ball under the pack driving the defending pack backwards across the try line. Once the ball has been pushed across the try line, the No. 8 or scrumhalf will touch the ball down while it is still under the scrum.

A scrum is called a “set piece.” The other common set piece in rugby is the “lineout.” After a ball has been kicked or run into touch (out of bounds), play is restarted with a lineout. The forwards of each team will line up at the spot indicated by the touch judge as the touch mark. Normally, the hooker of the team being awarded the ball will be the person throwing the ball back into the lineout. The other forwards will lineup between the lines marking 5 meters and 15 meters from touch. The opposing team will lineup to match their counterparts. Someone on the team with the throw-in will call a coded signal indicating who the ball will be thrown to and any subsequent play. At the same time the flyhalf should also be calling a play. The hooker will then throw the ball to the intended receiver who has jumped into the air. Most often the throw is to the locks that are jumping in the 2nd and 4th positions in the lineouts supported by the players on either side of them. Once a jumper does jump, these supporting players are allowed to boost him higher into the air and hold him there. Once the ball is secured, most often many of the forwards on both sides of the ball bind together and a maul will ensue until the ball is produced for another phase.

Rucks and Mauls (Loose Play)
If the ball is held up off the ground, once more than any two players have bound together a “maul” is formed. If the ball has gone to the ground, then the group of bound players is called a “ruck.” The very important principle of rucks and mauls is that once they are set, two imaginary offside lines become present at the back of each team's rucking/mauling players extending from touchline to touchline. Any player running into the zone who is not joining the ruck or maul before the ball leaves is considered offside and a penalty can be awarded to the other team.
A simple representation of this concept is as follows:
    | All other attacking players must be here
    | - - - -imaginary offside line- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    |                         Attacking players       
    |                         set into a maul/ruck
    |                         Defending players       
    |                         bound to stop       
    |                         the maul/ruck      
    | - - - -imaginary offside line- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    | All other defending players must be here

Offside is the most common penalty during a match. If a penalty is awarded within goal kicking distance of a team's kicker, the team captain may elect to have the kicker take an uncontested place kick at goal. The kick is taken from the “mark,” or the spot of the penalty as determined by the referee. A successful penalty kick is worth three points.


If the kick is successful, play is restarted at the 50 meter line with a drop kick back to the scoring team. After an unsuccessful penalty kick, play is usually restarted by a drop kick (a kick executed by allowing the ball to hit the ground before kicking it) to the attempting team from the 22 meter line. This restart is called a “22 meter dropout.”

Other common penalties include violent play, barging, not releasing the ball, obstruction (blocking) and diving over a collapsed ruck. Other options available to a team awarded a penalty include restarting play by a tap kick through the mark with the opposing team ten meters away or an uncontested kick to touch which is awarded back to the team receiving the penalty award.

For minor infringements, a free kick can be awarded. A free kick is just like a penalty kick except it cannot be taken directly at goal and if the ball is kicked directly to touch; the other team is awarded the ball for the lineout.

Open Play & Scoring
If and when the ball is produced from a ruck or maul, the ball will most often be passed by the scrumhalf to a forward charging back through the defense or to the flyhalf who has pre-determined a course of action.

The flyhalf is the person normally determining all plays which the backs will run. Once he has received the ball he will then start a run, make a pass to start a play, or kick the ball. All of this must be done very quickly as the opposing backs and forwards will be quickly rushing up to tackle whoever has the ball.

The plays that backs run will include a number of different maneuvers and ploys to put the backs into open running space. Common running tactics include switches, dummies, and skips. A switch (or scissor) is where two players will cross paths allowing the ball carrier to pass behind himself to a runner running a different direction. A dummy is a fake pass to another runner freezing or decoying the defender. A dummy switch is a switch where the ball carrier does not pass the ball to the crossing runner. A skip pass is a pass which is thrown past the first immediately available supporting player to runners further past him.

When the ball is being run, a player tackled to the ground must immediately release the ball and make it available to both teams. The defender tackling the runner must release the runner after the tackle. Typically the tackled player will attempt to place the ball closest to his own supporting players. Those supporting players will make a decision to pickup the loose ball or drive over the ball and tackled player to bind together into a new ruck. The defending team will do the same thing in an attempt to push the attacking team backwards. If the ball is picked up and advanced again by either side, a maul can quickly ensue if the advance is checked by the defense and the ball does not go to the ground. Each time a successive ruck or maul is set, it is described as a “phase” of play.

Once a player makes a break over the try line, he must touch the ball down to the ground to be awarded the 5 points for the try. If he loses the ball in the end goal, the ball will come out and play restarted with a 22 meter dropout. Often a player will cross the try line close to one of the touchlines and will turn back towards the posts before touching down. This is done to provide a better angle for the person kicking the conversion points. The kick for extra points must be taken from a mark perpendicular to the spot where the try was touched down. Thus the kicker's job is typically made much easier when the try is awarded centered between the posts.

The conversion kick is a place kick taken immediately after the try. The defending team must retreat to the end goal area but can rush the kick once the kicker begins his approach to kick the ball through the uprights.

Tactical Kicking
Most tactical kicks by the flyhalf will be to advance the ball up field and out to touch. He will take this option most often to clear the ball during heavy pressure. He can also kick the ball forward expecting a fast charging back to recover the ball before the opposition. Any person chasing a kick must have started the chase from behind the kicker or have been previously overtaken by the kicker or someone who was behind the kicker. Thus anyone in front of a kick is offside until put onside by the kicker or someone who was behind the kicker.

Another important aspect of tactical kicking is that a kick to touch from behind the 22 meter line is marked at the point the ball left the pitch. A kick taken in front of the 22 meter line must touch the field or a player on the field before going into touch, otherwise the line-out is awarded at the location of the kick, not where it went out. All penalty kicks are allowed to be kicked directly to touch.

Other tactical kicks include a drop goal kick, an up-and-under, and pop kicks. When a team is putting good pressure on the opposing side's try line, a player can decide to attempt a drop kick at goal for three points. The ball must be dropped and touch the ground before being kicked through the goal posts to be awarded. An up-and-under is a very shallow, but very high kick. The idea is to put the receiving opposition players under incredible pressure by giving your own players the time to get underneath the descending ball. A pop kick is best utilized in an open field by a runner who is about to be stopped. As a player cannot be tackled without the ball in hand, a runner can kick the ball just over a defender allowing the runner to go untouched hoping to recover his own ball.

Completion of play
As previously mentioned, any time lost due to injury will be added to the end of each half. Once the referee observes that injury time has expired, he will whistle the end of the half or match upon the next stoppage of play.

The Rugby Primer was written by Ivan Calhoun and is copyrighted 1997,1998 Red Salmon Creative. Rugby clubs and youth organization are free to use it for youth/fan/player education and development purposes, please credit Rugby Today.