The first thing to realise is that rugby is much easier to understand than it might appear. Trust me – I’ve worked in rugby for years, I was the rugby editor of The Times, the first woman to referee at Twickenham and I’ve written about the sport extensively. It’s honestly not that difficult when you understand a few basics. So, here we go… ten things every beginner needs to know about rugby but was afraid to ask.
1. What the devil’s going on?
It’s straightforward – you’ve got two sides of 15 players battling for 80 minutes to see which side can score the most points. You score by kicking over the H-shaped posts, or touching the ball down over the try line (scoring a try). Simple.
2. So why is it so complicated?
Because there are two laws in rugby that make the sport what it is: the first is that you can only pass behind you, and the second is that the player with the ball can be tackled. So – you’ve got a game where if you run forwards with the ball, you might well get tackled, but if you pass the ball back too much you’ll end up going backwards until you’re on your own line.
3. Why are they such bruisers?
A rugby team is divided into two groups: the forwards (big, tough-looking men with flat noses and missing teeth) and the backs (who look more like athletes. Think Jonny Wilkinson – if he was a forward, his nose would be over by his left ear). The backs’ main job is to run and score tries after the forwards have won the ball. This isn’t always the case, so don’t be confused if you see a big bruiser touch down, but it’s usually the backs.
The difference between forwards and backs has been described as piano players and piano shifters; the forwards shift the piano into the right place and the backs play it.
4. Is kicking the ball good or bad?
It’s a good way to get the ball down the pitch without having to pass backwards all the way. Kicks can also score points (see 9, right). But it’s not ideal to play a kicking game because usually when you kick the ball, you give away possession.
5. What are rucks and mauls?
When we talk about forwards “winning” the ball, we mean in scrums and line-outs, which we’ll come on to, and also rucks and mauls. A ruck is when the ball goes to ground and players from both sides try to hook it out.
A maul is where one player is holding the ball and the others pile in and try to get it off him. It’s basically an all-in scramble for the ball.
6. Does it need to be so violent?
To tackle someone you grab them by their waist or lower and haul them to the ground. Once a player is tackled he has to release the ball or pass it to a team-mate. If you tackle above the shoulder it’s dangerous and called a “high tackle”.
7. What’s all the headbutting for?
A scrum is where 16 men (eight forwards from each side) bind together in a bizarre crouched huddle to restart the game. They push against each other to try to win the ball. All sorts of things go on in the scrum. All we, as spectators, know is that often they’ll stand up after a scrum and one or more players will be bleeding.
8. And the line-dancing?
You mean a line-out. That’s what happens when the ball goes into touch (out). The forwards from each team line up next to each other as if they’re about to perform a country dance of some sort, then the hooker (the smallest forward) throws the ball in and both sides jump to catch it.
9. How does the scoring work?
A penalty (kicked over the crossbar) is worth three points; a try is worth five. When you score a try you are allowed to attempt to “convert” it (have a go at kicking the ball between the posts). If you get it over, it’s an extra two points. A drop goal can be attempted at any time of the game, where a player kicks the ball over the posts in open play. That’s also worth three points.
10. What’s the ref up to?
Roughly speaking, if a player does something deliberate or dangerous, such as making a high tackle, the referee will award a penalty. If a player does something wrong accidentally (such as accidentally dropping the ball forwards), the ref will give a scrum. If he has no idea what’s happened, he will tend to give a scrum, or consult the linesmen.
Should you still be so confused that you’re not sure if you’re watching rugby or football, watch the referee. Generally rugby players accept the ref’s decision and don’t give him a mouthful.