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Spectators' Guide to Rugby

Download USA Rugby's Spectators Guide to Rugby 

Following adapted from an earlier version of "Spectators' Guide to Rugby" as published and copyrighted by USA Rugby.


The "father" of American football

The sport of Rugby is often referred to as the "father" of American football.  Rugby started at least 70 years before American football and evolved with many of the same principles, strategies and tactics.  However, there are several obvious differences.  Key differences are continuity and, crucially, the contest for possession of the ball - largely eliminated from American football by the "down".

Rugby is played at a fast pace, with few stoppages and frequent possession changes.  A rugby "side" (team) consists of a minimum of fifteen players, plus from one to seven substitutes.  All fifteen players on the field regardless of position, must be able to run, pass, kick and catch the ball.  Likewise, all players must be able to tackle and defend, making each position both offensive and defensive in nature.

There is no blocking of opponents as in American football, and there are only seven substitutions per game allowed for each side.  A High School rugby match consists of two 35-minute halves (two 40 minute halves at the adult level.) 

Rugby is considered to be a gender equity sport as approximately 40% of all players in the United States are female.


Most athletes new to rugby quickly learn the basics of the game, such as NO forward passing and how the game is restarted when the ball goes into touch (out of bounds).  However, there is no substitute for a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the Laws of Rugby.  A player who understands the Laws will undoubtedly be a better player.  All players are therefore encouraged to make the effort to study the Laws.  The Laws of the Game of Rugby Union are available on the iRB website.

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Rugby is played on a field, called a pitch, that is longer and wider than an American football field, more like a soccer field.  A typical rugby pitch is 100 meters (109.36 yards) long and 70 meters (76.55 yards) wide whereas an American football field is 100 yards long and only 53 yards wide.  Additionally, there are end zones (10 to 22 meters deep), called the in-goal area, behind the goalposts.  The goalposts are 'H'-shaped cross bars located on the goal line and are roughly the same size as American football goalposts. 
See illustration: The Rugby Pitch


The rugby ball is made of leather or other similar synthetic material that is easy to grip.  Rugby balls are made in varying sizes (3, 4 or 5) for both youth and adult players.  Like American footballs, rugby balls are oval in shape, however they do not have laces and are rounder and less pointed than footballs to minimize the erratic bounces seen in American football.

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A rugby side (team) may have as many as 22 players on a team; however, only 15 players from each team are permitted on the field of play.  American football and soccer have 11 players from each team on the field of play. 

In rugby, the players on each side are numbered the exact same way. The number each player wears signifies that player's position.  See Player Positions.  The majority of clubs have team sets of numbered rugby jerseys.

Players numbered 1 - 8 are known as "forwards" and are typically the larger, stronger players of the side whose main job is to win possession of the ball. These players are similar in size and abilities to American football linebackers and lineman.

Players numbered 9 - 15 are referred to as "backs" and tend to be the smaller, faster and more agile players.  Their main role is to exploit possession of the ball that is won by the forwards, similar to the roles of American football's running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks.


Just as in American football, rugby is started with a kickoff to the opposing team from mid-field.  Provided that the ball travels beyond the 10 meter line (calculated from the halfway line), any player of either side may gain possession of the ball after the kickoff occurs.

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There is absolutely no blocking in rugby.  Players on the same team as the ball carrier are not permitted to set "picks" as in basketball, or to obstruct access to the ball carrier in anyway.  Only the ball carrier may be tackled.

Rugby does not have downs.  Tackling a player with the ball does not stop play.  Play is instead continuous, much like soccer with possession going back and forth between the teams.  Attacking and defending strategies are devised and implemented as the game flows along.

The person with the ball leads the attack.  In rugby there are several ways to move the ball.  Any player may carry, pass or kick the ball.  Play is not stopped but continues when the ball hits the ground or when a player is tackled.  The ball carrier must release the ball when tackled and roll out of the way so that other players of either team (who must be on their feet) can play the ball.

  • Running: When running with the ball, players may continue to run until they are tackled, step into touch (out of bounds) or run beyond the goal line (see scoring a try). Players run the ball to advance toward the opponent's goal line.

  • Passing: The ball may be passed to any other player.  However, it may only be passed laterally or backward, never forward!  As in basketball and lacrosse, rugby 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 who jump to catch a ball in the air may not be contacted by a defender until they return to the ground.  Players typically kick the ball in an effort to advance the attack or to obtain relief from poor field position.

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Stoppages occur when the ball goes into touch (out of bounds) or when infringements of the laws occur.  Typical infringements stopping play include the knock-on or forward pass and violation of the offside rule.  (See below: Restarting Play )


Rugby has a unique law: the Advantage Law.  The purpose of the Advantage Law is to encourage continuous play, thus reducing the number of stoppages due to some infringement.

When despite an infringement by one team the opposing team may gain an advantage, the referee does not whistle immediately for the infringement.  Rather, the referee waits to see whether the team "playing advantage" can in fact gain some real tactical or territorial advantage.  If they can, play continues.  If no advantage is gained, then the referee blows the whistle and brings the teams back to where the original infringement took place.  The referee then applies the law appropriate to that infringement.


There are four ways for a team to score points:

  • 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.

  • Conversion: Following a try, TWO points are awarded for a successful kick over the cross bar between the goal posts.  The conversion 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, except the point where the kick is taken will vary depending on where the ball was touched down when the try was scored.

  • Penalty Kick: Following a major law violation, the kicking team has the option to "kick for points."  THREE points are awarded for a successful penalty kick over the cross bar between the goal posts.  The kick must be from the point of the foul or anywhere on a line straight behind that point.  The ball is alive and can be played if the kick fails.

  • Drop Goal: THREE points are awarded for a successful drop kick over the cross bar between the goal posts.  A drop kick may be taken from anywhere on the field at any time during play, by any player.  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 and can be played if the kick fails.

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

click on thumbnails for enlarged images

The Lineout

If the ball goes "into touch" (out of bounds), play is restarted with a Line-Out.  Certain players from both teams form two lines perpendicular to the touchline and 1-meter (3 feet) apart from one another.   The Lineout A player of the team not responsible for the ball going out of bounds 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 as they jump to gain possession of the ball.

The Scrum

The Scrum: Rugby's unique formation, the scrum, is the forerunner of the American football line of scrimmage, and is the method used to restart the game after the referee has whistled a minor law violation.   Scrum Down 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.


Probably one of the more challenging aspects of rugby for the first time observer is the offside law.   Like soccer, the offside line is continually moving up and down the pitch in rugby and varies according to the aspect of play.  

In general play 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 will result in a penalty.

In line-outs, for players not in the lineout, the offside lines are 10 meters back on either side from a line drawn across the field from where the ball is thrown in.  

At a scrum, the offside lines are drawn across the field 5 meters back from the feet of the last person in each team's scrum.

Line-outs and scrums are often referred to as "set pieces", and these are the two situations in rugby where the offside line is relatively static.  

Offside lines at rucks and mauls (see below) are, by contrast, quite dynamic and can change from moment to moment depending on the situation.

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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.   The player must release the ball and roll away from it to allow other players on their feet to play the ball.

A player who is tackled to the ground must try to 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 because a ruck forms offside lines.   These offside lines are drawn through the feet of the last player on either side of the ruck and everyone else must get back onside in order to rejoin play. This opens up space into which the attacking team can move the ball forward.

A maul is formed with a similar gathering of players, except the player in possession of the ball is not brought to the ground (not tackled) but is held up by an opponent and one of his/her own players converging on him/her.   This creates offside lines through the feet of the last players on each side of the maul.    Players from each team (that is, not in the maul) must retreat behind these offside lines if they are to take part in any subsequent play.   The maul ends when the ball emerges, or when the maul can no longer be driven forward by the team in possession of the ball.   When a maul comes to a stop, the ball must be produced and recycled immediately, or else a scrum is awarded to the defending team.

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  • 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 and over the cross bar.   Drop kicks are also used to restart play after a score.

  • Forward pass: A pass that does not travel backward or laterally.   A violation that usually results in a scrum to the defending team.

  • Garryowen: (See Up-and-Under) Munster club, famous for the up-and-under kick ahead.

  • 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.

  • Non-Contact Rugby: A version of rugby designed to introduce the game to first time players (touch rugby).   The two hand-tag replaces the tackle.

  • Penalty: Penalties occur regularly in rugby.   Unlike other sports, there typically are no yardage penalties and only occasionally do teams have to play short handed.   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: This is awarded after a less serious infringement of the law.   The free kick is similar to the penalty kick except a player cannot attempt a kick at goal to try to score three points.   A player must restart with a tap kick or attempt to kick the ball out of bounds.   If the kick is made from in front of the 22 meters (25 yards) line and goes directly out of bounds, the lineout occurs back where the kick was first kicked.   If the ball bounces out of bounds, or if the kick was taken from behind the 22 meter (25 yards) line the resulting lineout is where the ball crossed the touch line.

    • Sin Bin: On occasion, the referee will send a player to the Sin Bin (behind one of the in-goal areas) for a specified period of time, for serious and/or repeated infringements.   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-Off: 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.

  • Sevens: An abbreviated game of rugby that follows the same laws except a 7's team consists of only seven players and each half is seven minutes long.   Much like a game of three-on-three full court basketball, it's a wide-open contest.   Because of its wide-open style of play, the Seven's version of rugby is a very entertaining game to watch.  7's Rugby will become an Olympic sport at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero.

  • 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 play kick/ move: 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).

  • Try line: The end boundary of the field (goal line).

  • Up-and-Under:  A high kick ahead which affords the kicking side's forwards time to advance to where the ball will likely land and win possession.  See Garryowen above.

  • 22-Meter line: Is a line 22 meters (25 yards) from the try line.   If a kick is made from behind the "22", the opposing team gets a lineout where the ball went out of bounds.   If the kick was made in front of the "22", the resulting lineout is from the point of the kick if the ball goes directly out of bounds.

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