A Beginner's Guide to Rugby Football

If you travel to parts of the world outside the United States, the peoples may provide you with a different definition when asked about what the word football means to them. There are places that refer to soccer as football. However, an even more universal response would involve a discussion of rugby.

In fact, both Canadian and American rules football evolved from the sport created in England. Let's start with a beginner's history of the sport and then talk about the rugby union or rules. Finally, we'll take a trip around the club and share some of the larger rugby leagues and tournaments held in Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.


There are references to athletic games where a ball was tossed and carried dating back to the medieval period. The story is told of a young athlete named William Web Ellis. Apparently, the no-hands aspect of soccer frustrated Ellis.

When he picked up the ball and took off running with it, a new sport was born. Rugby has earned the nickname as American Football's older brother. It was on the campus of the Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England the roots of the game we know as rugby was planted.

During the middle of the 19th century, a rugged game played across Europe for decades became more organized. Play in 1845 at the Rugby School is the first such that played under a specific set of rules.

Rugby rules were referred to as a code as opposed to rules. This original code for play was known simply as rugby football. For the next 50 years, rugby remained mainly an amateur sport. In fact, rugby administrators regularly placed restrictions on anyone deemed a professional.

It was this argument over amateurism that created a division in rugby clubs paid players who had to miss work to participate in matches. The Rugby Football Union refused to approve this practice.

Consequently, rugby was split into two distinct factions. In 1895, because of this dispute over cash payments made to players in certain leagues, a separate code was written. Most players continued to view rugby as an amateur sport.

Nevertheless, the game remained divided as the rugby union and the rugby league for another century. By 1995, rugby became widely accepted as a professional sport. Since the two codes originated from the same general set of rules, it wasn't difficult to merge the two.

With rugby now declared an open game, professional leagues were sanctioned by rugby's governing body, the World Rugby. World Rugby is the evolution of the original International Rugby Football Board created in 1886 by Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

England became part of the IRFB in 1890. World Rugby has been instrumental in the development of rugby on an international level. It coordinates numerous international competitions including the Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games.

The Rules and Regulations of Rugby

The rules and regulations used in rugby are called the code. As we mentioned, there are still two difference sets of playing rules for rugby union and rugby league. The divide between these two codes is more of a social class phenomenon than in actual game rules.

Rugby union is the code more dedicated to amateur competition such as public schools and universities. Rugby league code governs the majority of major competitions and leagues. Despite being very similar, each code is still popular in different places.

We'll look at game play and rules from a general perspective. If someone lives in Northern England, would be more inclined to play rugby league, but in the southern part of the country they prefer rugby union. So still goes the divide today.

The Ball – One logical item that is the same between codes is the ball. The rugby ball used in both rugby union and rugby league is an elongated spheroid. It has an elliptical profile that is roughly 12-inches long with a 24-inch circumference. It weighs roughly a pound and is inflated to 10 psi.

The Field – The field in rugby is called the pitch or paddock. It is grass surface measuring 74-yards wide and 133-yards long. Touch lines and dead ball lines lie outside a 110-yard center that is the live play area.

At each end are goal lines, 110-yards apart. Broken lines run parallel to the goal lines and are spaced between 11 and 22-yards apart. There is a midfield line. Two posts and a crossbar form an H-shaped goal post at either end.

The vertical posts are 18-feet apart, and the crossbar is 10-feet off the ground. On either end of both goal lines are 4-foot corner posts. They mark the goal line and also stop play immediately if a player touches them.

The Players – There are a couple of minor differences between rugby union and rugby league when it comes to the rules governing player numbers. This is one key change rugby league made to increase the speed and fan interest of matches.

Rugby league has 13 players on the field at one time while rugby union allows 15. There are 10 substitutions allowed in rugby league, but only 8 in rugby union. Overall pitch (field) dimensions in rugby league may be slightly smaller because of fewer players.

The Scoring – While the differences are again minimal, scoring rules between rugby union and rugby league are slightly different. A try is worth five-points in ruby union, but only four-points in rugby league.

Rugby union awards two-points for a conversion, plus three-points each for penalties and drop kicks. On the other hand, while conversions are still worth two-points, so too are penalties in rugby league. A drop goal in rugby league is only worth a single point.

Game Play – Time in a professional rugby league match is a total of 80-minutes, split between two equal 40-minute halves. A rugby union match lasts 60-minutes, split into four 15-minute quarters.

There is a 10-minute rest period in rugby league matches, and one 10-minute rest between quarters three and four in rugby union. Once a player is tackled in rugby union, players form a ruck.

One player from each team vies for the ball. In a rugby league match, neither of these exists. Once a player is tackled in rugby league matches, the tackled player rolls the ball backwards using only his feet.

There is now a chicken scratch between one player from each team. When the ball goes off the field in rugby league, players form a scrum. This is an eight-player pack. The backs are outside the pack.

This is a common picture used to describe rugby. When the ball goes off the field in rugby union, it is a line out and play resumes with a throw-in from where the ball crossed the touchline.

The tackle limits are different for each code as well. A rugby league possession has a six-tackle limit per possession. In rugby union, there are no limits. Rugby league implemented the tackle limit rule to add more changes of possession and consequently more chances to score.

Tackling rules are the same for both rugby codes. The rugby ball is the same for both, and the objective of both rugby union and rugby league is to score more points. Tries are attempted in the same manner for both, and the winner is the team with more points at the end of the match.

Glossary of Common Rugby Terms

There are a number of strange terms that apply to rugby matches. If you're unfamiliar with the how the game is played, these will help you follow and understand the action. Since many matches are held in regions that use the metric system, many terms use metric measurements.

10-Meter Law – When a player is tackled, other than two players, all others must be at least 10-meters from the play-the-ball spot.

Above the Horizontal – This rule is similar to spearing in American Football. When a player tackles a player by lifting his feet above his head, it is an infringement called above the horizontal and results in penalty.

Ball and All – This is the ultimate tackle in rugby. The tackler secures the ball-carrier so they can no longer move, or offload the ball.

Ball carrier – This is the player who is in possession and carrying the rugby ball.

Black Dot – Under each crossbar is a black dot in the middle. A player who scores a successful kick try down the center of the uprights is said to have scored under the black dot.

Changeover – Changeover and handover are interchangeable terms. It is the transfer of the ball by handoff to a teammate.

Conversion – After a successful try is scored, the scoring team has a chance to add points via a conversion. This is similar to the extra point in American Football. A conversion attempt can be a drop kick or place kick.

Dead ball – The ball is ruled dead when it goes past the dead ball line and out of play.

Drop Goal – When a player kicks the ball through the opposition's goal posts. The ball must be dropped, hit the ground, and then be kicked successfully over the crossbar and between the uprights. A drop goal scores one-point.

Feeding the Scrum – This is the act of rolling the ball into a scrum. The rules have been relaxed on exactly where the ball should enter between the two teams. Ideally, it would go in the middle between the row of facing players.

However, players often take advantage of the relaxed feed rule and shift the ball more towards their team's half of the scrum. When this happens, fans will often scream "feeding" as protest to an obvious gained advantage.

First Receiver – This is the first player to gain possession of the ball out of a ruck.

Flat Pass – This is similar to a lateral in American Football. The trajectory of the ball is level between the two players. Frequently, players are moving quickly, so they still must be cautious not to flat pass ahead of the passer. This is akin to an illegal forward pass.

Forward Pass – Accidental forward passes in rugby create a scrum. If the referee rules it to be intentional, then a penalty is called.

Goal – A successful kick between the two uprights and above the crossbar is a goal. A conversion kick counts for two-points and a drop goal scores one-point.

Grounding – Grounding is the act of placing the ball on the try line. The ball must be properly grounded to score points for a try.

Handover – This is a transfer of the ball between teams after the tackle limit has been reached.

Interception – This is when an opponent secures or steals a pass intended for a teammate of his opposition.

Interchanges – Interchanges are substitutions. Each team may make 12 interchanges per match.

Kick-off – Each match begins with a coin toss. The winning team can select direction, or to accept the kick. Each half of a rugby league match begins with a new kick-off. The kick-off is from the centerline on the field.

The kick must go 10-meters, and it also must go past the 10-meter line on the opposition's half of the field. Balls that are kicked into the dead ball area are awarded at the centerline. After a score, the game is resumed by a kick-off.

Line-out – When a ball goes into touch, or out of bounds, the game is restarted with a line-out.

Mark – Scrums, penalties and free kicks are awarded by the referee at a point called the mark.

Obstruction – Players are not permitted to impede the progress of non-ball carriers. They cannot tackle or obstruct them.

Offloading – This is when a player passes the ball out of the tackle.

Pack – This is the name given to all the forwards on a given team. When you hear the phrase pack down, that means the forwards are packed for a scrum.

Penalty Kick – This is a free kick awarded because of a rules' infringement by the opposing team.

Place Kick – A place kick is the opposite of a drop kick. The place kick is a kick from a hold similar to an extra point or field goal in American Football.

Put-In – This is one of the most visible plays in rugby. It is the put-in where a player shoots the ball into the scrum.

Ruck – Ruck is the term for the collective players that are all involved in a tackle or subsequent play.

Scrum – Scrum is the shortened form of scrummage. It is the method of restarting play in rugby. Players pack themselves into a scrum, head down and arms lock. They attempt to shift the ball out their side of the pack to one of their teammate ball carriers.

Tackle – This is the act of bringing the opposition ball carrier to the ground. The ball carrier must be secured to the ground by the act of tackling. Ball carriers who fall down on their own are not considered down.

Biggest Rugby Leagues and Tournaments

Rugby has grown in popularity over the last 20-years. A huge growth spurt was realized when the sport was recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Let's take a look at some of the bigger rugby leagues and tournaments around the world.

Rugby in Canada

In Canada, the Canada Rugby League is the sports' governing body. The organization was founded in 2010 and organizes the national rugby league team representing Canada. National and international matches attract crowds as large as 7,000 spectators.

Three organizations comprise the majority of domestic rugby league play in Canada. The Ontario Ruby League, British Columbia Rugby League and Alberta League Rugby League are all members of the national governing body.

Each league is comprised of regional teams. The British Columbia Rugby League is the largest with 15 teams. There is a national league as well. The Rugby Canada Super League is made up of 15 teams split into two conferences.

This is a semi-professional league. The Toronto Wolfpack is part of the British top-tier rugby system called the Super League. The Wolfpack won the 2019 Rugby Football League inaugural championship.

The Toronto Arrows play in the Major League Rugby (MLR). This is a 12-team professional league in North America. Rugby Canada coordinates the majority of tournaments in the country.

There is a full slate of seniors for men and women, plus age group tournaments. In Canada, there are also over 50 universities and colleges that have varsity rugby programs. Out of 58 schools, there are 44 men's programs and 53 for women.

Rugby in the United States

Rugby in the United States is primarily overseen by USA Rugby. USA Rugby was founded in 1975 and is a member of the United States Olympic and Paralympics committees.

In May 2020, USA Rugby and the College Rugby Association of America (CRAA) formed a partnership to rebuild rugby in the United States. The American National Rugby League is the oldest standing league in the U.S. It began in 1997.

Seven teams left after the 2010 season to form the USA Rugby League. The URL has now grown to 12 top-tier teams, all located in the United States. There are now eight cities with teams participating in a developmental league.

The U.S. has both a national men's and women's team. Youth leagues are sponsored and coordinated through the American Youth Rugby League formed in 2011. AYRL hosts hundreds of youth tournaments across the country.

One of America's oldest rugby clubs is in Washington D.C. The Washington Rugby Club hosts the annual Cherry Blossom Tournament. There are various age divisions, including a professional division. It is one of the biggest rugby tournaments in the U.S.

Rugby in Europe

With its roots in Europe, it's not surprising that rugby in European countries enjoys much the same level of popularity that American Football does in the United States. The Rugby League European Federation is the governing body over all rugby in European nations.

They coordinate hundreds of tournaments and competitions, including the European Cup. There are eleven full member associations. Member associations span from the newest member, the Russian Rugby League accepted in 2010, to Britain's Rugby Football League.

The RFL is the oldest league in Europe, formed in 1895. The RLEF also enjoys associate partnerships with 10 other member associations, including Canada Rugby League and USA Rugby League.

The Rugby League European Federation is responsible for producing the official RLEF seedings for its 29 member nations. Europe is known for holding large events referred to as rugby festivals.

These festivals include instructional rugby workshops and tournaments. The Rye Rugby Festival is held in Camber Sands every May. South Dorset, Southport, Great Yarmouth and Brean Sands each hold rugby festivals every spring.

Rugby in Australia and New Zealand

Australia and New Zealand are part of the Oceania rugby region along with Fiji. With historic ties to England, it's not surprising that rugby is extremely popular in these two countries as well.

In fact, rugby is called Australian Rules Football in the Land Down Under. Australia alone has six separate club competitive leagues. There are over three dozen individual rugby unions in Australia from South Wales to Queensland.

Four Australian teams participate in the Super Rugby League, a professional league involving teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Australia. There are over 100 individual rugby teams and clubs across Australia.

Most believe that rugby in New Zealand began at the same time the sport launched in England. Of all the countries that participate in international rugby competitions, New Zealand ranks second behind England.

A professional team was touring the globe before there was even an idea of pro rugby leagues. New Zealand rugby is divided into 16 districts. Six of these districts field teams for the New Zealand Provincial Competition.

The New Zealand Warriors compete in Australia's National Rugby League. The Warriors started a women's side in 2018. The New Zealand National Team is called the Kiwis. They are currently the number one ranked rugby league national team.

Rugby may be like an older brother to the wildly popular American Football, but it is also a bigger brother. There are hundreds more rugby clubs and teams than there are any other type of football.

Rugby is growing in popularity. So much so that sportsbooks are offering betting lines on certain professional leagues and rugby matches. This is a beginner's guide to get you started in a sport whose popularity spans the globe.