Rugby: The rules for the casual viewer

Raymond Chen

The “minimum you need to know about a sport in order to watch a match and not be completely confused” mini-series continues with rugby, whose World Cup is currently under way.

First of all, there are two flavors of rugby: Rugby league and rugby union. The one being contested at the World Cup right now is rugby union, and that’s the one I’ll cover here.

  • The playing area (pitch) has a lot of lines. Don’t worry about most of them. The touch lines run along the sides, goal lines are at the ends, and and dead ball lines are beyond the goal lines. The touch lines and dead ball lines form the playing boundary. The lines themselves are considered out of play.
  • A team consists of 15 players, with 8 substitutions permitted. A player who is replaced may not return, with exceptions for temporary injuries.
  • The game consists of two 40-minute halves, plus stoppage time. If time expires while play is active, the play is allowed to run its course, plus any penalties that may ensue. Games can end in a draw.
  • The team with the ball may run with it or kick it. The ball may be thrown sideways or backward, but not forward.
  • The defense stops the advance by tackling the player with the ball. Players who jump into the air and catch the ball are safe from being tackled until they land.
  • The offense may not obstruct the defense’s path to the ball. (No blocking.)
  • A tackled ball carrier must get rid of the ball immediately.
  • A ball carrier on the ground (not yet tackled) must get up or get rid of the ball.
  • If three or more players contest a ball while standing, it is a maul. If three or more players contest a ball on the ground, it is a ruck, and the ball must be played with the feet. In both cases, players must remain standing.
  • A player who announces “mark” and catches the ball behind their own 22-meter line is awarded a free kick from the point of catch. (Marks may not be called during the kick-off.)

Scoring: There are two basic categories of scoring: The try and the kick. Kicks must go through the goal posts.

  • try: 5 points for touching the ball to the ground beyond the opponent’s goal line. After a try, the scoring team attempts a conversion kick.
  • conversion kick: 2 points, taken in line with the point the try was made, from any distance. (Tries closer to the center of the goal line therefore make for easier conversions.)
  • drop kick: 3 points for kicks from the field.
  • penalty kick: 3 points for kicks from a penalty kick.

The line-out

  • If the ball or ball carrier touches the ground out of bounds, a line-out is awarded to the team that did not last touch the ball.
  • The position of the line-out is generally the point the ball left the field, with adjustments if it is close to a goal line. Some situations result in a line-out at the point of kick.
  • Both teams line up perpendicular to the touch line. The defense may not line up more players than the throwing team.
  • The rules on where players may stand are complicated. Let’s just assume that they are standing in the right place.
  • The ball is thrown perpendicular to the touch line.
  • Players are permitted to lift teammates to reach the ball.
  • A team may perform a quick throw-in if the defense is slow to form a line-out.

The scrum

  • The scrum is perhaps one of the iconic elements of rugby. It is used to restart play after a minor infringement, such as throwing the ball forward. It is also used if the ball is trapped in a maul or ruck.
  • Eight players from each team form a carefully architected huddle, and the team awarded the ball rolls it into the tunnel.
  • Each team attempts to push the other team backward so that a designated player (the hooker) can kick the ball backward to a teammate.


  • Fouls include obstruction, violent play, intentionally collapsing a maul or ruck, and improper tackles.
  • The offside rule is complicated, but basically you may not be ahead of the ball and participate in the play. For a maul, ruck, or scrum, players who are not contesting the ball must remain behind those who are.
  • The referee may decline to enforce a foul if they feel the offended team has the advantage.
  • When a penalty kick is awarded, the opposing team must yield 10 meters.
  • A team may elect to restart with a scrum rather than a penalty kick.
  • For serious fouls, the referee issues a yellow card, and the player must sit out for ten minutes, leaving the team shorthanded.

The open-field portion of rugby is pretty easy to figure out after watching it for a little while. The most confusing part is when there’s a crowd around the ball, because you can’t see what’s going on or what they’re trying to do.



Discussion is closed. Login to edit/delete existing comments.

  • Nigel Cross 0

    Bonus fact: USA are the current Olympics Gold Medalists for Rugby, having won the Gold medal in 1924, the last time full team rugby was played at the Olympics (now it is Rugby Sevens).

  • Greg Williams 0

    Minor nitpick: “If three or more players contest a ball while standing, it is a maul.” is not the definition of a maul, otherwise the ball carrier and two defenders trying to tackle him would be a maul and the tacklers would not be allowed to bring the ball carrier to ground (penalty for collapsing the maul). The vital missing piece is it’s the ball carrier (or the ball on the ground by itself in the case of a ruck) and at least one member from each team.

  • Chris Long 0

    I know very little about rugby, but here’s an interesting fact: the ‘try’ is called a ‘try’ because originally there were no points awarded for touching the ball to the ground beyond the opponent’s goal line. The only value in doing so was that you then got to attempt (or ‘try’) to kick a conversion goal. It was only some time later that tries scored points in themselves, even without the conversion.

    • Greg Williams 0

      And the 22m line is so placed because it was converted from 25 yards. (the pitch was originally 110 yards, now 100m)

Feedback usabilla icon