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Rugby Union: A beginner's guide

Rugby union can be both exciting and bafflingly complex.
Rugby union can be both exciting and bafflingly complex.

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LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Rugby union is a running, handling and kicking football code once described as a game for hooligans played by gentleman.

The hooligans' tag refers to the essential element of physical contact in the sport, which can sometimes spill over into violence.

Gentlemen is a reference to the class origins of the game in England, where it became the winter sport of the public schools who enjoyed the luxury of grass fields.

At its best rugby is an exhilarating game full of action. At its worst it can be a frustrating exercise for both spectators and players with the referee continually stopping play for infringements not always obvious to the spectator.

In an effort to speed up the game and widen its appeal throughout the world the International Rugby Board (IRB) has tried to simplify the rules, urged referees to play advantage (let play continue if one side is able to capitalise on their opponents' infringement) and given microphones to officials so their decisions can be heard on television.


Following is a summary of the main rules which will be used at the fifth World Cup opening in Sydney next Friday:

•  Two teams comprising 15 players each compete for 80 minutes (40 minutes each way) on a rectangular pitch up to 100 metres long and 70 metres wide.

• There is a halfway line parallel to the goal lines and two lines 22 metres out from and parallel to the goal lines. An H-shaped goal with a crossbar three metres from the ground is placed in the middle of each goal line.

• Points are scored by the following methods:

(1) Try (five points). A player grounds the ball over the opponents' goal line.

(2) Penalty try (five points). Awarded between the goalposts if the referee rules a try would have been scored but for foul play by an opponent.

(3) Conversion (two points). A successful kick over the crossbar and through the uprights of the goalpost following a try. The kick is taken in line with the spot where the try was scored.

(4) Penalty kick (three points). A goal kicked after the referee has awarded a penalty for a serious infringement.

(5) Dropped goal (three points). Also known as a field goal, scored when a player in open play drops the ball on to the ground and kicks the rebound over the crossbar and through the uprights.

• Teams are divided into seven backs (fullback, left wing, centre, centre, right wing, flyhalf, scrumhalf) and eight forwards (number eight, openside flanker, lock, lock, blindside flanker, loosehead prop, hooker, tighthead prop).

• Players sent off for foul play may not be substituted. Temporary replacements are allowed for blood injuries (uncontrolled bleeding). Teams can substitute up to two front row players (prop/hooker) and up to five other players.

• Matches start with a kickoff. Any player may then run with the ball, pass it to a team mate or kick. A player can tackle, push or hold any opponent provided he has the ball. The major distinction from American football is that a player can play the ball only if he is behind his team mate who last played it. Players cannot throw or knock the ball forward.


• Penalty kicks are awarded for major infringements such as violent or foul play.

• For a minor infringement such as a knock-on, play is restarted with a scrum in which the eight forwards combine and push against the other eight. The scrumhalf from the non-offending side puts the ball in between the packs and the ball is raked back to him by his forwards' feet.

• If a team puts the ball out of play on either side of the field, the forwards from both sides line up parallel at right angles from the touchline. They then jump for the ball which is thrown in by a member of the non-offending side (usually the hooker). Players can lift the designated catcher.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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