Rookie Guide to Rugby – 2015

by Chad Owen (owen.chad@gmail.com)

Introduction

Rugby is a great sport – it requires brute strength, speed, agility, endurance, and teamwork like no other sport.  It’s something different for most of us who grew up in the US, and it takes a while to get used to the various rules and roles of the game.  But it’s a great way to travel around the country, make new friends locally and not-so-locally, beat the crap out of each other, and clap each other on the back over a beer afterward.

There is something indescribable about the bond you build with guys when you spend hours a week sweating the same sweat, running in the same mud, when you are not only teammates but you literally hold each other up like you do in lineouts and scrums, when your teammates will throw themselves in and step over your prostrate body to keep the other team from stomping you to bits.  I don’t know about you, but I can always use more friends like that.

If you’re reading this, you’re halfway there.

Firehose at a Teacup

There is a lot of information thrown at you in this guide, probably too much to really digest easily or quickly.  Don’t let that worry you; it’ll all make more sense after it’s demonstrated in a few practices.  Rugby as a whole takes a good while to learn and a great long while to master, but experience is the best teacher.

Rugby, In a Nutshell, For Absolute Beginners

If you’re an American, it’s probably easiest to describe rugby as a form of football without either a) blocking or b) the forward pass.  So, think of it as 100% option football – you take the ball, run forward if you can, lateral it to a teammate if that looks like the best way to gain ground.

The biggest difference between rugby and American football is that when a ball carrier is tackled, there is no stop in play in which both teams reset and go at it again.  We’ll come back to what happens when a ball carrier is tackled, but it’s very important to remember that in that respect, rugby is more like basketball – when a shot is taken, whether it goes in or doesn’t, both teams pick right back up and adjust on the fly to what they want to do or what the other team is doing.

The game is played in two 40-minute halves, with no stopping of the clock (except in rare instances, the referee will stop the clock for injuries or to address an issue).  There are 15 players per side, with a maximum of 8 reserve players.  A player can be sent to the sideline temporarily because of bleeding and rejoin the game within 10 minutes if the bleeding is stopped – this is called a “blood sub.”  Other than this situation, if a player is substituted out, he cannot rejoin the game.  So at least 7 players on each team will play a full 80 minutes of rugby.

For that reason, rugby is a very different game physically than football.  In football, you exert maximum effort for about 10 seconds at a time, with 20-40 seconds to reset between.  In rugby, like in soccer or basketball, you will often be moving at 50-70% effort to set yourself up offensively or defensively, moving at 90-100% effort when you’re carrying the ball or making a tackle, only to get up again and be jogging back to place or going 100% right back at it.  While strength is absolutely important in rugby, endurance over a long game is also very important.

That means that there is a lot of running in rugby, gentlemen.  So there is a lot of running in rugby practice.  I hate it, too.  But it’s the price we pay.  Get used to it.

The Pitch

A rugby pitch is slightly longer and wider than a football field.  The goalposts are the same width as in football, but they’re at the front of the try zone rather than arcing from the back of it, and therefore are wrapped in pads so we hopefully don’t knock ourselves stupid(er) against them.

Rugby pitches are marked in meters.  The parallel lines marking the sides of the playing field are called the “touch lines” and are 70 meters apart.  Perpendicular to the touch lines is the midfield mark, the “50 meter line.”  On either side of the 50m line are the “10m lines.”  These are important because kickoffs come from the 50m line, and the receiving team must be behind the 10m line, and the ball must travel at least 10m on a kickoff or it’s a penalty against the kicking team (or the receiving team can choose to play on if it gives them an advantage.)

50 meters from the 50m line, as you might guess, are the “goal lines” for each team.  10m behind each goal line is the “dead ball” line.  The rectangle formed by the touch lines, goal line, and dead ball line is called the “try zone” – the equivalent of the end zone in football.

Between the 10m line and the goal line on either side is the “22 meter line,” 22 meters out from the goal line.  Think of this as the rugby equivalent of the football “red zone,” or if you’re familiar with hockey, the 22m from your goal line marks your team’s defensive zone, the 22m from your opponent’s goal line marks your offensive zone, with the field between the 22’s as the neutral zone.  If you have the ball inside the other team’s 22, you’re in scoring position and you want to be sure to capitalize on it.  If the other team has the ball inside YOUR 22, you’re in trouble, and you want to get the ball the hell out of there as quickly and as far as possible.

The Officials

Each match has one referee and two touch judges.  The touch judges hold flags and are basically there to mark where the ball goes out of bounds, so they spend the whole game running up and down the sideline, raising the flag to show where a ball went out of bounds and pointing toward the team that should have the throw-in for a lineout (which will be discussed later).  They also mark whether or not kicks at goal are successful.  Often, the touch judges are selected from the reserve players – one from each team.

The referee is the god of the pitch, and his word is law.  The referee is always addressed as “SIR,” and ONLY the captain of each team may talk to the referee, or he can call a penalty.  Referees hate it when players talk to them or offer “help” in spotting penalties.  Trust your more experienced teammates on this one – talk to your captain if you have something you think something needs to be brought to the referee’s attention, but otherwise keep quiet.  The referee can call penalties or issue a yellow card for foul play – sending the offending player off the field for 10 minutes (also called the sin bin) – or red card for egregious or dangerous infractions, in which case the player is sent off for the rest of the match and suspended for the following game.  In either case, yellow card or red card, the offending player’s team plays a man down for the duration of the penalty.

Occasionally penalties may be called on the defending team.  In that situation, a referee can (and usually will) play advantage – that is, similar to a delayed penalty in hockey or when a defender jumps offsides before the snap in American football, the referee allows play to go on.  If the offensive team gains enough field position that the referee thinks the penalty is no longer necessary, then he will call “advantage over.”  If the offensive team later makes another penalty – or the defensive team gains possession – the referee will go back to the spot of the original penalty and enforce it at that point.

Equipment

The team has 23 jerseys, and the 15 starters and 8 backups will be given jerseys before the game and turn them back in after the game.  Everything else, a player is expected to provide for himself.  There aren’t a lot of local places to buy rugby gear, but there ARE lots of good rugby equipment sources online, such as worldrugbyshop.com, ruggers.com, and rugbyimports.com.  You can always ask the other guys in the club for suggestions.

Required Equipment

Shorts:  Rugby shorts are, well, short – you don’t want basketball type shorts that are long and baggy because that’s giving an opponent more to grab onto and drag you down with.  Rugby shorts are also extremely tough, which is important when they’re being used to drag you to the ground, lift you in lineouts, or to bind onto in scrums.  You can find rugby shorts for around $20 online, sometimes even less.  A good pair of match shorts will run you $40 or so but will last for years.  Check with the club president about colors, but we usually wear black shorts.  (2016 Season will require WHITE Shorts as well)

(Chad says:  Personally, I have a pair of Canterbury match shorts that are a couple of years old now and you can barely tell.  I also have a separate pair of Gilbert canvas shorts for practice – both to save wear on my match shorts, and because the canvas shorts have pockets, so it’s more convenient to wear around. )

Socks:  Most rugby players wear knee-length rugby socks.  Soccer socks also work.  Check with the club president about colors, but we usually wear black socks.

Cleats:  Called “boots” in rugby terminology.  Rugby cleats are designed a little differently than soccer or football or other cleats, and they commonly have six- or eight-stud patterns with either removable metal or molded plastic studs.  Forwards tend to go with longer/metal studs for greater traction in the scrum while backs tend to go with shorter/plastic studs for more quickness and easier changes of direction, but you’re welcome to wear what works for you.

The main thing to look for is that they NOT have a single toe cleat – these are not allowed in rugby.  If not, they’re probably fine as long as there aren’t any sharp or burred edges.  Note that every game has a “boot check” beforehand where the referee looks at everyone’s cleats to make sure they’re legal.  If you have any questions, check with some of the more experienced players.

Recommended Equipment

Mouth Guard:  Strongly recommended.  Helps save your teeth.  Also helps cut down on concussions, or so they say.

Padded Shirt:  “Pads” used in rugby are just that, slight padding worn underneath the jersey, with no hard plastic like in football.  Still, though they aren’t a miracle cure or protection, you’d be surprised how much a 1cm layer of foam padding on your tackling shoulders helps with your fatigue and recovery.

Compression shorts:  Goes without saying.

Optional Equipment

Scrum Cap:  A thin cap of padding worn like a helmet.  Some people feel far more comfortable in a scrum cap; some despise them.  It’s all up to personal preference.  No player or position is required to wear one, although they’re more commonly worn by locks and 8-men who have their ears battered around in scrums.

Protective Cup:  “I’ve never worn a cup, and have only needed one twice!”  — Nick Garber.  Wear it or not, up to you.

Practice Jersey:  For practice, a cheap rugby jersey bought online from a grab bag, or a leftover Louisville jersey bought from the club, is handy – they stand up to a hell of a whole lot of pulling without tearing and you won’t care too much if it gets filthy – but a T-shirt will do.

Rugby ball:  I recommend that every guy have their own ball to practice with, or just to hold in their hands around the house to get used to the feel of it.  Carry it on your runs, throw it with a partner, use it as a doorstop or bookend.

Kit bag:  Just helpful to keep everything together for when you head to the pitch.

NO hard plastic guards/braces/pads, watches, jewelry, etc. can be worn during play!

Open Gameplay

Points are scored in rugby via crossing the goal line and placing the ball down on the ground in the try zone with downward pressure (that is, you place the ball on the ground, not drop it!!), which is called a try and is worth 5 points.  A team scoring a try can attempt a conversion kick that is worth 2 points.  So, a try + conversion = 7 points, like a TD + XP in American football.  However, a conversion in rugby must be kicked from any point parallel to the sideline from where the try was scored.  That is, if you scored in the corner of the try zone, you have to attempt the conversion kick from the sideline.  You can either back up to get a better angle at the expense of a longer kick, or try to kick up close from a crummy angle.  This is why you’ll see rugby players run around in the try zone if there is not a tackler right on them.  Because the try isn’t scored until he touches the ball down, a runner will ideally ground the ball as close to the middle of the try zone as possible.

Kicks at goal are also allowed.  In some circumstances, if a penalty is awarded to a team by the referee, the team has the opportunity to choose to kick for goal from a tee.  Otherwise, all goal kicks must come as “drop goals” – that is, you have to drop the ball and kick it on the bounce, which sounds hard and in fact is hard.  Both penalty kicks and drop goals are worth 3 points.

Unlike American football, rugby is what you might call “make it-take it” – if your team scores, the opposing team kicks off to you to start the next possession.

As stated above, in rugby, forward passes are not allowed.  All hand passes must be lateral or BACKWARD.  At any time, any player on the field may kick the ball forward.  The ball can’t be touched by any person who was in front of the kicker when the ball was kicked UNTIL the kicker runs past them.  (As a rookie, kicking rules and strategy take a while to learn, so don’t spend much time on it.  You’ll pick it up as you go along.)

If the ball crosses the touch line, it is “in touch,” the equivalent of “out of bounds” in football.  UNLIKE football, when the ball goes into touch, possession is awarded to the opposing team.  Except in rare instances, the ball is put back into play with a lineout (we’ll come back to that) and the opposing team gets the put-in.

Because there is no blocking in rugby, the standard offensive formation is an angled line or a V, with the point on the ball carrier (or the breakdown).  This allows the ball carrier or scrumhalf to pass the ball backward to a teammate who is already running forward onto the pass to receive it at or near full speed.  If every person is at an angle behind the person to his inside relative to the ball, then each person receiving the ball should be able to turn around and pass it again to the outside to a player already in position to receive the pass.

The standard defensive formation is a FLAT line across the field.  Since there is no blocking, each man is assumed to be able to tackle a runner one-on-one, with his nearest teammate(s) to assist with the tackle and/or to try to strip the ball from the runner or poach it after the tackle.  One player, the fullback, will stay back as a last line of defense, and to field any kicks from the opposition.  The wings on either side may or may not play back slightly behind the main line for the same reasons.

Getting Dirty – Tackles, Rucks, and Mauls

Because there is no down-and-distance in rugby, maintaining possession is paramount.  Ball runners are expected to fight hard NOT to go into touch, and NOT to fight for extra inches on the field instead of going down in a tackle under control so the ball can be recycled to your team.  Similarly, tacklers are expected NOT to sell out for a huge hit to knock a ball carrier backward at the expense of possibly giving up a surer tackle even if the ball carrier gains an extra few feet.

A tackle is made when a ball carrier goes to ground in contact with a defending player.  If he’s not held on the ground, a ball carrier can get right up and keep running.  (This is rare, as you can imagine.)  If both players go to ground, the tackler must release the ball carrier and roll away, and the ball carrier must release the ball within two seconds.  What the ball carrier wants to do is go down, under control, so he can place the ball on the side of his body facing his own teammates.  When the ball is on the ground, open to the sky, it may be played by either team.

If you played American football, you were probably taught to always put your head in front of the ball carrier as you made a tackle.  That helped you keep him from making extra yardage.  But in American football, you had a helmet and face mask.  In rugby, if you tackle somebody with your head in front of their body, you’re likely to take a knee right to the face.  A good rugby tackle is made with your shoulder in the opponent’s crotch, your face cheek to his butt cheek, wrapping your arms around his upper legs and bringing him down.   If you tackle a guy low and hold on, even if he runs over you, you’re now a body-weight anchor on his legs.  Either he’ll go down or your teammates will get there to clean him up – maybe even strip the ball.

Note that you can’t tackle a player without the ball.  If a guy just gets rid of the ball before you make contact, the referee will almost certainly not call a penalty.  But if you drill a guy who clearly got rid of the ball a while ago, or if you tackle a guy away from the ball entirely, it’s a penalty.  You are also NOT allowed to pick a player up and slam him – picking a runner up past waist-level and/or turning him horizontal or head-down before taking him down is a penalty and possibly a yellow/red card.

Because the ball, on the ground, is fair game, a major part of rugby is the ruck, which is when one or more players from each team binds over the ball on the ground.  That is, the ball carrier is down, the tackler is down, and a player from each team comes over his teammate on the ground to attempt to contest possession of the ball.  If players are contesting over the ball, the ball can only be played from behind the back foot of the last man in the ruck, on the offensive side of the ball.  A defensive player will attempt to counter-ruck, but defenders can only come in through what’s called the gate, which is formed by the widest part of the tackled ball carrier’s body that is parallel to the goal lines.  If a defensive player can step over the gate, and the ball is behind his back foot, his own teammates can take possession.

For this reason, setting up a ruck is a vital part of rugby, and it happens on virtually every tackle.  It’s somewhat like blocking in American football, but in reverse – you don’t keep tacklers away from your teammate, but after he’s tackled, you step in and set up over him to protect the ball (and ideally to protect him from getting stomped on by defenders going for the ball).

Very similar to a ruck is a maul, (you ruck in the muck, but a maul is tall!) which is formed when one or more players from each team binds over the ball in the hands of a ball carrier.  So, if your teammate is being tackled by an opposing player, but you can bind onto him, you can continue to drive him forward.  More players can join in on either side, as long as they join from the back of the last man in the maul – not from the side!  As long as the ball is moving forward and players haven’t joined in from the sides, a maul can continue.  If the defense stops the progress of a maul, it is a penalty and the defense wins possession, so the offensive team’s goal is to keep the maul moving and keep the ball in a position where it can be peeled off and run out of the maul if it looks like it will be stopped by the defense.

Whenever a ruck is formed (which, again, is after almost every tackle), or when a maul is formed, a pair of offsides line is also formed – parallel to the goal line, behind the back foot of the last man on your side of the ruck or maul.  If you’re engaged in the ruck or maul, you’re good.  If you’re not engaged in the ruck or maul, you must be behind the offsides line in order to either receive the ball or make a tackle of a ball carrier.

Rucking, counter-rucking, knowing when the ball can and cannot be played in a ruck, and knowing how to remain onsides are all very difficult to discern from a book or from just standing back and watching a game of rugby.  It’s one of the toughest things for rookies to learn correctly.  Don’t let that bother you:  we’ll spend lots of time on it in practice.

The Players

American football is a game of very specialized positions.  Rugby is much less so.  While there are different positions in rugby, and each position has slightly different demands, in open play (which is about 80% of the game) the demands are more or less the same.  Every player in rugby is expected to be able, willing, and downright happy to run the ball and to tackle opposing runners.

Rugby players are split up between “forwards” and “backs.”  Everybody on a rugby team is expected to be as strong and as fast as they can be – but forwards are expected to be on the “strong” side and backs to be on the “fast” side.

Forwards, wearing numbers 1-8, are your battering rams both with and without the ball, expected to do great damage to opposing players over short distances with brute force.  They also make up the scrum (to which we will return later) and usually the lineouts (ditto).

Backs, wearing numbers 10-15, are your speed burners, expected to find openings in the opposing defensive line and exploit them with quick, slashing runs, while on defense they are expected to be able to tackle reliably even when outweighed by opposing players, guard the edges of the field from opposing speed-players, and be prepared to field quick kicks from the opposition.   Since backs are usually farther apart (and moving faster) when the ball is in play, good passing and catching ability is as important as speed.

If you’re new to the game, it normally only takes a few practices for the more experienced guys to pick out a position or two that would be good for you to try.  Generally speaking, if you weigh over 220 pounds, you’re probably a forward.  If you weigh under 200, you’re probably a back.  If you’re between those sizes, it depends on how fast you are and how well you can pass and catch!

The Scrum-half, wearing number 9, is the link between forwards and backs and acts (often in cooperation with the Fly-half, number 10) as the quarterback or point guard on the field, calling plays and distributing the ball.  During scrums, the scrum-half is responsible for feeding the ball into the tunnel formed by the two front rows.  As the signal-caller on the field, he needs to have a great head for the game, an ability to read defenses and adjust on the fly, outstanding fitness to be able to get to each tackle to recycle the ball, and he needs to have great passing ability.

Forwards

                The Front Row

1 – Loosehead Prop        2 – Hooker          3- Tighthead Prop

The two Props are usually the biggest, strongest men on the field.  They must have massive strength throughout their upper body to take the brute force of the scrum and to lift teammates in lineouts, and core and leg strength to drive in scrums, runs, and tackles.  A good prop is a terror to the other team both as a tackler and a ball carrier.  Big men with the physical stamina to play 80 minutes of rugby are hard to find, so if you know any 300-ish pound men who can run, bring them out.  Your teammates will love you for it.

The Hooker takes the center position of the front row of the scrum, supported on either side by a Prop.  He is expected to “hook” the ball in the scrum by bumping it backward with his foot, which requires good coordination with the scrum-half. He needs upper body strength to withstand the pressure of the front row, and flexibility in the lower body to hook the ball.   The hooker usually also throws the ball in on lineouts, which requires coordination with the jumpers.  In open play, a hooker should join the flankers as a mix between strength and speed in both ball carrying and tackling.

The Second Row

5 – Lock                6 – Lock

The two Locks are usually tall – they are usually the jumpers in lineouts, so extra height is always handy.  But locks also need to be ferociously strong in the lower body, as they provide most of the pushing power in a scrum.  In open play, they use their power and size like props, pounding opposing ball carriers and would-be tacklers.

The Back Row

6 – Flanker                          7 – Flanker

8 – Number 8

The Flankers are your linebackers – they roam the field looking for opportunities to knock the crap out of everything that moves.  They are not as big as props or locks, but they are faster, more aggressive, and fearless.  A good flanker runs the ball like a running back – a combination of power and evasiveness, and knowing when to use each – and tackles like he thinks it’s more fun than sex.

The Number 8 (or 8-Man) is at the back of each scrum, and he is often expected to pick up the ball and run with it off of the scrum (this is a common strategy called the 8-Man Pick), to pick it up and quickly pass it out to the scrumhalf or flyhalf, or to help anchor the scrum for the scrumhalf to pick the ball out and distribute it.  In defensive scrums, the 8 and flankers are the first line of defense, since they are loosely bound into the scrum and can release more easily to tackle oncoming ball carriers as they release from the scrum.  All of this play in the scrum requires good coordination with the scrumhalf.  In open play, an 8-man should be quick and good with his hands.

Backs

                The Fly-half wears #10 and is the leader of the back line.  When the ball is going to the backs, it usually comes from the scrumhalf, to the fly half, who then sets up the play and distributes the ball to the backs to continue the play.  A good fly half will have great knowledge of the game and an ability to read it, speed and slashing ability to set up back-line plays, and outstanding passing skill to get the ball into the hands of the speedsters no matter how far away they are.

Centers

                12 – Inside Center           13 – Outside Center

The Centers are guys that are almost big enough – and crazy enough – to be flankers, but are even faster.  They need to be able read the defense while running with the ball, knowing that they may take a little contact to set up an offload to a player crashing through the gap that they just opened – and know when to slash back and keep the ball themselves.  They have to be great passing the ball but also willing to take (and make) hits at speed.

Wings

                11 – Left Wing                   14 – Right Wing

The Wings are the fastest guys on the team.  Tall, short, big, little – doesn’t matter.  As long as they can pass well, receive surely, and then turn on the afterburners.  A good wing on offense is always looking to turn the corner, get around that last tackler, and leave a vapor trail to the try zone.  Because they’re playing on the outside, they may go a little longer between touches of the ball than forwards or centers, but when they get the ball, they’re looking to use their speed to make a big play.  On defense, wings hold that corner against opposing wings looking to get away, and remain on guard for kicks from the opposing team.

The Fullback wears #15 and is the deep safety for the team in defense, and is often the best kicker on a team.  He needs a great ability to read the game, especially an opposing team’s offensive tendencies, and he needs to be able to both field a kicked ball and to be able to turn around and kick it right back while under pressure.  In offense, the fullback acts as any other back line player – fast and shifty – but remains alert for any need to drop back in defense in the event of a turnover.

Set Pieces

There are three situations in which a rugby team can truly sit back and call a play like in American football.  The first is the kickoff, which has already been discussed briefly when we discussed the 10m lines.  Kickoffs occur to start each half and after every score.  The kicking team will usually call “pack left,” “pack right,” or “pack center,” which means that the forwards on the kicking team line up to that side, with a couple of backs on either side of the kicker.  The receiving team will then match up its forwards on that side of the field, facing the kicking team’s forwards, and will space its players out to cover the field and receive the kick.  Like in American football, the kicking team’s players must be behind the kicker when he kicks the ball.  The kick must go beyond the 10m line, but after that, the ball is fair game and the kicking team can try to field the kick.

Note that a player in the air cannot be tackled, so a player fielding a kick – with his eyes up and therefore more exposed than a runner receiving a pass – will usually try to jump to catch it.  If a man jumps, you can’t hit him until he hits the ground.  If a kick is coming your way, and you have a man bearing down on you, you may want to jump to catch it for the same reason.

The second set piece is the lineout, which is a way of restarting play when the ball has gone into touch (out of bounds).  A lineout is like a basketball jump ball combined with an inbounds pass – on steroids.  When the ball goes into touch, the team that touched it last is considered the defensive side, and the opposing team gets to throw the ball in from behind the touch line at the point where the ball went into touch (usually the hooker performs the throw).  The offense decides how many players they want to use in the lineout – between 3 and 7 – and those players (almost always forwards) line up slightly to the outside of the hooker’s shoulder, between 5 and 15 meters from the touch line.  The defending team also lines up for the lineout – they can use fewer players than the offensive team but not more, so if the offensive team only uses 4 men in a lineout, the defensive team can only bring 4.

The men in the lineout face the touch line with about a meter’s space between each team’s line.  The opposing team’s hooker acts as a defender between the touch line and the 5 meter line but cannot interfere with the throw-in.  Both teams’ scrum-halves can be within 10 meters of the lineout.  All other players, however, have to be at least 10 meters behind the lineout until the lineout is complete.

The ball may be thrown to anyone in the lineout as long as it travels at least 5 meters from the touch line.  So it can be quickly thrown to the first man, or it can be thrown all the way past the 15 meter lineout to a teammate waiting to run up and get it.  But the ball MUST be thrown at least 5 meters, and it MUST be thrown down the tunnel formed by each team’s line (that meter or so of space between them).  Usually, each team has a couple of men – usually locks or sometimes flankers – that are designated as jumpers in the lineout.  These men can jump up to receive the ball, and are caught as they jump and are lifted by lifters – usually props or sometimes flankers or other jumpers.  Since the ball is thrown down the tunnel, each team has an opportunity to jump and compete for the ball, although since the throwing team can call signals between thrower and jumper, they have an obvious advantage to maintain possession.  The thrown ball can be tapped back to a teammate (usually the scrumhalf), it can be caught and then passed to a teammate, or it can be caught and the jumper brought down to form a maul.  Opposing players can NOT hit or tackle a jumper or his lifters while he is in the air.  If you want to tackle a jumper, you must wait for his feet to hit the ground.

The third set piece is the scrum, and is what most people think of when they think of rugby.  A lot of people – particularly American football commenters – call it a “scrum” whenever there’s a big bunch of people randomly piled in and going for the ball or yardage.  A true rugby scrum is actually very precise – although no less barbarian for all that.

A scrum is a way of restarting play after an infraction or penalty is called.  The forwards, numbers 1-8, on each team come together and bind up.  Numbers 1-2-3 form the front row by the props binding onto the hooker at the waist or under the arms and the hooker binding to the props over their arms.  Numbers 4-5 form the second row by binding to each other at the shoulder, kneeling, and wrapping their arms between the legs of the prop in front of them and grabbing their pocket or waistband of their shorts, putting their shoulders into the props where their thigh meets their butt.  Number 8 binds in by grabbing the waists of both second rowers and pulling them together, also putting his shoulder where thigh meets butt.  The flankers, 6-7, each bind onto a lock at the shoulder and onto a prop at the point where – you guessed it – thigh meets butt.

The referee will then call “crouch – bind – set.”  At “crouch,” both sides bend over and prepare to make contact.  At “bind,” the props from each team reach over and grab their opposite prop around or just behind/under the shoulder.  At “set,” both teams come together, with the front rows meeting shoulder to shoulder and each row of men behind them adding their own strength to push the scrum together.

The scrum must settle and stabilize before the referee will give the signal to the offensive team’s scrumhalf to feed the ball into the scrum.  He does this by rolling it into the tunnel formed between the two sides.  Usually the scrum-half will use some sort of signal with his hooker to let him know the ball is about to come in.  When the scrum-half feeds the ball in, the hooker will attempt to hook the ball with his foot, kicking it or nudging it backward between the legs of his teammates so it can be picked up at the back of the scrum and played from there.

The backs are lined up 5 meters behind the back foot of the Number 8, arrayed in whatever formation they choose.  The 8-Man or scrum-half will pick the ball off the back of the scrum and play it from there, either running it, punting it, or passing it out to the backline.

Once the ball is fed, both teams are free to push in the scrum.  When I say “push,” I mean each side attempts by signals to all step together, in cadence, and drive the other team backward.  The team that feeds the ball has a distinct advantage – they can signal when the ball is coming in, and the offensive hooker is slightly closer to the point at which the ball is fed than his defensive counterpart.  However, a good opposing hooker can hook the ball first, OR the opposing scrum can push the offensive team backward so that the ball is on their side.  Also, the defensive team can attempt to wheel the scrum, turning the entire scrum like the hands of a clock.  If they can turn the scrum 90 degrees from its starting axis before the ball comes out, the referee will whistle the scrum dead, call for another scrum, and the defensive team will become the offensive one.

If you imagine eight 200+ pound men on either side, pushing as hard as they can, you can understand that this an immense contest of strength, particularly for the front rows, who must withstand the coming together of all that pressure.  That is also why forwards tend to love the scrum.  Timing and coordination can and will be more valuable than brute strength, but it always takes at least an element of brute strength as well.

Penalties

There are a lot of penalties that can be called in rugby, but these are the most common ones.  Learn NOT to do these things, and you’ll … well, you’ll be better than most of your teammates, that’s for sure.  We still make these mistakes sometimes.

When a penalty is called, the referee will announce the choices that the non-penalized team has (if any).  For a knock-on, the only choice is a scrum.  For others, the non-penalized team may be able to choose a scrum, or to take a penalty kick at goal for 3 points, or to “tap and go” or “quick tap” which means the defensive team has to back up 10 meters and scrum-half will quickly tap the ball to his foot and play on, or the defensive team may kick the ball into touch and get to throw the ball into the lineout themselves.  If the referee calls for a penalty, you’ll often hear a teammate yelling “back 10!”  This is a signal to retreat 10 meters as quickly as possible so you can be in position to make a tackle if the other team goes for a quick tap.

Knock on – This is the most common infraction in rugby, and it happens whenever a pass is dropped or the ball is fumbled and it goes forward.  So if the ball falls backward, it’s okay, and the referee will call “play on.”  But trust us, this rarely happens.  If the ball hits the ground, it’s probably a knock on.  So keep hold of that ball!

Offsides – If you’re away from the ball and not affecting the gameplay, it won’t matter too much if you’re offsides.  But if you’re in the way of a tackler’s progress to your teammate – that’s a penalty called obstruction.  If you’re ahead of the offsides line and try to make a tackle, that’s offsides.

Hands in the ruck – If a ruck is formed, you can’t touch the ball with your hands unless/until a bird can crap on it.  You’ll see the scrum-half dig it out with his feet before putting his hands on it to pass it.  If you’re in a ruck, often the ball will be right there and the temptation to pick it up and go is high.  Don’t do it.  When in doubt, just don’t pick up the ball.  Ruck over your teammate and keep the ball secure for the scrum-half to come in behind you.

Coming in from the side – When a ruck is formed, you have to come in through the gate – over the tackled player’s body – to get at the ball.  Again, sometimes that ball is right there and you can see it but the tackled player’s teammates have set up a ruck over him.  If only you could take one step to the side…  Don’t do it.  Set up a defensive position and wait it out.

Not releasing the ball – This penalty is common, but it’s occasionally a “good penalty.”  If you’re a runner, and you’re tackled, you are supposed to release the ball within two seconds.  Often you’ll be at the bottom of a pile of guys that may or may not be grabbing for the ball, and it’s just instinct to hold onto it.  Sometimes, though, you’ll be running ahead of your teammates, get tackled, and there is actually no one from your team to support you.  In that case, it may sometimes make more sense to hold onto the ball, take the penalty, and give your team a chance to compete for the ball in a scrum rather than just giving away possession.  Use your judgment.  When in doubt, release the ball as the rule says – it’s your job to run and your teammates’ job to be there in support, dammit.

Not rolling away – When you tackle a guy, you need to release him and get to your feet.  If there’s nobody else there, and the ball is in plain sight, once you’re on your feet you can grab for it.  But you have to be on your feet first – no snatching the ball on the ground.  Sometimes people go down in a pile and you have an arm, leg, etc. pinned under the pile so that you can’t possibly roll away.  Just make sure whatever arm(s) you have free are hands out and you’re making it clear to the referee that you’re making an effort to roll away and not mess with the play on the ground and you’ll usually not be called.

Forward pass – You’ve got to be behind the guy passing the ball when you receive it.  Otherwise it’ll be called back for a scrum.

Foul play – As we noted above, you can’t tackle a guy without the ball or lift a man and dump him in a tackle.  Obviously, there are no punches to be thrown.  A closed fist aimed at an opponent’s head is a red card.  Period.  Rugby is a rough sport that’s pursued in a spirit of fair play.  There are all sorts of opportunities to put a good, hard, clean, and perfectly legal hit on a guy.  In a physical game like rugby, things can escalate quickly, and the only way a referee can slow things down is to start calling penalties and cards left, right, and center, and that stinks for everybody.  Play smart, play clean, go to your team captain if things are getting out of hand and he’ll talk to the referee.

The Social

Rugby is a social game.  Ruggers, especially American ruggers, know that we’re a rare breed – so when you meet a fellow rugby player, you know that you and that guy have something in common that most Americans know little or nothing about.  So, after every rugby game, the home team has a social – food and beer – for both teams.  The social is also where each team names a “Man of the Match.”  You spend 80 minutes pounding each other into the turf, but afterward, we’re all ruggers and we all want to have a beer and maybe sing some crazy songs together.  Put aside your grudges from the match and say “cheers” with the guys in the other colored shirts.

Louisville Rugby has its own social traditions.  We end each practice by circling up and each man saying his name – that way we all get to know each other.  The club also has weekly bar nights after practice, usually on Thursdays (sometimes on Tuesdays too – let’s hear it for Taco Tuesdays!) – and often will get together for other events, from cookouts to 5k beer races to televised rugby games.