A Brief History of Rugby Union

Legend has it that in 1823, during a game of school football in the town of Rugby, England, a young man named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran towards the opposition’s goal line. Two centuries later, Rugby Union has evolved into one of the world’s most popular sports, with millions of people playing, watching and enjoying the game. At the heart of rugby is a unique ethos which it has retained over the years. Not only is the game played to the laws, but within the spirit of the laws. Through discipline, control and mutual self-respect, a fellowship and sense of fair play are forged, defining rugby as the game it is. From the school playground to the Rugby World Cup final, rugby union offers a truly unique and thoroughly rewarding experience for all involved in the game.

The Game

Rugby is a game in which the object is to carry the ball over the opponents’ goal line and force it to the ground to score. Sounds simple, right? However, in order to go forward, the ball must be passed backwards. The ball can be kicked forwards, but the kicker’s teammates must be behind the ball at the moment the ball is kicked. This apparent contradiction creates a need for fine teamwork and great discipline, as little can be achieved by any one individual player. Only by working as a team can players move the ball forward towards their opponents’ goal line and eventually go on to win the game. Rugby Union has its unique aspects, but like many other sports it is essentially about the creation and use of space. The winners of a game of rugby will be the team of players who can get themselves and the ball into space and use that space wisely, while denying the opposing team both possession of the ball and access to space in which to use it.

The below is a high level introduction to the Fifteen Aside Game played by Seniors, and there are variations to the below for different age group levels in the Juniors from U10-U19.

What do I need to Play?

Before playing rugby, it’s important to understand the equipment you’ll need. Firstly, you’ll need a sturdy pair of boots with studs or cleats which are appropriate to the conditions. It is also highly recommended that you wear a mouth guard to protect the teeth and jaw, and some players choose to wear World Rugby approved head gear and/or padded equipment, worn under the shirt.

  1. All items of clothing must comply with World Rugby Regulation 12.
  2. A player wears a jersey, shorts and underwear, socks and boots. The sleeve of a jersey must extend at least half-way from the shoulder point to the elbow.
  3. Additional items are permitted. These are:
    • Washable supports made of elasticated or compressible materials.
    • Shin guards.
    • Ankle supports worn under socks, not extending higher than one third of the length of the shin and, if rigid, from material other than metal.
    • Mitts (fingerless gloves).
    • Shoulder pads.
    • Mouth guard or dental protector.
    • Headgear.
    • Bandages, dressings, thin tape or other similar material.
    • Goggles.
    • Studs, including those of moulded rubber, on the soles of their boots.
  4. In addition, women may wear:
    • Chest pads.
    • Cotton blend long tights, with single inside leg seam under their shorts and socks.
    • Headscarves, providing they do not cause a danger to the wearer or other players.
  5. A player may not wear:
    • Any item contaminated by blood.
    • Any sharp or abrasive item.
    • Any items containing buckles, clips, rings, hinges, zippers, screws, bolts or rigid material or projection not otherwise permitted under this law.
    • Jewellery.
    • Gloves.
    • Shorts with padding sewn into them.
    • Any item that is normally permitted in law but, in the referee’s opinion, is liable to cause injury.
    • Communication devices.
  6. The referee has the power to decide at any time that part of a player’s clothing is dangerous or illegal. In this case, the referee must order the player to remove the item. The player must not take part in the match until the item is removed or rendered harmless.
  7. If, at an inspection before the match, a match official tells a player that an item banned under this law is being worn and the player is subsequently found to be wearing that item on the playing area, that player is sent off for misconduct. Sanction: Penalty.
  8. The referee must not allow any player to leave the playing area to change items of clothing, unless they are bloodstained.

How long is a Game of Rugby?

  1. A match lasts no longer than 80 minutes (split into two halves, each of not more than 40 minutes plus time lost), unless the match organiser has authorised the playing of extra-time in a drawn match within a knock-out competition. With Juniors, the following match times apply (noting there is no time off for any stoppage of play in any Juniors Age Group):
    • U10/11 - 2 x 20min halves
    • U12, 13 & 14 - 2 x 25min halves
    • U15/16 - 2 x 30min halves
    • U17/Opens - 2 x 35min halves
  2. Half-time consists of an interval not exceeding 15 minutes as decided by the match organiser. During this time, the teams and match officials may leave the playing enclosure.
  3. In non-international matches, the match organiser may decide to reduce the length of a match. If the match organiser does not decide, the teams agree on the length of a match. If they cannot agree, the referee decides.
  4. The referee keeps the time but may delegate the duty to either or both assistant referees and/or an official time-keeper, in which case the referee signals to them any stoppage. In matches without an official time-keeper, if the referee is in doubt as to the correct time, the referee consults either or both the assistant referees and may consult others but only if the assistant referees cannot help.
  5. The referee may stop play and allow time for:
    • Player injury for up to one minute. If a player is seriously injured, the referee has the discretion to allow more than one minute for that player to be removed from the playing area.
    • Consultation with other officials.
  6. Once the ball is already dead, the referee may allow time for:
    • Replacement of players.
    • Replacing or repairing players’ clothing.
    • Re-tying a boot-lace.
    • Retrieving the ball.
  7. A half ends when the ball becomes dead after time has expired unless:
    • A scrum, lineout or restart kick following a try or touchdown, awarded before time expired, has not been completed and the ball has not returned to open play. This includes when the scrum, lineout or restart kick is taken incorrectly.
    • The referee awards a free-kick or penalty.
    • A penalty is kicked directly to touch without the ball first being tapped and without the ball touching another player.
    • A try has been scored, in which case the referee allows time for the conversion to be taken.
  8. A team scoring a try may attempt the conversion or may decline it.
    • The decision to decline the conversion must be relayed by the try scorer to the referee by saying “no kick” after the try is awarded.
    • Provided the conversion is attempted or declined before time elapses, the referee will award a restart kick.
    • If the conversion is attempted, time is taken from the strike on the ball.
  9. When weather conditions are exceptionally hot and/or humid, the referee has the discretion to allow for a water break. This one-minute break should be taken midway through the half, after a score or when the ball is dead near the half-way line.
  10. The referee has the power to end or suspend the match at any time if the referee believes that it would be unsafe to continue.

Key Elements of The Game

Kick-Off: Each half of the match is started with a drop kick from the centre of the half way line. The non-kicking team must be 10 metres back from the ball when it is kicked and the kick must travel 10m towards the opposition goal line before hitting the ground.

Passing: A player may pass (throw the ball) to a team-mate who is in a better position to continue the attack, but the pass must not travel towards the opposing team’s goal line. It must travel either directly across the field, or back in the direction of the passer’s own goal line. By carrying the ball forwards and passing backwards, territory is gained. If a forward pass is made, the referee will stop the game and award a scrum with the throw-in going to the team which was not in possession at the time of the pass. In this way, a forward pass is punished by that team losing possession of the ball.

Knock-On: When a player mishandles the ball, i.e. drops it or allows it to rebound off a hand or arm, and the ball travels forwards, it is known as a knock-on. This is punishable by a scrum to the opposition and therefore a turnover of possession.

Tackle: Only the ball carrier can be tackled by an opposing player. A tackle occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground, i.e. has one or both knees on the ground, is sitting on the ground or is on top of another player who is on the ground. To maintain the continuity of the game, the ball carrier must release the ball immediately after the tackle, the tackler must release the ball carrier and both players must roll away from the ball. This allows other players to come in and contest for the ball, thereby starting a new phase of play.

Ruck: A ruck is formed if the ball is on the ground and one or more players from each team who are on their feet close around it. Players must not handle the ball in the ruck, and must use their feet to move the ball or drive over it so that it emerges at the team’s hindmost foot, at which point it can be picked up.

Maul: A maul occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and one or more of the ball carrier’s teammates holds on (binds) as well (a maul therefore needs a minimum of three players). The ball must be off the ground. The team in possession of the ball can attempt to gain territory by driving their opponents back towards the opponents’ goal line. The ball can then be passed backwards between players in the maul and eventually passed to a player who is not in the maul, or a player can leave the maul carrying the ball and run with it.

Advantage: The advantage law allows the game to be more continuous and have fewer stoppages. Sometimes, during a game, an infringement of the laws may be committed where a stoppage in play would deprive the non-offending team of an opportunity to score. Even though the laws state that the non-offending team should be awarded a penalty, free kick or scrum, they are given the opportunity to continue with open play and attempt to score a try. In this instance, the referee will allow play to continue rather than penalise the offence.

Offside: Rugby’s offside law restricts where on the field players can be, to ensure there is space to attack and defend. In general, a player is in an offside position if that player is further forward (nearer to the opponents’ goal line) than the team-mate who is carrying the ball or the team-mate who last played the ball. Being in an offside position is not, in itself, an offence, but an offside player may not take part in the game until they are onside again. If an offside player takes part in the game, that player will be penalised.

Scrum: The scrum is a means of restarting play after a stoppage which has been caused by a minor infringement of the laws (for example, a forward pass or knock on) or the ball becoming unplayable in a ruck or maul. The scrum serves to concentrate all the forwards and the scrum halves in one place on the field, providing the opportunity for the backs to mount an attack using the space created elsewhere. The ball is thrown into the middle of the tunnel between the two front rows, at which point the two hookers can compete for the ball, attempting to hook the ball back in the direction of their team-mates. The team who throws the ball into the scrum usually retains possession, because the hooker and scrum half can synchronise their actions. Once possession has been secured, a team can keep the ball on the ground and in the scrum and attempt to drive the opposition down field. Alternatively, they can bring the ball to the hindmost foot of the scrum, where the ball is then passed into the back line and open play resumes again.

Lineout: The lineout is a means of restarting play after the ball has gone into touch (off the field of play at the side). The lineout concentrates a selection of forwards in one place near to the touchline, so the backs have the rest of the width of the field in which to mount an attack. The key for the forwards is to win possession and distribute the ball effectively to the back line. The forwards assemble in two lines, perpendicular to the touchline, one metre apart. The hooker throws the ball down the corridor between these two lines of players. Because the thrower’s team-mates know where the throw is likely to go, that team has an advantage in retaining possession. However, with speed of thought and movement, the opposition can contest for the ball and the lineout frequently results in a turnover of possession. The player who successfully catches the ball can keep it and set up a maul, or can pass to the receiver (a player who stands next to the lineout to wait for such a pass) who then passes to the fly half and on to the back line.

Penalty: Infringements of the laws which have a material and significant impact on the opposition are punished with the award of a penalty kick. If the place where the penalty is awarded is within range of the posts, the team will usually choose to kick for a goal from a place kick. The ball is placed on a kicking tee and the kicker attempts to kick it between the posts and over the crossbar. Three points are awarded for a successful kick. A team may choose not to kick for goal. Other options include a scrum, a ‘quick penalty’ to bring the ball into open play, or kicking for touch (where the kicking team has the throw in to the resulting lineout).

Free Kick: A free kick is awarded for less significant offences. A team may not score points directly from a free kick. A team may opt for a scrum instead of a free kick.

The Field

Playing Positions

Rugby Union has always been characterised by the notion that it is a game for all shapes and sizes. Uniquely, each position requires a different set of physical and technical attributes and it is this diversity which makes the game so accessible to all.


Props: No.1 (Loosehead) and No.3 (Tighthead). Their primary role is to anchor the scrum and provide lifting strength and support for the lineout jumpers. Also pivotal in rucks & mauls. They need Upper-body strength to provide stability in the scrum, endurance, mobility and safe hands to maintain continuity of play.

Hooker: No.2. The hooker has two unique roles on the paddock as the player who wins possession in the scrum, and usually throws the ball in to the lineout. They need great strength to withstand the physicality of the front row coupled with speed to get around the paddock and good throwing technique.

Locks: No.4 (Left) and No.5 (Right). Also known as Second Rows in old school terminology. Locks win ball from lineouts and restarts. They drive forward momentum in the scrum, rucks and mauls providing a platform for attack. They need height. The locks are the giants of the team and combine their physicality with great catching skills and mobility.

Flankers: No6. (Blind-side) and No.7 (Open-side). Also known as Breakaways in old school terminology. Their key objective is to win possession through turn-overs, using physicality in the tackle and speed to the breakdown. They need an insatiable desire for big tackles and a no-fear approach to winning the ball. A combination of speed, strength, endurance and handling.

Number 8: No.8. Also known as Lock in old school terminology. The Number 8 must secure possession at the base of the scrum, carry the ball in open play, provide the link between the forwards and backs in attacking phases and defend aggressively. They need good handling skills and a great awareness of space. Power and pace over short distances is crucial - gaining territory and field position for a quick release to the backs in attack.


Scrum Half: No.9. Provides the link between forwards and backs at the scrum and lineouts. A true decision-maker, the 9 will judge whether to distribute quick ball to the backs or keep it close to the forwards. As the Scrum Half is a multi-faceted position, the scrum half must be powerful, have explosive speed, all-round handling and kicking skills. The great 9s are highly confident players, with excellent game understanding.

Fly Half: No.10. As the player who orchestrates the team’s performance, the 10 will receive the ball from the 9 and choose to kick, pass or make a break based upon split-second interpretation of the phase of play. They need the ability to kick well out of hand, ideally on either foot, deft handling skills, pace, vision, creativity, communication skills, tactical awareness and the ability to perform under pressure.

Centres: No.12 (Inside) and No.13 (Outside). The centres are key in both defence and attack. In defence they will attempt to tackle attacking players whilst in attack they will use their speed, power and creative flair to breach defences. The modern-day centre is lean, strong and extremely quick. The position demands great attacking prowess, coupled with an intensity in contact to either retain or steal possession.

Wings: No.11 (Left) and No.14 (Right). The wings are on the paddock to provide the injection of out-and-out pace needed to outrun an opponent and score a try. Also important to be solid in defence. They need Pace. Wings will often find themselves in open space, when their number one priority is to press the accelerator and run for the line. Strength and good handling are an advantage too.

Fullback: No.15. Generally perceived as the last line of defence, the full back must be confident under a high ball, have a good boot to clear the lines and a enjoy the physicality required to make try-saving tackles. They need great handling skills, pace in attack and power in defence. An ability to join the line at pace to create an overlap and try-scoring opportunities for the winger. Tactical skill and flair.


Try - 5 points. A try is scored when the ball is grounded over the opponents’ goal line in the in-goal area. A penalty try can be awarded if a player would have scored a try but for foul play by the opposition (7 points automatically, with no conversion kick taken).

Conversion - 2 points. After scoring a try, that team can attempt to add two further points by kicking the ball over the crossbar and between the posts from a place in line with where the try was scored.

Penalty - 3 points. When awarded a penalty after an infringement by the opposition, a team may choose to kick at goal.

Drop goal - 3 points. A drop goal is scored when a player kicks for goal in open play by dropping the ball onto the ground and kicking it on the half-volley.