If “total chaos” was your first impression of a rugby match you have lots of company. This little guide is to help you come to terms with both the laws of the game and the methods and tactics of play.
The game is played with two overriding principles:
1. Fair competition for the ball. Fair, but not equal. The team in possession will have an advantage, but not an unfair one. The only time that a team has uncontested possession is when awarded a ‘free kick’ or ‘penalty kick’ due to an opponent’s violation of the laws.
2. Continuity of play. Play is only interrupted by scoring, the ball going into ‘touch’ or a violation of the laws. Even a law violation will not stop the game if the referee determines that the non-offending team has gained some advantage and possession of the ball.
So the game is a continuous competition to gain and keep possession, advance the ball and score by grounding the ball in the opponents ‘goal’ to score a ‘try’. OK, so call it the “try zone”, only the purists will be offended.
The ball can be advanced by either of two ways:
1. Running. Any player can run with the ball and advance it by evading tacklers. No teammate is allowed to block or interfere with the opponents but the ball carrier can pass the ball laterally, not forward, to any teammate in support at any time. Even after being brought to ground in a tackle he can offload to support but must do so immediately.
2. Kicking. At any time any player may kick the ball ahead and chase after it to try to recover possession. All teammates behind him when he kicked it may also chase forward. All teammates who were ahead of the kicker must not advance until they are put ‘onside’ by an onside teammate running past them. Other restrictions may apply but this is enough for now.
As kicking may, and often does, relinquish possession to the opponents it is usually held in reserve for special opportunities or used as a desperate last measure to relieve pressure when a team is backed up in its own territory.
Therefore the usual mode of attacking play is running and passing. The mode of defending play is to tackle the ball carrier and, if the ball is passed, be ready to tackle that player also. Because teammates can’t block for the ball carrier he must preserve or create space for his support. He does this by being an attacking threat, forcing the defender’s attention on himself and even moving them away from the running line of his support. This act of self-sacrifice as at the very core of rugby and becomes the ultimate expression of the individual within the team.
In a competition between two teams of fairly equal talent the running and passing of the ball will be interrupted by a tackle. After the ball carrier has been brought to ground and held (the definition of a “tackle”), two things must happen immediately and simultaneously. The tackler(s) must release the ball carrier and the ball carrier must play the ball. “Play the ball” can take one of three forms. The ball may be passed to a teammate in support, it may be placed on the ground (usually as far back toward his teammates as possible) or it must be released. The ball carrier must not hold on to the ball to prevent the opponents from gaining possession. Thus: The “fair, but not equal, competition for possession”. The laws governing the tackle are a bit more complicated but that’s the gist of it.
More often than not the tackled ball carrier will chose to place the ball where his team has the best opportunity to retrieve it and the next teammate to arrive will crouch over the ball to drive off any opponent who challenges for possession. When one or more players from each team engage each other in a shoving match over the ball a “ruck” has formed and a whole new set of laws come into play.
For the players in the ruck there are two cardinal laws: “It is forbidden to play the ball in the ruck with the hands” and “It is forbidden to go off your feet and fall over the ball to deny the opponents a fair opportunity to gain possession”. There are others, and you’ll hear lots of references to “The Gate”, but those two are the most critical and will explain what’s happening.
For the players not in the ruck there is one law: “Players must get and stay “onside” until the ruck has ended”. The offside line is draw through the feet of the hindmost of your team in the ruck. This means there are two offside lines, one for each team, creating a “no-mans-land” between them. This produces the space necessary for the team that gains possession to launch its attack.
If the ball carrier is not brought to ground in a tackle but stays on his feet in the grasp of an opponent and is then joined by a teammate a “maul” has formed and, as you surmise, new laws come into play. Firstly and most important a maul must not be deliberately collapsed (brought to ground). Sometimes they just collapse of their own accord but that is the referees call to make. Players may join the maul with the intent to push it toward the opponent’s goal but they must do so from their own side. The maul must be kept moving in one direction or another else the referee will call a halt to all the pushing and grunting and call for a scrum.
As with the ruck; players not in the maul must retire behind their offside line defined by the hindmost foot. Again, the offside lines of each team leave the possessing team the room to attack. In contrast with the prohibition of “hands in the ruck” the players in the maul will maneuver the ball player to player and so make it available at the back of the maul for the next attacking sequence.
Interruptions in open play such as tackle, ruck and maul are referred to as “breakdowns”. The play between breakdowns is known as a “phase”. A breakdown won’t cause a stoppage in the game and the team on the attack that can retain the ball at the breakdown, stringing multiple phases together and advancing the ball will be playing to the second principle of rugby: Continuity. It is continuity of play that makes rugby both challenging to play and exiting to watch.
The constant competition for possession and continuity after tackle are the two most defining features of the game that Walter Camp eliminated to create the game we call Football. Ironically, Walter introduced uncontested possession after a tackle, with a restart at the line of scrimmage, to make the game more challenging for the players as they would then be able to conjure up intricate plays and execute them with practiced precision. He must be “rolling in his grave” as the modern game has removed the decision making from the players and handed it to a team of headset wearing coaches. Methinks Walter would rather play the modern game of rugby with its strategies and tactics constantly in flux and executed by players on the field and totally out of control of the man in the booth. But I digress; it’s not football but rugby we’re watching.
In theory the entire match could be played without a single stoppage other than for half and full time. But that isn’t the real world. Teams score tries, the ball goes into touch and players make mistakes and transgress the laws. The restart from a try will be a drop-kick from midfield. The kicking team may choose to kick deep for territory or just kick it the required 10 meters and so provide an opportunity for recovery.
A serious law transgression, such as a dangerous tackle or offsides at a ruck, will be call for a penalty kick. The offenders must immediately retire 10 meters from where the offence occurred. The kicking team can tap it with the foot and attack or they may kick it into touch down field to gain ground and they’ll get the throw in at the subsequent lineout. Restart from a ball in touch will usually, but not always, be a line-out. Where the line-out occurs and who throws it in will depend on who put the ball in touch and some other circumstances. The referee will have a handle on it.
The line-out itself is the most variable and spectacular restart in the game. The basics are rather straightforward. Each team lines up two or more players, one behind the other, shoulder to shoulder with the opponents, in a line perpendicular to the touch line. Players not taking part of the line-out must stay 10 meters back from the lineout until the lineout ends.
A player then throws in the ball down the line between the two rows of players. The ball must be thrown straight, not favoring the throwers team, to meet the criteria of “fair contest”. The players will hoist a teammate into the air to claim the ball and away we go.
The fun part of the line-out is the variability. The throwing team controls the number of players that form up in a line, how deep the ball is thrown (though it must go 5 meters) and what they do with it after it is caught. Usually it will be passed back to a receiver who will then pass it on to the other players to launch an attack. Another option is to form a maul with the lineout players and drive the ball downfield before passing it out.
Another restart that is unique to rugby is the scrum. A scrum is most often awarded when a player fumbles the ball forward off his hands or arms. This is called a “knock-on”. Another, is if a player passes the ball in a forward direction this is called, with unusual lack of originality for rugby, a “throw forward”. The referee will frequently allow play to continue after a knock on as the opponents may gather the ball and start an attack. He will announce his intention with “Scrum advantage” and the color of the team now playing the ball. If this attack gains ground or some other advantage he will announce “Advantage over” and play will continue. If, in his opinion, no advantage was gained the referee will whistle play dead and award the scrum to the non-offending team.
When TV football commentators, often after a fumble, refer to a pileup on the field as a “scrum” they speak from ignorance. The scrum is not an incoherent jumble of bodies. Instead, it is a very well organized, tightly packed, strictly managed, highly cohesive unit from each team engaged in a contest to win possession of the ball which must be thrown straight down the middle. The off-side lines for the non-scrummers at a scrum are 5 meters back from the hind foot. To see a scrum is to know a scrum.
As the scrum is formed by eight players from each team the act of packing them all into a few square feet means that the team winning the ball now has a lot of maneuvering space in which to attack. The player putting the ball into the scrum is the “scrum half”. Usually it’s the scrum half who serves the ball to the other players when it emerges. Occasionally the Number 8 will disengage from the back of the scrum, pick up the ball and start the attack.
Now that we’ve introduced the scrum it’s time to introduce the players. The group of players who constitute the scrum are called “The Forwards”, sometimes “The Pack”. They are usually large brawny players known more for their strength than their speed. They are also the guys who participate in the line-out and are most often the ones winning the ball in the rucks and mauls. In general their lot in life is to win ball for the other guys. The other guys are “The Backs”. They are usually smaller than the forwards but must be fleet of foot and have good ball handling skills. The forwards most often enjoy running at or into the opponents whilst the backs seek to avoid contact with quick moves and sleight of hand.
The nature of these two groups will define much of how the game is played. The pack, using short passes and banging away at the opponents to gain some ground, will force the opponents to respond to the threat. A few phases of this and space starts to open up outside and suddenly the ball will passed through the backs and the challenge will be to stop them from “turning the corner”.
When two balanced teams meet and skillful ball handling and running by the attacking side is matched by organized defenders and sound tackling the ball will be kept in play, frequently changing hands, with the occasional scrum or lineout to punctuate the game. This is rugby at its best, fun to play and exciting to watch.