Rugby seasons around the world are starting in March. Time to get educated on the world’s most popular tackle football game.
For probably all of time, school kids have played games involving a ball and a grassy field. Today, most of those games are called football — American football, Canadian football, Association football (soccer), Gaelic football, etc. That’s ball played on foot — it has nothing to do with the amount of kicking (get off your high horse).
Throughout the world, rugby is the most popular form of tackle football. It’s an incredibly popular game that is growing in popularity throughout the United States. Most rugby leagues start play in March. College basketball is winding down, the NBA is load-managing for the playoffs, and the Super Bowl is over. If you want to watch sports in March and into the summer, you need to be watching rugby. Here’s what you need to know.
Rugby Union vs Rugby League
If you’re at all familiar with rugby, you’re likely familiar with rugby union. It’s the most popular rugby code. In rugby union, teams of 15 players attempt to move a football across the field into the end zone. Sound familiar? They have unlimited downs; they just run and run until there’s a turnover (there’s lots of turnovers). A try involves reaching the end zone and touching the ball down on the ground. (Get it? A touch down.) A try is worth five points; then, the team attempts the point-after. The point-after is worth two points, for a total of seven points.
In rugby league, teams of 13 players move the football towards the end zone. They have six downs to reach the end zone with no first downs. A touchdown (a try) is worth four points. The point-after is worth two points. Rugby league is also streamlined for faster gameplay. It places much less emphasis on quirks of the game, such as scrums and lineouts.
The Goal of Rugby
In rugby, a player advances the ball by running with it. The defenders try to tackle him or her. The player can pass the ball to a teammate who then becomes the runner. Alternately, if the player is tackled, they have to give up control. In effect, the runner is tackled, and she places it behind herself for a teammate to pick up and run with. In this way, a rugby team advances the ball down the field.
The catch? No forward passes. In rugby, all passes have to be backwards but passes are unlimited. American football fans can recognize this because rugby and gridiron have the same origin. You have unlimited lateral passes. To pass the ball forward, a rugby player punts the ball to a teammate. American football didn’t develop a forward pass until long after rugby and American football had diverged.
The players attempt to get the ball into the end zone and touch it down to the ground for points. No weird “break the plane” reviews here.
Scrums, Line-Outs, and Other Weird Things
In rugby union, when play stops, it is often restarted with a scrum. Basically, eight players from each team crouch and push against each other. A player from the team restarting play rolls the ball into the middle, and everybody shoves each other until they can kick the ball backwards to a teammate. In rugby league (optimized for speed and television), six players from each team take part. Furthermore, it’s pretty pro forma; they’re not heavily contested.
In rugby union, line-outs occur when the ball goes out of bounds (into touch, in rugby terms). The team taking possession throws the ball back inbounds. You’ve likely seen this occur. This is when teammates throw a dude in the air by his shorts so he can catch the ball. Rugby league doesn’t have line-outs.
A ruck occurs after a ball carrier has been tackled. She must immediately release the ball, and the tackler must immediately release her. So, for a brief moment, the ball is rolling around on the ground and everybody dives for it. Players aren’t allowed to use their hands in the ruck. Typically, the ball carrier puts it in a place that allows her team to pick it up and run with it. This is basically like an American football center snapping the ball to the quarterback.
A maul occurs when a ball carrier is tackled but held up off the ground. Her teammates push her forward while the opposing team tries to stop her from moving forward. American football fans are definitely familiar with linemen forcing a running back over the goal line after he’s been snagged.
Rucks aren’t really possible in rugby league. After the runner is tackled, everybody resets, and the ball carrier puts the ball on the ground. He rolls it back towards his teammates to restart the play. This makes for a faster pace of play; no wrestling around on the ground.
What You Absolutely Need to Know
Rugby is basically American football if football only consisted of running backs and quarterbacks. The quarterback can pitch the ball or choose to keep it. They run until they’re tackled. They then have to put the ball on the ground for their teammates to pick it up and keep playing.
Rugby Union is the most popular code of the game; it is a little more strategic and involves a lot more fighting over the ball. Rugby Union is popular everywhere in the world. Touchdowns are worth five points. The kick after is worth two points.
Rugby League is faster and has lines on the field like American football. League is popular in Northern England and Australia. Touchdowns are worth four points, and the kick after is worth two points. It’s also a little more TV-friendly.
Rugby Sevens is a variation of Rugby Union involving seven-person teams. It’s wide-open and incredibly fast (and this writer’s favorite version of the game). It’s also the only version in which America is currently competitive on the world stage
Rugby Nines is a Rugby League variation with nine players per team. Rugby League also has some Sevens competitions, but Nines is the preferred variant.
The Colloquial will be publishing rugby explainers for all of March in anticipation of rugby seasons around the globe. Come back next week for more about the world’s favorite tackle football game.
Next Week: A History of Rugby and Why America Struggles