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Rugby Union Explainer: Rules, points, positions & more

With its origins in football coming out of Rugby School in England, rugby union has become a sport played across the globe.

Here’s a guide to the 15-man code of the game, from its origins in the Midlands of England, to the rules you need to know to follow the sport today.

History

The origins of rugby union are credited to a pupil at Rugby School by the name of William Webb Ellis who picked up the ball and ran with it during a school football match in 1823. 

There is some debate about the validity of the story, but Webb Ellis’ legacy remains to the extent that even the trophy for the Rugby World Cup is named after him.

From that game of football in 1823 that saw Webb Ellis supposedly run with the ball in hand, the first international was played on 27th March 1871 between Scotland and England in Edinburgh, with the hosts winning the match 1-0.

The game has grown ever since that first encounter in Edinburgh and turned professional in the mid-1990s.

2023 will see the 10th men’s Rugby World Cup being played, with the major tournament taking place in France between 8th September and 28th October.

Three-time winners New Zealand are the 5/2 favourites to win the 2023 World Cup Outright, with hosts France at 3/1 and reigning champions South Africa at 9/2

Rules

A rugby union match is played between two teams, with the side scoring the most points at the end of two 40-minute halves declared the winner.

The primary aim of the sport is to score more points than the opposition by running, kicking and passing the oval-shaped ball before touching down over the designated try-line, or by kicking it over the goalposts which are 'H-shaped'.

Players with the ball can be tackled below the shoulders by the opposition, with a referee judging any foul-play during the contest.

Points

If a team touches the ball down on, or over the try line in the opposition’s goal area then five points are awarded to that team.

The side will then take a conversion from in line with where the try was scored. By kicking the ball through the posts, two further points can be scored.

Three points are awarded for a penalty kick between the posts, or a drop goal – kicking the ball between the posts from open play. 

Positions

A rugby union side comprises of 15 players split between eight forwards and seven backs. Here is a table showing the numbers and the positions they represent:

Forwards:

NumberPosition
1Loosehead Prop
2Hooker
3Tighthead Prop
4Lock
5Lock
6Blindside Flanker
7Openside Flanker
8Number Eight

Backs:

NumberPosition
9Scrum-Half
10Fly-Half
11Left Wing
12Inside Centre
13Outside Centre
14Right Wing
15Full-back

Common rugby terms

Scrum 

An iconic part of the game, a scrum consists of the eight forwards from each side pushing against each other to contest the ball and resume play.

The ball is placed in the scrum by the scrum-half, with the hooker looking to hook the ball back to secure possession.

Lineout

Lineouts are performed when the ball has gone out of play and the game needs resuming. The side that didn’t touch the ball last before leaving the field throw the ball back into play between two lines of players.

The ball must be thrown straight by the hooker, while coded moves are performed to try and confuse the opposition as to which player the ball will be thrown to.

Ruck

A ruck is formed when a player is tackled, goes to ground, before releasing the ball for a team-mate. 

Rucks can involve multiple players from both sides in the tackle area, and is one of the key battle areas in this contact sport to help dominate the opposition.

Maul

Similar to a ruck but with the ball in the hands of a player still on their feet, a maul is another important area of the game.

Defences will look to hold up a player and keep the ball in a stagnant maul in order to win the ball back, as attacking teams have a limited time to get the ball back out. 

Mauls can be a devastatingly effective tool for an attacking side, especially from a lineout situation close to the opposition’s try line.

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