Rugby for Dummies. Yes, You

A version of this story – a far better one – first appeared at

At least one player in every team must resemble a caveman.Photo by Milos Lekovic, courtesy of WaratahsRugby

At least one player in every team must resemble a caveman.Photo by Milos Lekovic, courtesy of WaratahsRugby

Hey, rugby is complicated but so is marriage. Didn’t stop you trying that at least once did it?

Look, you don’t have to love it to give it a go – rugby or marriage I guess – but quite possibly you’ll be better for the experience (rugby).

Yet many of my good American friends and, frankly, a hell of a lot of you uncouth Australians have little idea about the game and its benefits.

Did you know it will make you a better singer and dancer? And do you want to improve your romantic performance? Rugby can help.

Perhaps you just want to be better at your job; maybe increase your salary by 80 to 100 percent? Yep, rugby can do that.

Want a new car? True, the good old game can replace your old rust bucket.

Of course, I’m being ridiculous. Taken one too many hard hits over the years, I guess. Ah, but really, rugby makes you extremely attractive.

“But,” I hear you say, “I don’t understand the rules, they are so very confusing and I have very little time to learn anything new between caring for my children, trying to repair my marriage and maintaining my status as a social butterfly.”

Well, verbose person, rest easy. I’m here to help.

What follows is a glossary of sorts, full of fun facts and definitions. That’s right, just like reading a dictionary, except less relevant.

By the time you finish this tome you’ll have all the necessary knowledge to participate in a conversation with people from the 100-plus countries around the world that play rugby. Language will be no barrier: just yell “ruck” loudly in a crowded place and see what kind of reaction you get.

Right, so after you have brushed up on rugby terminology, I suggest you find a way to catch anyone of the three rugby Tests between Australia and the British & Irish Lions, the first of which will be played in Brisbane on Saturday night local time (otherwise known as 1975).

(NB These are not necessarily technically correct definitions or interpretations, but a practical guide to a sport intriguing in its complexity and often glorious in execution. Forgive me for minor inaccuracies pendants and referees and I apologize in advance if any of this seems condescending or simplistic. My aim is true, for the most part.)


Rugby Union – Is not rugby league or Australian rules football. It’s sometimes called rugby, union or even rugger, if you went to a weird school. There are a few different formats, the traditional game played by 15 players a side and 7s — about to become an Olympic sport. It is one of the fastest growing sports in the world especially amongst women.


Scrum – Involves eight large people per side heaving against each other to gain an advantage. The (very rough) equivalent of a clinch hold in wrestling only with 16 people involved … or think: “tug ‘o’ war in reverse”. The scrummagers use combined body weight, strength and semi-acceptable molestation techniques known as the dark arts to try and claim the ball.

Tight Head – A scrum won “against the head”.  The team putting the ball in the scrum has an advantage and usually wins the possession. If, instead, the opposition wins the ball it is called a tight head, AKA a defending front row forward’s reason for being.

Maul – When a player carries the ball into contact and is tackled but not felled, a maul sometimes forms. The player on his feet in possession of the ball is surrounded by members of both teams; his/her mob tries to push forward, the opposition tries to stop them, but they cannot access the ball carrier by running around the pack, they must come through the middle of the melee.

Rolling Maul – Is usually a planned move often from a lineout win. The idea is to keep the ball at the back of the attacking pack away from the desperate pawing and swinging arms of the defending team. Australia is not terribly good at executing this maneuver and traditionally suck when trying to stop it.

Ruck – When the player with the ball is tackled and hits the ground he/she has to ‘let go’ of the ball but will try, by vigorous means, to ‘present’ it for recycling. Not unlike a maul, everybody rushes to the player’s, but they cannot use their hands to protect the ball, they must use their bodies and their feet (well, kinda, but that’s a whole other story) to keep the pill (the ball) on their side.

The Breakdown – A catch-all for the possession contest after the tackle usually referring in open play to the ruck that quickly forms after a player in possession hits the ground. The attacking team will try to seal off access to the player with the ball (with their bodies), while the defending team will burrow for it. They must remain on their feet and support their own body weight while doing so. Australia is exceptional at this aspect of the game, although they have lost two of the best ‘stealers’ of the ball to injury.

The Set Piece – Refers to the scrum and lineout. (The Lions usually have a very good set piece, although they look a teensy bit vulnerable in the lineout. Australia’s scrum has been shaky down the years. France’s is good, Canada’s is fairly strong for a bunch of hockey players and the USA has some work to do ).


Forwards (Numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) – The eight people who participate in the scrum and eat too much at parties. They inevitably want to go out with your sister or youngest brother.

Tight  Five (Numbers 1,2,3,4,5) – The (3) front row and (2) second row (lock) forwards are assigned to do a lot of the dirty work – the pushing lunacy at scrum time – the wrestling & wrangling and close impact hurtin’. Also known as piggies. They tend to be odd people, usually very tall (4,5) or squat with no neck (1,2,3).

Loose Forwards  (Numbers 6,7,8) – These are the people who pack at the back of the scrum. They are more fleet-footed that the piggies and are expected to be the first on scene when ‘the breakdown’ occurs.  The No. 7 is often the individual trying to poach the opposition’s ball.

Backs (Numbers 9,10,11,12,13,14,15) – These folks often have permed hair, regular ears and all their own teeth. Some look like Justin Bieber, others Kylie Minogue. They are often perceived to be fast and elusive runners. Their ball playing skills and general athleticism is regularly superior to the forwards. Your sister or youngest brother probably wants to go out with one of them.

Halfbacks (Numbers 9, 10) – Essentially they’re like NFL quarter-backs sans helmets, padding, and ten million dollar endorsement deals. They call and instigate the plays. The scrumhalf (9) usually picks up the ball at the base of the scrum/ruck. The five-eighth (AKA fly half, first five, No. 10, Muglair …) is in a pivotal position and expected to launch most of a team’s attacks by either running, passing or kicking the ball. Australia has arguably the best scrumhalf in the world (Will Genia) and several very good five eighths none of whom will be playing against the Lions on Saturday.

Centres (Numbers 12, 13) – The inside centre (12) usually comes in two varieties a) a poor man’s five eighth or b) resembles a crash test dummy, running straight until stopped by an immovable force. The outside centre (13) should be quick and astute, in possession of a wicked sidestep and the ability to run around the opposition. In defence this is the person trying to shepherd the opposition towards the touchline.

Back Three (Numbers 14,15,11) – The fullback (15) is the player positioned furthest away from the action. Along with the speedy wingers (14 & 11) he/she fields opposition kicks and can either kick it back (un-Australian) or launch a counter attack. The wingers are ‘finishers’ because they are sometimes on the end of a backline moves. The best wingers go looking for work rather than waiting for the ball to come to them. They inevitably have the cleanest clothes at the end of every game.


Try – Five points

Conversion (of a try) – Two points

Drop Goal (unAustralian) – A drop kick through the posts in general play is a three pointer

Penalty Goal – A penalty goal slotted from the spot where an infringement occurred is worth three points.


Running Rugby – A style of play that favors running with and passing the ball rather than frequently kicking it.

Ball in Hand – Keeping possession of the ball rather than kicking it away.

Playing for Field Position – Often this refers to a team’s tactic of kicking the ball deep into opposition territory. By keeping the ball away from your own half, it limits the opposition’s opportunities to score penalty goals.

Through the Phases – Each period of play is punctuated by a recycling of the ball at the breakdown. It’s not uncommon for a side to go through 15 to 20 phases in attack before possession is surrendered, points are scored or play is stopped.

Clean Out – The attacking team attempts to move the players from the defending side away from the ball carrier at the breakdown.


That’s right they’re “laws” not rules, enforced by a referee and two assistant referees on the touch lines.

There are many laws to abide by in rugby often confusing spectators, even players at times. Certainly much of what goes on in the scrums and sometimes at the breakdown is, by the letter of the law, illegal, so a ref’s interpretation can completely change a game.

The best officiators are at least consistent in their rulings. Here’s a few of the common rulings.

Knock On – When the ball is dropped forward or propelled forward after coming in contact with a players hand or arm. Play is stopped and a scrum is ordered.

Offside – Many variations and exceptions, but basically in  attack you have to be behind the ball carrier if you’re in play and in defence you must move in to tackle from your own ‘side’ of the field.

Forward Pass – When the ball is passed/thrown in a forward direction, however slight.

Holding On – In the breakdown, the tackled player tries to put the ball in a place where his/her teammates can access it however the opposition is trying to access it too. They have the right to compete for the possession and if they follow the law and get their hands on the ball the tackled player must let go. If he/she doesn’t, it’s a ‘holding on’ penalty.

Off Your Feet – At the breakdown (again) as the attacking team tries to protect the ball and the ball carrier, they must stay on their feet – or at least not collapse around the ball, sealing off access. The defending team also must stay ‘on their feet’ supporting their own body weight as the burrow for the ball.

Coming In From The Side – At the breakdown (again). Players must enter the contest for possession ‘through the gate’, that is, from relatively straight on rather than the side or from the opposition’s side of the contest.

Playing The Advantage – Two main types are penalty and knock on advantage. With a penalty advantage, the ref allows play to proceed, even though a team has committed an indiscretion. If no perceived advantage is accrued to the attacking side the ref will stop the play and award the penalty. Similarly a team might knock on but before packing down a scrum, the referee will allow play to run if the attacking team is accruing an advantage from the play.

Boring In – At the scrum. One of the more conspicuous illegalities is when one of the props – two of the three people in the front row with no necks — angles inward as the packs come together to disrupt the push of the opposition front row.

Not In Straight – The hookers (the other person without a neck) usually throw the ball into the lineout. They are supposed to throw it straight down the middle between the two teams. When it is thrown conspicuously to one side, it’s “not in straight”, meaning the team throwing in gives up the possession advantage.

Collapsing – Both teams must work to keep the scrum up but with all that pressure and evil being perpetrated, it sometimes falls in a heap. It’s a murky area, but often one of the props is penalized in these circumstances for pulling the scrum down. Why? Because the pressure becames overwhelming and the scrum started going backwards. 

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