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Archive-name: sports/rugby-union-faq/rugby-union
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Last-modified: 23 March 2006 (changes marked **)

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
Introducing Rugby Union

2.1 History

You might want to see the match played in 'Asterix chez les Britons', where 
Obelix shows some French Flair and decides to start playing the game back 
home, as the first recorded Rugby match. You might also want to prefer one 
of the medieval football codes looking like Rugby. Despite all that, the 
origins of Rugby Union are usually laid at Rugby School in Rugby, England. 
It was there, that William Webb Ellis allegedly picked up the ball and 
started to run with it, in disregard for the rules of football as played in 
his time, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.

The Webb Ellis story itself is known to be a myth, but the game did spread 
from Rugby School from the 1820s on. From Rugby it went to other Public 
Schools and Universities in Britain and from the Home Nations the game 
spread throughout the British Commonwealth. Rugby made it to France in 
1872, but only really gained footing in the 1880s, when the French elite 
started seeing Rugby as the way to go towards regaining Alsace and 
Lorraine. The rules were first codified in the 1870s. Women are known to 
play Rugby since 1913.

Over the years, the worth of scores has changed as follows:

              Try Con Pen D/G GFM (goal from mark)
until 1891    1   2   2   3   3  points
1891 to 1893  2   3   3   4   4  points
1893 to 1905  3   2   3   4   4  points
1905 to 1948  3   2   3   4   3  points
1948 to 1971  3   2   3   3   3  points
1971 to 1977  4   2   3   3   3  points
1977 to 1992  4   2   3   3   -  points
1992 onwards  5   2   3   3   -  points

International matches (or tests) have been played since 1880. In 1883 the 
basis for the current Six Nations Championship was laid. France joined 
founders England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 1910, but were expelled 
between 1931 and 1939. Italy became part of the Championship in 2000. There 
was no such championship in the Southern Hemisphere. The three traditional 
greats there did meet regularly though. Particularly New Zealand and South 
Africa built up an intense rivalry, with test series between the two being 
regarded as unofficial World Championships. These days, Australia, New 
Zealand and South Africa play for the Tri Nations Championship.

With Rugby not being an Olympic sport, South Africa could play on for quite 
some time under the IOC Apartheid ban. Touring sides from and to South 
Africa came to an end however in the 1980s. The New Zealand High Court 
forbade the 1985 tour to South Africa, after the 1981 Springbok tour to New 
Zealand had ended in riots all over the nation. England in 1984 was the 
last nation to play South Africa until 1992, when Apartheid was over. In 
the meantime, the Boks had to do with unofficial touring parties, such as 
NZ Cavaliers, South America and World XV.

The first World Cup was held in 1987. The World champions receive the Webb 
Ellis Trophy, which is also known as 'Bill'.

**	Host		Winner		Finalist
1987	Aus/NZ		New Zealand	France
1991	England		Australia	England
1995	South Africa	South Africa	New Zealand
1999	Wales		Australia	France
2003	Australia	England		Australia
2007	France
2011	New Zealand

Until 1995, Rugby was officially an amateur sport. Only then the game was 
finally declared 'open', thereby ending ages of illegal payments.

2.2 Basics

Rugby Union is a contact sport, played on a field of about 100x70 meters. A 
team has 15 players in it, as well as up to seven substitutes. Each player 
has his own tasks. Its most distinctive feature is the backward pass, since 
the ball may not be passed forward. Sounds bloody simple, doesn't it? 
Forget it. Discussions on what exactly constitutes a forward pass are 
regular in RSRU. Ian Daley's breakdown of the discussion has been archived 
on Means of progressing towards 
the other team's in goal-area are passing, running with ball in hand and 
kicking the ball forward.

The primary objective in Rugby is to have more points than your opponent at 
the end of the match. A try, the grounding of the ball in the opponent's 
in-goal area (which is a zone at either end of the field), is worth 5 
points and earns the team a conversion attempt, a kick at the posts from a 
place in line with the point, where the try was made. A successful attempt 
is worth another 2 points. A penalty try can be awarded by the referee, 
when a defender illegally prevents a probable try to be made. In that case, 
the conversion attempt is taken right in front of the posts.

Other ways of scoring are the drop goal and the penalty goal. The latter is 
made when a team kicks a penalty, which is awarded after a deliberate foul, 
between the posts and over the cross bar. A drop goal is a dropped kick 
from open play that goes between the posts and over the cross bar. Both are 
worth three points.

Much of Rugby Union revolves around setpieces, like the scrum and the 
line-out. If you want to win a game, you should get these basics right and 
win them on your own put-in or throw.

A match is made up of two halves of 40 minutes each. Injury time is added 
to both halves. The time is not stopped when the ball goes out of play 
(basketball and Aussie Rules style). If the scores are level after eighty 
minutes, no extra time is added. The match result will be a draw, except in 
some knock-out tournaments.

The IRB has drafted a Charter, which lays down the principles of the game 
in a much more abstract way. John Hill's posting of the document has been 
archived on

2.3 The players

A team is made up out of 15 players, who all have fixed, different tasks. 
By definition, the teams will therefore play the same formation, with only 
some slight variations in use. Rugby therefore is different to for instance 
soccer with its endless number of 'playing systems' (4-3-3, 3-5-2 etc.) or 
cricket, where a player may be moved to a completely different position on 
the field (ie from silly point to gully).

A player's tasks are made clear by the number he wears, as this indicates 
his position (unless he's a substitute or has switched position during the 
match). This means a player does not get a personal number for his entire 
career, as you tend to see in most American sports. The IRB has laid down a 
numbering scheme for international matches, which is commonly adopted by 
other teams as well.

1  Loosehead prop
2  Hooker
3  Tighthead prop
4  Left lock (or second row)
5  Right lock (or second row)
6  Blindside flanker (or breakaway, or wing forward)
7  Openside flanker (or breakaway, or wing forward)
8  Number eight (or breakaway, or lock)
9  Scrum half (or halfback)
10 Fly half (or standoff, or outside half, or 1st 5/8th)
11 Left wing
12 Inside centre (or 2nd 5/8th or left centre)
13 Outside centre (or centre or right centre)
14 Right wing
15 Full back

The players numbered 1 - 8 are called forwards or the pack. They normally 
form the scrum, even though this is by no means mandatory. The props and 
hooker are called the front row. With the locks they form the tight (or 
front) five. The numbers 6 - 8 are called the back row, loose forwards or 
loosies. The numbers 9 - 15, those usually not in the scrum, are called the 
backs. Numbers 9 and 10 are often referred to as halfbacks, while 11, 13, 
and 14 are called three-quarters. In some nations the number 12 is 
considered part of them.

As can be seen there is a lot of variation in the names of the positions. 
Apparently, the IRB has standardized the names, yet the alternative names 
are still as common as ever before. A problem with standardized names is 
that the positions themselves are not as standard as they seem at first 
sight. For example, there is a slight difference between left and right 
centre on the one hand and inside and outside centre on the other hand. One 
may play wingers on the open side and the blind side rather than left and 
right and you may come across left and right flankers.

Common variations in the numbering are the interchange of 6 and 7 
(particularly in South Africa and Argentina) and of 11 and 14. However, 
many numbering oddities, such as Bristol and Leicester wearing letters 
instead of numbers and Bath not fielding a #13, now belong to the past as a 
result of all sorts of standardization directives issued.

There also are regional variations to the way line-ups are listed. Most of 
the time, the first player mentioned is actually the number 15. The two 
mainstream styles of listing a line-up are 15-9 then 1-8 and 15-1. However, 
you may see the centres messed up and the same is often being done to the 
back row. In the end, knowledge of the players is required in order to 
understand the line-up.

2.4 Union and League

Many flamewars and long discussions have been held on this topic. League 
separated itself from Union in 1895 after a dispute over player payments. 
League therefore has been 'open' from its very start. The code is 
particularly popular in Northern England and Australia. Thirteen players 
play in each side, hence its French name 'Rugby a Treize'.

The main difference is that, in League, the scrum is a merely a restart 
(instead of a contest) and line-outs don't exist. When a player is tackled, 
he is allowed to get back onto his feet and play the ball, while in Union 
the ball is going to be contested in a ruck or maul, possibly resulting in 
a turnover. In League, however, the ball has to be kicked after the fifth 

Much can be said in the favour of either side. The Union fans adore the 
somewhat complex rules of their code and regard things like scrums, rucks 
and mauls as essential for Rugby. League fans will say these make things 
way too complicated and think rucks, mauls and scrums are a waste of time. 
They regard Union as the battle for a ball you don't get to see. The RSRU 
subscribers obviously have chosen Union, despite some of them following 
both codes.

2.5 National Competitions

Argentina: The Argentine Championship is contested between provinces in the 
Southern Spring. The top division has eight teams in it and ends up with a 
final. Clubs play their matches in provincial competitions, as well as in a 
national knock-out competition.

Australia: There is no national club competition in Australia. Instead, 
it's local leagues all over. Arguably those in Brisbane and Sydney are the 
strongest. The state teams from ACT, NSW and Queensland, where Rugby is 
most popular, play for the National Ricoh Championship (or State of the 
Union). Six other teams, four of them from non-traditional Rugby states, 
are playing for the Australian Rugby Shield.

Canada: The Super League ( is a 13-team competition, 
held from May to July. Each province also has its own provincial elite 
division, with British Columbia and Ontario offering the highest calibre of 
play. Rugby is most popular in British Columbia, where it is possible to 
play the game all year round.

England: Twelve teams are in England's top division. Clubs play a 
home-and-away season from September to April (the Zurich Premiership,, followed by a play-off between the top three 
to decide the Zurich Championship. There is a knock-out competition as 
well, called the Powergen Cup. Counties do dispute a competition, which is 
of no big importance in most areas. Cornwall among others is an exception 
to that.

France: The first phase of the Top 14 ( is a round-robin 
competition. This is followed by semi-finals and the championship final, in 
which the Bouclier de Brennus is at stake. Development players are given a 
chance in the Coupe de la Ligue, with its fixtures planned when the top 
players are with the national team.

Ireland: Rugby is an all-Ireland sport, which means that the IRFU 
represents the entire island, including Northern Ireland. The All Ireland 
League is a club competition, running throughout the season. The four 
provinces (Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster) play in the Celtic 
League in the Autumn and subsequently dispute the Interpro in Spring.

Italy: The Italian Premiership, the Super 10 (, 
runs from September to May. After a home-and-away season, the top four 
teams play a knock-out competition to decide the championship.

Japan: Japan's top professional league is called Top-League. It has 12 
teams in it and promotion and relegation rules apply. Play-offs are played 
after the regular season. There also is a knock-out competition, including 
all the nation's clubs.

New Zealand: The National Provincial Championship (NPC) is disputed from 
August to October between the 27 provincial Unions of New Zealand. The 10 
best teams are in Division I. Along with it runs the Ranfurly Shield 
(, which is a challenge competition with the 
trophy changing hands every time the holder loses a challenge. Whether a 
match is a challenge or not depends on a number of complex rules.

Scotland: Scotland has three professional teams: Borders, Edinburgh and 
Glasgow. These teams play an interprovincial championship and represent 
Scotland in the European Cup and in the Celtic League. The Scottish Cup is 
a knock-out competition between the club teams in Scotland. The provinces, 
and therefore the major players, are not in it.

South Africa: The Currie Cup is the national championship and is contested 
from August until October between the 14 major provinces. During the Super 
12, those players not contracted in one of the four franchises are in the 
Vodacom Cup. This provincial competition is used to train young players and 
to develop black players, as it has a 'black quota' attached to each team.

Wales: Five Welsh teams are in the Celtic League. The other Welsh teams 
play in national leagues as well as in a national knock-out competition, 
the WRU Challenge Cup.

2.6 International Competitions

2.6.1 Between national teams
African Nations Cup: There are two divisions of international Rugby in 
Africa with promotion and relegation rules applying between them. Both are 
divided into two regional groups, with the group winners progressing to a 
final played at a neutral venue. The current teams in the top flight (the 
Super Six) are Tunisia, Morocco and Ivory Coast in the North and Zimbabwe, 
Namibia and Madagascar in the South.

European Nations Cup: Six teams play in each division of the ENC with 
promotion and relegation rules applying between them. In all, the 24 
European nations where Rugby is an amateur sport, play for the ENC. 
Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain and the Czech Republic are 
currently in Division One, which is sometimes referred to as 'Six Nations 
B'. Division One usually uses the same weekends as the Six Nations 
Championship; other divisions play throughout the year.

Six Nations: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales play 
eachother once, with the home team alternating yearly. The Championship is 
played for between February and April.

South American Championship: Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay have 
been playing for the South American Championship at irregular intervals 
(about every four years lately) since 1958. Teams play eachother once in a 
round-robin format. Sometimes a number of matches is played at one venue.

Superpowers Cup: China, Japan, Russia and the USA are playing eachother 
once a year, the home team alternating yearly. The Cup is to be contested 
in mid-year.

Tri Nations: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa meet on a 
home-and-away basis in July and August.

World Cup: Held every four years. The quarter finalists of the previous 
tournament, as well as the host nation(s) automatically qualify.

2.6.2 Between clubs and provinces
Arabian Gulf League: Teams from Dubai, Muscat, Doha, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and 
Bahrain contest the AGL each season. It runs from September through to 
April. There is also a Gulf-wide knock out competition each season. These 
nations also form an Arabian Gulf Team, which takes part in World Cup 

Celtic League: Five Welsh teams, the three Scottish district sides as well 
as the four Irish provinces play in the Celtic League. The teams play home 
and away between September and May.

European Cup: The European Cup (or Heineken Cup) is the Champions League of 
European Rugby and runs from September to May. The top clubs and provinces 
from the Six Nations are in it. The 24 teams are spread over six pools. The 
six group winners and the two best-placed runners-up advance to the 
quarter-final. The team ranked higher after the group stages will have home 
advantage. The semi-finals and the final are played at neutral venues.

Parker Pen Challenge / Shield: 32 European teams not in the European Cup, 
including some non-professional ones, compete for the Parker Pen Challenge 
Cup. This is a knock-out competition with home-and-away matches being 
played in every round, except for the final. The 16 teams that lost in 
Round 1 will play on for the Parker Pen Shield, which has the same format. 
The competition runs from September to May.

Super Twelve: The three professional state sides from Australia, as well as 
five 'superprovinces' from New Zealand (made up out of multiple provincial 
sides) and four from South Africa play in the Super 12. The teams play 
eachother once during regular season. The top four advance to the semi 
finals. The team ranked highest after regular season will have home 
advantage for both semi final and final. The competition runs from late 
February to early June.

2.7 Current Holders

African Nations Cup: South Africa U23
Argentine Provincial Championship: Mendoza
Australian Rugby Shield: Perth Gold
Bledisloe Cup: New Zealand
Bouclier de Brennus: Biarritz-Olympique
Calcutta Cup: Scotland
Celtic League: Neath-Swansea Ospreys
Currie Cup: Free State Cheetas
English Premiership: London Wasps
European Nations Cup: Portugal
European Cup: Stade Toulousain
Irish Interpro: Leinster
Italian Premiership: Benetton Treviso
NPC: Auckland
Parker Pen Challenge Cup: Sale Sharks
Parker Pen Shield: Auch
Powergen Cup: Leeds Tykes
Ranfurly Shield: Canterbury
RSRU Shield: New Zealand
Six Nations: France
South American Championship: Argentina
Super Twelve: Crusaders
Tri Nations: New Zealand
Varsity: Oxford
World Cup: England (men), New Zealand (women)

2.8 Q & A

Q: What is the RSRU Shield?
A: The RSRU Shield is a virtual competition between national teams, in a 
way comparable to the Ranfurly Shield. The first holder was South Africa, 
who were awarded the Shield after their World Cup win in 1995. The Shield 
changes hands every time the holder loses a Test match. John Williams 
deserves credit for the idea, but it was Craig Harris who really got it off 
the ground. The complete history of the Shield can be found on

Q: Where can I get tickets for Six Nations matches?
A: Most of the tickets to Six Nations matches are sold to clubs first and 
only then to the general public. This makes it very difficult to get 
tickets for them. If any tickets are to be sold to the general public, you 
should check out the websites of the respective unions for ticketing 

Q: Is there a World Ranking?
A: The IRB has an official World Rankings on

Q: Where can I play Rugby in ... (whatever city)?
A: First, check out the phonebook. You can also ask in the newsgroup. 
Consider posting your inquiry into a local newsgroup instead of the global 
one. If you're looking for a club in your own country, your local club 
could also give loads of information.

Q: Where can I watch this match in ... (whatever city)?
A: English / Irish pubs, as well as local Rugby clubs are always worth a 
go, if you don't know where to watch a match. On top of that, a list of 
Rugby pubs around the World is being created at You can submit your own pub too.

Q: When will Rugby be included at the Olympics?
A: Apparently, negotiations between the IRB and the IOC are on, but there's 
no result yet. Rugby Union, in its Sevens variation, is an event at the 
Commonwealth Games and this might very well be copied for the Olympics. 
Rugby (XV) has been an Olympic event in the past. Bill Taylor once posted a 
summary of the history of Rugby at the Olympics. That posting has been 
archived on

Q: How does ... translate in ... (whatever language)?
A: A Rugby glossary has been created at This 
site gives a list of 48 Rugby terms, which can be translated to and from 
all languages available. Languages currently available are Afrikaans, 
Catalan, Danish, Dutch, English, Fiji, French, German, Italian, Spanish and 

Q: What is the 'Barbarians' team?
A: Other nations have their own Barbarians (or BaaBaas) team and 
traditions, but the most notable BaaBaas team is the British Barbarians 
( They are a club formed for fun Rugby and 
good fellowship in 1890, not restricted to British players. One uncapped 
player is to appear in every match. It used to be a tradition that any tour 
to Britain was to be finished with a game against the BaaBaas. These 
matches were to be fascinating displays of brilliant running rugby with 
loads of tries. Other fixtures include one against the English Champions at 
the end of the season and one against Leicester on Boxing Day. However, to 
the regret of many fans the Barbarians tradition isn't as it used to be 
anymore in the days of professionalism.

Q: What is the Calcutta / Bledisloe Cup?
A: The Bledisloe Cup, named after a British Governor in New Zealand, is at 
stake, when Australia plays New Zealand. The team winning the series 
(usually of two matches) wins the trophy. In case of a drawn series, the 
Cup stays with the winner of the year before. The Calcutta Cup is a trophy, 
made from melted down Indian Rupees, donated by old Rugbeians to the RFU. 
It is awarded to the winner of the annual England vs. Scotland match. 
Neither cup is at stake at the World Cup.

Q: What exactly is the Wooden Spoon?
A: Historically, a wooden spoon was given to the Cambridge math student 
with the lowest note. In Rugby, where the Spoon is particularly talked 
about in the Six Nations, it has always been a bit unclear what exactly the 
Wooden Spoon means. Some reckon a team only gets a Spoon when it loses all 
its matches in the Championship, but it is usually thought that the team 
ending last, regardless of its number of wins, gets the Spoon. In that 
view, losing all matches is called a whitewash.

Q: How about homosexuals in Rugby?
A: Of course homosexuals are playing Rugby as well. Rugby is often regarded 
a fine reflection of society, so why would they not? The London-based Kings 
Cross Steelers ( is a team with only homo- and 
bi-sexuals in it. They happen to be a good drinking team and well worth 
considering for a tour (or friendly) match.

** Q: What frequency is the RefLink system broadcasting on?
A: The frequency differs from stadium to stadium, so no unambiguous answer 
can be given. However, a broadcasting license is required for any use of 
the RefLink system, so you could ask your local radio authority. A listing 
for Britain can be found on Odds are 
your own portable radio will be able to receive RefLink without any problems.

Q: Who is Stephen Jones?
A: Welsh hack. Curmudgeon. Panders to jingoistic tendencies of current 
employers, who are frequently English. Famous for being controversial (for 
very small values of famous). Not famous for writing anything worthwhile. 
Apparently hates, in decreasing order, the All Blacks, New Zealand, Rugby 
League, Super 12, Southern Hemisphere, John O'Neill. Has never heard of 
Spiro Zavos. Good source for trollbait on RSRU. Bad source for meaningful 

Q: Who is Spiro Zavos?
A: Kiwi hack. Curmudgeon. Panders to jingoistic tendencies of current 
employers, who are frequently Australian. Famous for being controversial 
(for very small values of famous). Not famous for writing anything 
worthwhile. Apparently hates, in decreasing order, the English rugby team, 
England, the IRB, the 6 Nations, Northern Hemisphere, Stephen Jones. Wishes 
he was Stephen Jones. Good source for trollbait on RSRU. Bad source for 
meaningful discussion.

RSRU FAQ (c) 2000-2006  M.M. Roelofs, Rotterdam (Netherlands)

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