Rugby is the only major sport in the world named not for the nature of its primary element, but for the place where the game is reputed to have been invented. In 1823, near the English town of Rugby, the version of the soccer game then being played at Rugby School was varied to permit a player to handle the ball and carry it toward the opponent's goal. The sport quickly evolved to include the tackling of any ball-carrying opponents. The rules of rugby were not entirely formalized until approximately 1845, and by 1871, an association known as the Rugby Football Union was created and the rules of the sport were codified.
Rugby, or a game very similar to it, was first exported to North America by the British soldiers of the Quebec military garrison in the 1860s. Through games played against McGill University of Montreal, rugby became popular with the universities of the northeastern United States. The American form of rugby evolved once more into the sport now known as American football. Rugby, cricket, cross-country running, and soccer (in its organized form) represent four great English sports exports of the late 1800s.
It is said that the essential difference between soccer and rugby may be stated as a credo, that "soccer is a gentleman's game played by toughs, and rugby is a tough's game, played by gentlemen." Rugby permits and encourages significant physical contact, and one of the noteworthy features of the sport is that unlike American football and its specialized play, every player on the rugby field must have a basic command of all physical aspects of the sport: running, tackling, passing, kicking, and carrying the ball.
The basic rules of rugby are that the game is most commonly played with 15 players to a side; the game of seven per side employs the same rules of play regarding scoring and physical contact, with necessary modifications. The game is composed of two 40-minute halves. The rugby field (pitch) is 110 yd (100 m) from goal to goal, and a maximum of 75 yd (68 m) wide; the area behind the goal is a maximum of 24 yd deep (20 m). Due to the nature of the sport and the fact that the players wear very little protective equipment, natural grass surfaces are preferred.
The rugby ball is a rounded oblong shape, approximately 12 in (between 280 cm and 300 cm) long and 26 in (620 cm) in circumference; the chief objects of the game are to either advance the ball across the opponent's goal line for a "try," worth four points, or to kick the ball through the uprights of the opponent's goal for either a penalty, worth three points, or a drop goal, also worth three points. When a team scores a try, they may kick for a conversion worth two points. The shape of a rugby ball makes it conducive to the dropkick.
The 15 players play positions that are divided into two general groups, determined by their respective roles on the field. There are eight forwards, who are responsible for much of the effort to gain territorial advantage on the field, and seven backs, who tend to be the chief ball handlers and kickers. The player responsible for much of the coordination of the rugby team's attack is the "scrum half"; the fastest player on a rugby team is often the wing, who plays on the outside of the team formation.
The players are permitted to advance the ball towards the opposing goal line by running with the ball, kicking the ball, and passing the ball, so long as their teammate is behind them, as no player can be ahead of a teammate with the ball, the concept known as being onside. When the referee determines that a minor violation of the rules has occurred, the teams will form a "scrum," where the eight forwards on each team, known as the "pack," lock onto each other and attempt to obtain control of the ball that is placed into the scrum by one of the scrum halfbacks. The line of scrummage, the imaginary boundary between the two scrums, became the well-known expression in the line play in American football that is similar to the formation of the two rugby scrums.
When the ball goes out of bounds, the ball is returned to the field of play through a formation known as a "line out," where the forwards from each team form a line facing the in-bounding player, who throws the ball down the line, where the forwards attempt to either catch the ball or tip it to one of the teammates.
Although a rough and often fiercely physical game, rugby has strict rules regarding tackling. A player may tackle another player only when he has possession of the ball, and blocking or other types of physical interference are illegal. The tackle must not be delivered to the head or otherwise be done with a clothesline or spearing mechanism. Tripping, holding, or otherwise striking another player beyond the scope of a proper tackle will usually result in a penalty at the spot of the infraction. More serious breaches of the rule, such as kicking or punching an opponent, will commonly result in the offender's ejection. If ejected, a player may not be replaced for the balance of the game.
As with other English sport exports, rugby first flourished in the countries of the former British Empire. In addition to American football, Australian Rules Football is also a derivative of rugby. Rugby has been played for a considerable period in professional leagues centered in England, France, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Rugby League, in contrast to the international game that is sometime referred to Rugby Union, is a form of professional rugby popular in Great Britain, with 13 players per side and a modified scoring system for tries, penalties, and convert kicks.
Rugby first became prominent as an international sport through elite regional championships. The first of these was the Four Nations Cup, which began as an annual competition in 1882 between England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. France joined the group in 1910, and the current Six Nations Cup championship includes Italy. Rugby is played professionally in various parts of Europe, South America, and Australasia. Most of the world's competitive players tend to belong to rugby club teams, affiliated with a university or an adult volunteer-based amateur organization.
The Tri Nations Cup became an annual fixture between the rugby powers of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in 1996. In addition to these formal regional championships, the concept of the rugby tour is a sporting endeavor not replicated in other major sports. In a rugby tour, one of the acknowledged powerhouses of international rugby will play a series of games, often including strong local teams as well as the national team of the host country. The 2004 tour of Australia and New Zealand by the British Lions, an aggregation of some of the top English and British Isles players, is typical of the high level rugby played by touring national teams assembled by the international rugby powers.
As with many other championships, the World Cup of rugby has become the premier contest in the sport. Rugby is played officially in over 100 countries, and the World Cup, inaugurated in 1987 as a quadrennial event, is fiercely contested. In addition to the traditional powers of the sport whose roots extend to England, countries such as Argentina, Italy, Fiji, the United States, and Western Samoa all are usually ranked among the top 15 rugby nations. The World Cup and all aspects of international competition are governed by the International Rugby Board (IRB), founded in 1886. The IRB has vigorously promoted women's rugby, played according to the same rules as the men's game. Women's rugby has enjoyed significant growth throughout the traditional rugby world, also making inroads in North America, where rugby has been primarily a club sport as opposed to a league-structured competition.
Seven-a-side rugby is also contested as a separate World championship event. Seven a side places a greater emphasis on speed and ball handling than does the 15-a-side game, as the two sports are played on identically sized surfaces. The Hong Kong Sevens
The two general classes of players needed for rugby, forwards and backs, tend to encourage two distinct physical specimens to pursue the sport. The backs, who must perform the bulk of the ball handling and offensive thrusts, tend to be smaller and more compact in build. A back must possess sufficient muscle mass and strength to absorb the physical contact, with speed and agility. Forwards must possess the size to be assertive in scrum play, and yet be able to run up and down the field. Sports science analyses of elite rugby competitions suggests that a member of a forward pack will run over 3,000 yd (2,700 m) in an 80-minute contest, in addition to the expenditure of energy necessary to push in the scrum and tackle opponents.
The physical and hard-hitting nature of rugby is a sport paradox, in that the injury rate in contrast to sports such as American football and ice hockey is relatively low. Rugby produces a significant number of minor injuries, such as abrasions, cuts, bruising, and a variety of soft tissue injuries; the nature of scrum play often causes external injuries to the ears of the forwards (long-time forwards often exhibit the lumps of the surface of the ears similar to a boxer's "cauliflower ear") and broken noses are not uncommon. Significant physical damage such as a fractured leg or seriously damaged knee joints is relatively rare. The strict limits as to how an opponent may be tackled, coupled with the defined rules for scrum play, contribute to this relative degree of safety for the participants, as does the fact that, unlike American football and ice hockey, rugby does not permit protective gear that can be used as a offensive weapon.