Rugby 101

Origins of Rugby

Rugby is the precursor of American football and has been played in the USA since about 1870.


American football, as well as basketball, owes many of its characteristics to rugby. In fact, basketball was invented by James Naismith as an indoor alternative to rugby when New England winters required indoor games. Some of rugby’s characteristics, such as quick switches between attack and defense, ball handling, and committing defenders to attack space are all found in basketball.


Similarly, American football evolved with many of the same principles, strategies, and tactics as Rugby. However, there are several obvious differences. Rugby is played at a fast pace with few stoppages and continuous possession changes. All players on the field, regardless of position, can run, pass, kick, and catch the ball. Likewise, all players must be able to tackle and defend. There is no blocking of the opponents like in football. There are a maximum of 7 substitutions allowed per team in Rugby 15s with two 40-minute halves, and 5 substitutions allowed per team in Rugby 7s with two 7-minute halves.

Timeline of Rugby

From the 1400's to the 1800's, many different types of "football" were played throughout Britain. Years later in 1830, it became common to run with the ball and the sport became popular throughout the UK in the 1850's and 1860's. 

1857: The first rugby match in Scottland, Edinburgh University vs Edinburgh Academicals
1869: The first rugby match in American, Rutgers vs. Princeton 
1871: The Rugby Football Union was formed and held the first international match between England and Scotland. 
1875: Oxford vs. Cambridge, teams were limited to fifteen players per side.
1876: Tries did not have a point value, but were used to determine the winners in the event of a tie.  America adopted The Rules of      Rugby Football which required players who were tackled to release the ball.
1881: Referees introduced at international matches but they only observed from the sidelines along with two umpires. 
1891: The RFU declared that all sides limited to 15 players, 2 points awarded for a try, 3 for a penalty goal and conversions and 4 points for a dropped goal.
1896: Referees were given complete control of the game and the idea of "advantage" was introduced.
1908: France won the Olympic Gold Medal in Rugby
1906: Forward passes introduced in America
1920: America wins the Olympic Gold Medal in Rugby 
1924: America wins the Olympic Gold Medal in Rugby, the last time rugby is considered an Olympic sport until 2016. 
1932: Wing-forwards were required to bind into the scrum and the three man front row was required 
1949: Dropped goals were reduced to 3 points.
1958: Penalty kicks were no longer required to travel 5 yards.
1969: The 'Australian dispensation' was adopted, this required that kicks for touch outside the 22-meter line land in the field of play before going into touch, or be returned to the place of kick.
1971: Tries were increased to 4 points, and the Gaelic Athletic Association no longer banned members from playing rugby on the grounds that it was a foreign game.
1992: Tries were increased to 5 points.

2016: The Olympics brought Rugby back as an official sport with adopting Rugby 7s. Fiji won the Olympic Gold Medal in Rugby 7s. 

Field of Play

Rugby is played on a field, called a pitch, which is longer and wider than a football field and more like a soccer field. There are end zones, called the in-goal area, behind the goal posts, which can vary between 10-22 meters in size. The goal posts are the same size as American football goalposts.


TRY: 5 Points are awarded to a team for touching the ball down in the other team’s in-goal area.

CONVERSION: 2 Points for successful kick. Following a TRY, a team will be able to attempt a conversion kick. The attempt is taken on a line straight out from the point where the ball was touched down.

PENALTY KICK: 3 Points for a successful kick. Following a major violation, the team has the option to “kick for points.” The kick must be attempted from the point of the penalty or anywhere on a line straight behind that point. The ball is alive and can be played if the kick fails.

DROP GOAL: 3 Points are awarded for a successful drop kick. A drop kick can be taken anywhere on the field during play. The ball is alive if the kick fails.

Players & Positions

Rugby has 15 players on each team. Everyone on the pitch plays offense and defense. The number of each player signifies the player’s specific position. Jersey numbers 1-15 are worn by starters and numbers 16-23 are worn by reserve players.

Players numbered 1-8 are Forwards, typically larger, stronger players on the team whose main job is to win possession of the ball. They would be the equivalent to linebackers and linemen in American football.


Players numbered 9-15 are Backs, the smaller, faster, and more agile players. Their main role is to exploit possession of the ball won by the forwards. Backs are equivalent to running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks in American football.

Starting the Game

Just as in American football, rugby begins with a kickoff to the opponent from midfield. Provided the ball travels beyond the 10-meter line, any player from either team may gain possession of the ball. You may occasionally see players lift each other to gain advantage here.

Restarting Play

There are two methods of restarting play following a stoppage caused by either the ball going out of bounds or because of an infraction of the laws.

LINE OUT: If the ball goes out of bounds (into Touch), it is restarted with a line-out. Both teams form a line perpendicular to the touchline and one-meter apart from one another. A player of the non-offending team calls a play and throws the ball in the air in a straight line between the two lines of players. Players of each team may be supported and lifted into the air by their teammates to gain possession of the ball.

SCRUM: Rugby’s unique formation is the method used to restart the game after the referee has stopped play for a minor law violation. A bound group of players from each team form a “tunnel” with the opposition. The non-offending team puts the ball into the tunnel by rolling it into the middle. Each team pushes forward until one team is able to hook the ball backwards with their feet. The scrum half then retrieves the ball and puts it into play.

Moving the Ball

Rugby is continuous like soccer. There is no blocking in rugby.

RUNNING: Players may continue running with the ball until they are tackled, step out of bounds, or run beyond the goal line. Players run the ball to advance toward the opponent’s goal line.

PASSING: The ball can be passed by any player. Passes may only be thrown laterally or backward, never forward.

KICKING: Any player may kick the ball at any time. Once the ball is kicked, players of either team in an On-Side position may gain possession of the ball. Kicks are typically done to advance the ball or to relieve pressure from poor field position.

Rugby Ethos

All players, coaches, officials, parents, and fans are encouraged to remember Rugby holds a unique place in American sport. Rugby is not about hooliganism or violence despite those often being the projected image of Rugby in the USA. The conduct of every player, coach, official, parent, and fan has a lasting effect on the image of rugby in our country. The IRB Playing Charter states:


“Rugby owes much of its appeal to the fact it is played both to the letter and within the spirit of the Laws. The responsibility for ensuring this practice lies not with one individual — it involves coaches, captains, players, and referees. It is through discipline, control, and mutual respect the spirit of the game flourishes and, in the context of a game as physically challenging as Rugby, these are the qualities which forge the fellowship and sense of fair play so essential to the game’s ongoing success and survival.

Rugby is valued as a sport for men and women, boys and girls. It builds teamwork, understanding, co-operation, and respect for fellow athletes. It is because of Rugby’s intensely physical and athletic characteristics that such great camaraderie exists before and after matches.”


To help further the positive values rugby engenders, USA Rugby has partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA). Through its coach education and development programs, USA Rugby promotes the “Double-Goal Coach,” who wants to win but has a second, more important goal of using sports to teach life lessons and the principle of “Honoring the Game.” This includes having respect for the rules of the game, opponents, officials, teammates, and self.

Tackles, Rucks, & Mauls

Rugby is continuous like soccer. There is no blocking in rugby.

RUNNING: Players may continue running with the ball until they are tackled, step out of bounds, or run beyond the goal line. Players run the ball to advance toward the opponent’s goal line.

PASSING: The ball can be passed by any player. Passes may only be thrown laterally or backward, never forward.

KICKING: Any player may kick the ball at any time. Once the ball is kicked, players of either team in an On-Side position may gain possession of the ball. Kicks are typically done to advance the ball or to relieve pressure from poor field position.


One of the more challenging aspects for a first time Rugby player is the Offside law. The Offside line is set by either a Ruck or Maul. Players must retreat to their side of the Offside line and are not permitted to participate in the game until they have done so. The opposing team may be awarded a penalty for a player attempting to participate who is in an Offside position.


Similar to soccer, the referee can use their own discretion to determine if “advantage” has been gained by the non-offending team or to award the penalty.


PENALTY KICK: Awarded after a serious infringement of the law. Offenders must retreat 10 meters. Options include: Kick to Touch (retain throw-in), Kick for Goal (3 points), Scrum, or Tap & Go.


FREE KICK: Awarded for less-serious infringements. Offending team must retreat 10 meters. Options include: Scrum, Tap & Go, or Kick to Touch (won’t retain throw).


SIN BIN: The referee can send a player to the Sin Bin for a serious and/or repeated infringements via a Yellow card (10 minutes). The team is required to play short-handed during that time.


SEND-OFF: In extreme cases, a referee may send off a player for dangerous or reckless play via  a Red Card. The player is banned from the game and is not permitted to return or be replaced.

Rugby Vocabulary

BLINDSIDE: From a set piece, this is the short side of the field
CAP: Anytime a player plays in a match he/she is technically awarded a cap
DROP KICK: A kick made when the player drops the ball and it bounces off the ground prior to being kicked. Worth 3 points if it travels through the goal posts. Drop kicks are also used to restart play after a score.

FORWARD PASS: A violation resulting in a scrum to the non-offending team.
GARRYOWEN: A kick which is high in the air
GRUBBER: A kick of the ball which cause the ball to bounce and roll along the ground

INFRINGEMENT: A violation of the law.

KNOCK-ON: Hitting or dropping the ball in a forward direction. Accidental knock-ons result in a scrum to the other team. Intentional knock-ons can result in a penalty at the minimum.
MARK: #1. (noun) A location on the pitch designated by the referee as the location a scrum should come together. #2. (verb) So long as the player is behind their own 22-meter line, that player may call a "Mark" as they catch a punted ball in the air and before the ball hits this ground. This action is similar to a Fair Catch in American football, and the player will be awarded a Free Kick where they caught the ball.
OFFSIDES: During rucks, scrums, lineouts, and mauls an imaginary line is present over which any player crossing before the set piece is completed committs a penalty
PENALTY: Any number of infractions or violations which award the other team a kick
PENALTY TRY: The awarding of a try due to a flagrant violation by an opposing side that prevents an obvious try from being scored
PLACE KICK: A kick of the ball resting on the ground, placed in an indention in the ground, from a small pile of sand, or from a kicking tee

PUT IN: Rolling the ball down the center of the scrum tunnel by the scrum half.
REFEREE: The sole judge and timekeeper of the game
RESTART: The kick restarting play after a half or after points are scored

SET PIECE: A term for scrums and lineouts because these are the only choreographed plays of the game.

SUPPORT PLAYERS: Players who position themselves to increase the ball transfer options of the ball carrier.

TAP & GO: A gentle kick to oneself used to restart play after either a penalty or free kick is awarded.
TOUCH JUDGE (or ASSISTANT REFEREE): An official posted on each side of the pitch to mark the spot where balls go out of touch and to judge kicks at goal

THROW-IN: Throwing the ball down the middle of a lineout.

TOUCHLINE: The side boundary of the field (sideline).

22-METER LINE: Balls kicked out of bounds from behind the “22” are restarted by a lineout at the spot where the ball went out. Balls kicked out in front of the 22 are restarted by a lineout where the ball was kicked. The exception is a ball kicked out of bounds immediately after a penalty was awarded, in which case, the lineout is held where the ball goes out and the kicking team retains the throw-in.

Famous People to Have Played Rugby

Actor Javier Bardem

Played for the Madrid RFC as a flanker then ended up as a prop. On his love for rugby said, "Being a rugby player in Spain is akin to being a bull fighter in Japan."

Actor Daniel Craig

The James Bond actor played for the Hoylake Union RFC in England.

Actor Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson

When asked by a Twitter follower if he had ever played, the Rock responed, "Yup I played rugby as a kid when I lived in New Zealand. Toughest sport I've ever done. #Respect"

Actor Matt Damon

Tasked by Nelson Mandela to bring a nation together. Damon captained the Springboks to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

President George W. Bush

Played during his Junior and senior years of college at Yale.

President Bill Clinton

Prior to getting a job while on the job, played in England from 1968-1970. Has been called a "rather lumpy, but excellent" second row forward for the Little Rock Arkansas RFC.

Actor Kevin Nealon

Played rugby for the Connecticut Yankees RFC per his Wikipedia page.

Actor Chris Farley

Before he was winning Chip & Dales dance offs versus the likes of Patrick Swayze, Farley played rugby at Marquette (he wears the jacket in the movie "Tommy Boy"). He showed up to his first practice wearing baggy shorts and a pink polo shirt. 

Actor Gerard Butler

This is an image of the Scottish actor playing during his time visiting New York City. Butler has attributed his Spartan success from the movie 300 to his rugby roots.

Actor Russell Crowe

Lost his front tooth playing rugby when he was 10. Played for the First XV for Sydney Boys High School, often rated as one of the best schoolboy rugby competitions in the world. 

Football Player Haloti Ngata

Played rugby in high school and helped lead Highland Rugby to the National Rugby Championship. Ngata received a red card in the championship match.

Wrestler Andre the Giant

Played as a teenager in Grenoble before switching sports to become one of the most famous wrestlers in history. Once dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world.’ Bet he played lock!

Actor Henry Cavill

Before becoming the Man of Steel, he played rugby. Cavill is still a huge fan having been forced to retire from the sport due to injuries.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch

On people's reactions to him playing rugby while in school, "There's that chap from the rugby pitch; takes his tackle low and doesn't complain when he comes out of it badly. And oh, look, there he is wearing a wig and prancing around being Titania, queen of the fairies.' I covered all bases."

5x World's Strongest Man

Mariusz Pudzianowski

Played for Budowlani Lodz, a rugby club in Poland. Pudzianowski helped them to win the national men's rugby champions of Poland. 

Actor Tom Hiddleston

Played rugby at Eton, Cambridge, and Pembroke. Hiddleston eventually gave up rugby to focus on his acting.