ABCs of Rugby

If you are new to rugby, as a player or parent, please read the following extracts from US Rugby, the RFU and IRB and take a moment to download and print the IRB Guide to Beginning Rugby (IRB Guide to Beginning Rugby).


Rugby union is a territorial, full-contact, team game, inclusive of all shapes and sizes, where 20-stone bulldozers are valued just as highly as small, pacy whippets. In the full adult version of the game, during a 80-minute match, two sides of 15 players and six substitutes, officiated by a referee and two touch judges, try to outscore each other. For varsity, frosh/soph and U14 players, the game is modified to two 35 minutes halves, but the team size is kept at 15. For youth teams, smaller team sizes, and shorter game length have been introduced as more suitable to 8 to 12 year olds.

Rugby is a unique sport and some portions of the game can seem confusing when first presented. A prime example is that when players move the ball forward they must pass the ball backwards. This is certainly a different concept than many popular American sports. 

Principals of Play

In order to provide coaches and players with a basic framework to explain the game, the principles of play were established. These principles are split in to two specific categories of attack (team with the possession of the ball) and defense (team without the ball). Note that position on the field does not dictate whether a team is attacking or defending, instead it is determined by who has possession of the ball. The basic principles of rugby rely on this contest for possession, continuity of play, efforts to regain possession, and the fact that it is a multi-faceted game. 

Principals of Attack

Gain Possession
Go Forward
Maintain Continuity
Apply Pressure

Principals of Defense

Contest Possession
Go Forward
Apply Pressure
Prevent Territorial Gains
Regain Possession
Counter Attack

These principles form the backbone of the sport of rugby. They are an essential tool in developing athletes and teams. Coaches can and should link all that they do back to these key components of the sport.

Team & Playing

Each team of 15 players is divided into eight forwards and seven backs, each with defined roles in the team. Essentially, the powerful, hulking forwards are ball-winners who also play a major part in retaining possession when a player on their side is tackled. They take part in rugby's set pieces – the scrum and the lineout – and secure possession; the fast, elusive backs receive the ball from the forwards then run and pass to create space.

The team lines up with numbers which correspond to their position. Numbers 1-8 are designated as forwards and 9-15 as backs.

Winning the Game

The object of the game is to score more points than the opposition. Points are accumulated through scoring a try (five points), a penalty (three points), a drop goal (three points) or conversion (two points). Details of how these points are awarded can be found in the scoring section below. The attacking team strives to move forward by kicking, passing or running with the ball in hand, but when the ball is being passed, it may not travel forward. If it does then a scrum is awarded to the opposition.


When a team is defending, they will try to stop the opposition advancing toward their try line by hauling to the ground players who are carrying the ball.

If successfully tackled, the player carrying the ball must release it once he or she is on the ground. This allows a ruck to form. A ruck is when a group of players from each team – normally the forwards – tries to push the other over the loose ball and move it back to their own side with their feet.

When a ball-carrier is tackled, but held up rather than pulled to the ground, then a maul may form. Here forwards from each side bind onto the ball-carrier and each other and try to work the ball back to their side using their arms and hands.

Generally, the quicker a team can ruck or maul the ball back to their side, the more likely they are to create a penetrative attack. Rucks and mauls are a test of power and aggression. They may look like a free for all, but there are strict rules governing them. For example, once a ruck has formed, players may not touch the ball with their hands until it is out of the ruck. Players must also not join the side of a ruck or maul; if they do so, they are penalised for being offside.


A player is also offside when they are ahead of a team-mate in possession, whether the team-mate is running with the ball or kicking in open play. If an offside player becomes involved with play before the player with the ball moves in front of them then they will be penalised.

An offside is also called if a defending player is not behind the rearmost person on his side of a ruck, maul or scrum when the opposition is in possession. At the lineout, the line of offside for both teams is set at 10 metres from the point of the lineout.

Scoring & Tackling


The object of the game is to outscore your opponents over the course of the 80-minute match. There are four ways to score points. The most valuable, a try, is scored when a ball-carrier grounds the ball over the try line (the line the H-shaped posts stand on). The team picks up five points for this and gets the opportunity to kick a conversion, which is a free kick at goal from a point directly in line with where the try was scored. If the ball goes over the bar and between the posts, it is a conversion and the team is awarded two points.

At any time during open play a player can attempt to kick the ball between the posts and over the bar using a drop kick. If they are successful it earns three points. Look out for drop-goal attempts when a game is tight and the clock is running down. It's how Jonny Wilkinson famously won England the IRB Rugby World Cup in 2003.

The final method of scoring points is with a penalty kick. Penalties can be awarded by the referee for a number of infringements. Once awarded a penalty, the team captain can choose either to kick for goal, kick for the touchline, or run with the ball in hand. A successful penalty kick at goal is worth three points.


A tackle is one of the most physically confrontational parts of the game. It is completed when a player in possession is held and brought to the ground by a defender. If they can, a player who has been knocked to the ground may get up and continue playing. Because tackling is such a combative part of rugby, there are a number of rules governing what counts as a legal tackle, all of which have been introduced in the interests of safety.

Just barging someone over is not considered a tackle. If a tackle is made above the shoulder, or the tackler makes no attempt to wrap his arms around the ball-carrier, it is deemed dangerous play and can be penalised. Similarly, if a tackler picks up the ball-carrier and turns his or her body past the horizontal, he or she will be penalised for 'spear' tackling. In spite of these restrictions an aggressive tackler can be as much of an asset as a pacy winger or creative fly half.

Once a legal tackle has been completed and the ball-carrier is on the ground, they must release the ball immediately or risk being penalised by the referee. ‘Holding on’ will result in a penalty to the opposition. Ideally, the player will try to present the ball behind them for a team-mate to collect. The tackler, or any other players entering the tackle area, must be on their feet before attempting to play the ball and must approach the ball from their own side. Failure to do so will result in a penalty.

The situation often resulting after a tackle is known as a ruck.

Set Pieces

Set pieces are a way of restarting the game after the ball has gone out of play or an infringement has occurred. As the major winners of possession, the forwards are involved in the set pieces.


When a player kicks, fumbles or carries the ball off the field of play – into touch – a lineout is awarded to the opposition. The forwards then form two opposing lines a metre apart, where the ball went out, and the hooker throws it back into play. The hooker must throw the ball straight between the two lines and deliver it from behind the head, so players from both sides can compete equally for possession by jumping for the ball. It is one area where towering second rows and back row forwards can dominate.


The scrum is one of the purest examples of teamwork and confrontation in rugby. Each team’s eight forwards bind together and try to push the opposition eight backwards in order to gain possession. The scrum half of the team with possession puts the ball into the channel between both sets of forwards and as the teams push, the two hookers compete for the ball, attempting to hook it back to the rear of the scrum using their feet. Once it reaches the back of the scrum, the scrum half can retrieve it and continue play. Meanwhile, the forwards must stay fully bound to each other until the ball is out.

To form a scrum, the hooker binds by taking hold of a prop under each arm, while the second rows place their heads in the spaces between the props’ and hooker’s hips. In the front row, the loose-head prop has one side of their head free when engaging opposition front row, and the tight-head prop has both sides in the scrum. The flankers – the open-side flanker on the side of the pitch with most space and the blind-side flanker on the side with less space – then bind onto either side, with the No.8 binding by placing their head between the two second rows’ hips.

The team with possession are said to 'have the feed' in the scrum, which is an advantage. The scrum half puts the ball into the channel between the opposing front rows from the side of their loose-head prop. This makes it easier for his hooker to hook the ball back to his side of the scrum with the right foot. Once the ball comes out of the back of the scrum at the No.8’s feet, he or she can pick it up, or the scrum half will retrieve it and open play resumes.