About Rugby Union

Overview

Rugby union, often simply referred to as rugby, is a full contact team sport which originated in England in the early 19th century. One of the two codes of rugby football, it is based on running with the ball in hand. It is played with an oval-shaped ball with a maximum length and width of 30 centimetres (12 in) and 62 centimetres (24 in) respectively. It is played on a field up to 100 metres (330 ft) long and 70 metres (230 ft) wide with H-shaped goal posts on each goal line.

William Webb Ellis is often credited with the invention of running with the ball in hand in 1823 at Rugby School when he allegedly caught the ball while playing football and ran towards the opposition goal. However, the evidence for the story is doubtful. In 1845, the first football laws were written by Rugby School pupils; other significant events in the early development of rugby include the Blackheath Club’s decision to leave the Football Association in 1863 and the split between rugby union and rugby league in 1895.

Historically an amateur sport, in 1995 the International Rugby Board (IRB) removed restrictions on payments to players, making the game openly professional at the highest level for the first time.

The IRB has been the governing body for rugby union since its formation in 1886. The spread of rugby union grew from the Home Nations of Great Britain and Ireland, and was absorbed by many of the countries associated with the British Empire. Early exponents of the sport included Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Countries that have adopted rugby union as their de facto national sport include Fiji, Georgia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga and Wales. Rugby union is played in over 100 countries across six continents and as of November 2010 118 unions were members of the IRB.

The Rugby World Cup, first held in 1987, takes place every four years, with the winner of the tournament receiving the Webb Ellis Cup. The Six Nations Championship in Europe and The Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere (the latter replacing the Tri Nations) are major international competitions held annually.

Major domestic competitions include the Top 14 in France, the English Premiership in England, the Currie Cupin South Africa, and the ITM Cup in New Zealand. Other transnational competitions include the Celtic League, originally involving Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams and now Italian teams as well; Super Rugby (previously Super 12 and Super 14), involving South African, Australian and New Zealand teams; and the Heineken Cup, involving the top European teams from their respective domestic competitions.

The History of Rugby Union

The origin of rugby football is reputed to be an incident during a game of English school football at Rugby School in 1823 when William Webb-Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it. Although the evidence for the story is doubtful, it was immortalised at the school with a plaque unveiled in 1895.

Despite the anecdotal nature of the sport’s origin, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after him. Rugby football stems from the form of game played at Rugby School, which former pupils then introduced to their subsequent university. Old Rugbeian Albert Pell, a student at Cambridge, is credited with having formed the first ‘football’ team.

During this early period different schools used different rules, with former pupils from Rugby and Eton attempting to carry their preferred rules through to their universities.

Significant events in the early development of rugby football were the production of the first set of written football laws at Rugby School in 1845, which was followed by the ‘Cambridge Rules’ drawn up in 1848. Other important events include the Blackheath Club’s decision to leave the Football Association in 1863 and the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

The code was originally known as “rugby football”; it was not until after the schism in England in 1895, which resulted in the separate code of rugby league, that the sport took on the name “rugby union” to differentiate it from the league game. Despite the sport’s full name of rugby union, it is known simply as rugby throughout most of the world.

The first rugby football international took place on 27 March 1871, played between England and Scotland. By 1881 both Ireland and Wales had representative teams, and in 1883 the first international competition, the Home Nations Championship had begun. 1883 was also the year the first rugby sevens tournament at Melrose, the Melrose Sevens, which is still held annually.

Five years later two important overseas tours took place; a British Isles team visited Australia and New Zealand—although a private venture, it laid the foundations for future British and Irish Lions tours; and the 1888 New Zealand Native team brought the first overseas team to British spectators.

Between 1905 and 1908, all three major Southern Hemisphere rugby countries sent their first touring teams to the Northern Hemisphere: New Zealand in 1905, followed by South Africa in 1906 and then Australia in 1908. All three teams brought new styles of play, fitness levels and tactics, and were far more successful than critics had expected.

The New Zealand 1905 touring team performed a haka before each match, leading Welsh Rugby Union administrator Tom Williams to suggest that Wales player Teddy Morgan lead the crowd in singing the Welsh National Anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, as a response. After Morgan began singing, the crowd joined in: the first time a national anthem was sung at the start of a sporting event. In 1905 France played England in its first international match.

No international rugby games and union-sponsored club matches were played during the First World War, but competitions continued through service teams such as the New Zealand Army team. During the Second World War no international matches played by most countries though Italy, Germany and Romania played a limited number of games, and Cambridge and Oxford continued their annual University Match.

Rugby union was included as an event in the Olympic Games four times during the early 1900s. In 1973 the first officially sanctioned international sevens tournament took place at Murrayfield, one of Scotland’s biggest stadiums, as part of the Scottish Rugby Union centenary celebrations.

In 1987 the first Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand and Australia, and the inaugural winners were New Zealand. The first World Cup Sevens tournament was held at Murray-field in 1993. Rugby Sevens was introduced into the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and is due to be added to the Olympic Games by 2016.

Rugby union was an amateur sport until the IRB declared the game ‘open’ in 1995, removing restrictions on payments to players. However, the pre-1995 period of rugby union was marked by frequent accusations of “shamateurism”, including an investigation in Britain by a House of Commons Select committee. Following the introduction of professionalism trans-national club competitions were started, with the Heineken Cup in the Northern Hemisphere and Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. The Tri-nations, an annual international tournament involving South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, kicked off in 1996.

The Rules of Rugby Union

Rugby union is played between two teams – the one that scores more points wins the game. Points can be scored in several ways: a try, scored by grounding the ball in the in-goal area (between the goal line and the dead ball line), is worth 5 points and a subsequent conversion kick scores 2 points; a successful penalty kick or a drop goal each score 3 points. The values of each of these scoring methods have been changed over the years.

The field of play on a rugby pitch is as near as possible to a maximum of 144m long by 70m wide. In actual game-play there should be a maximum of 100m between the two try-lines, with anywhere between 10 and 22m behind each try line to serve as the in-goal area. There are several lines crossing it, notably the half way line and the “twenty two,” which is 22m from the goal line.

Rugby goalposts are H-shaped, and consist of two poles, 5.6m apart, connected by a horizontal crossbar 3m above the ground. The original pitch dimensions were in imperial units, but have since been converted to the metric system.

At the beginning of the game, the captains and the referee toss a coin to decide which team will kick off first. Play then starts with a drop kick, with the players chasing the ball into the opposition’s territory, and the other side trying to retrieve the ball and advance it. If the player with the ball is tackled, frequently a ruck will result.

Games are divided into 40-minute halves, with a break in the middle. The sides exchange ends of the field after the half-time break. Stoppages for injury or to allow the referee to take disciplinary action do not count as part of the playing time, so that the elapsed time is usually longer than 80 minutes. The referee is responsible for keeping time, even when—as in many professional tournaments—he is assisted by an official time-keeper. If time expires while the ball is in play, the game continues until the ball is “dead”, and only then will the referee blow the whistle to signal half-time or full-time; but if the referee awards a penalty or free-kick, the game continues.

Forward passing (throwing the ball ahead to another player) is not allowed; the ball can be passed laterally or backwards. The ball tends to be moved forward in three ways — by kicking, by a player running with it or within a scrum or maul. Only the player with the ball may be tackled or rucked.

When a ball is knocked forward by a player with his/her arms, a “knock-on” is committed, and play is restarted with a scrum.

Any player may kick the ball forward in an attempt to gain territory. When a player anywhere in the playing area kicks indirectly into touch so that the ball first bounces in the field of play the throw-in is taken where the ball went into touch. If the player kicks directly into touch (i.e. without bouncing in-field first) from within their own 22 metre line the line-out is taken by the opposition where the ball went into touch, but if the ball is kicked into touch directly by a player outside the 22 metre line the line-out is taken level to where the kick was taken.

The aim of the defending side is to stop the player with the ball, either by bringing them to ground (a tackle, which is frequently followed by a ruck), or by contesting for possession with the ball-carrier on their feet (a maul). Such a circumstance is called a breakdown and each is governed by a specific law.

A player may tackle an opposing player who has the ball by holding them while bringing them to ground. Tacklers cannot tackle above the shoulder (the neck and head are out of bounds), and the tackler has to attempt to wrap their arms around the player being tackled to complete the tackle. It is illegal to push, shoulder-charge, or to trip a player using feet or legs, but hands may be used (this being referred to as a tap-tackle or ankle-tap).

Mauls occur after a player with the ball has come into contact with an opponent but the handler remains on his feet; once any combination of at least three players have bound themselves a maul has been set. A ruck is similar to the maul, but in this case the ball has gone to ground with at least three attacking players binding themselves on the ground in an attempt to secure the ball.

Rugby Union Equipment

The most basic items of equipment for a game of rugby union are the ball itself, a rugby shirt (also known as a “jersey”), rugby shorts, socks and boots. The rugby ball is oval in shape, (technically a prolate spheroid), and is made up of four panels.[70] The ball was historically made of leather, but in the modern era most games use a ball made from a synthetic material. The IRB lays out specific dimensions for the ball, 280-300mm in length, 740-770mm in circumference of length and 580-620mm in circumference of width.[70] Rugby boots have soles with studs to allow grip on the turf of the pitch. The studs may be either metal or plastic but must not have any sharp edges or ridges.

Protective equipment is optional and strictly regulated. The most common items are mouth-guards, which are worn by almost all players, and are compulsory in some rugby-playing nations. Other protective items that are permitted include a head gear; thin (not more than 10 mm thick), non-rigid shoulder pads, and shin guards; which are worn underneath socks. Bandages or tape can be worn to support or protect injuries; some players wear tape around the head to protect the ears in scrums and rucks. Female players may also wear chest pads. Although not worn for protection, some types of fingerless mitts are allowed to aid grip.

It is the responsibility of the match officials to check players’ clothing and equipment before a game to ensure that it conforms to the laws of the game.

International Rugby Union

The earliest countries to adopt rugby union were England, the country of inception, followed by the other three Home Nations, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The spread of rugby union as a global sport has its roots in the exporting of the game by British expatriates, military personnel and over-seas university students. A rugby club was formed in Sydney, Australia in 1864; while the sport was said to have been introduced to New Zealand by Charles Munro in 1870, who played rugby while a student at Christ’s College, Finchley.

The first rugby club in France was formed by British residents in Le Havre in 1872, while the next year Argentina recorded its first game: ‘Banks’ v ‘City’ in Buenos Aires. In North America a club formed in Montreal in 1868, Canada’s first club. The city of Montreal also played its part in the introduction of the sport in the United States, when students of McGill University played against a team from Harvard University in 1874. In 1875 rugby was introduced to South Africa by British soldiers garrisoned in Cape Town.

Several island states have embraced the sport of rugby, many introduced by British service personnel, but later spread the game to neighbouring countries as they searched for international opponents.

Rugby was first played in Fiji circa 1884 by European and Fijian soldiers of the Native Constabulary at Ba on Viti Levu island. Fiji then sent their first overseas team to Samoa in 1924, who in turn set up their own union in 1927. Other countries to have national rugby teams in Oceania include the Cook Islands, Niue, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Although the exact date of arrival of rugby union in Trinidad and Tobago is unknown, their first club Northern RFC was formed in 1923, a national team was playing by 1927 and due to a cancelled tour to British Guiana in 1933, switched their venue to Barbados; introducing rugby to the island. Other Atlantic countries to play rugby union include Jamaica and Bermuda.

The spread of rugby union in Europe has been sporadic. Historically, due to the lack of international games between the British and Irish home teams, who were more interested in facing the Southern Hemisphere giants of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the rest of Europe were forced to create a ‘second tier’ of international rugby matches.

As a mainland country and during a period when they had been isolated by the British and Irish Unions, France became the only European team from the top tier to regularly play the other European countries.many, Spain, Romania, Poland, Italy and Czechoslovakia.

In 1934, instigated by theFrench Rugby Federation, FIRA (Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur) was formed to organise rugby union outside the authority of the IRB. The founding members were Italy, Romania, Netherlands, Catalonia, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden. Other European rugby playing nations of note include Russia, whose first officially recorded match is marked by an encounter between Dynamo Moscow and the Moscow Institute of Physical Education in 1933. Rugby union in Portugal also took hold between the First and Second World Wars, with a Portuguese National XV set up in 1922 and an official championship started in 1927.

Although Argentina is the most well known rugby playing nation in South America, founding the Argentine Rugby Union in 1899, several other countries on the continent also have a long history. Rugby had been played in Brazil from the end of the 19th century, but the game was played regularly only from 1926, when São Paulo beat Santos in an inter-city match.

It took Uruguay several aborted attempts to adapt to rugby, led mainly by the efforts of the Montevideo Cricket Club; succeeding in 1951 with the formation of a national league and four clubs. Other South American countries to have set up a rugby union include Chile (1948), and Paraguay (1968).

Many Asian countries have a tradition of playing rugby going back to the time of the British Empire. India began playing rugby in the early 1870s, the Calcutta Football Club forming in 1872. After the withdrawal of the British military from the area at the end of the decade, rugby in India faltered.

India’s lasting legacy to the sport was the presentation of the Calcutta Cup to the Rugby Football Union; the world’s oldest international rugby trophy which is played for annually between England and Scotland. Sri Lanka claims to have founded their union in 1878, and although little official information from the period is available, the team won the All-India cup in Madras in 1920.

Malaysia also suffers from poor record keeping. Historically the first recorded match in Malaysia was in 1892, but the first confirmation of rugby is the existence of the HMS Malaya Cup which, named after the ship HMS Malaya, was first presented in 1922 and is still awarded to the winners of the Malay sevens.

Rugby union was introduced to Japan in 1899 by Ginnosuke Tanaka a student of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and Edward Bramwell Clarke, who studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The Japan RFU was founded in 1926 and its place in rugby history was cemented with the news that Japan will host the 2019 World Cup.

It will be the first country outside the Commonwealth, Ireland and France to host the event, and is viewed by the IRB as an opportunity for rugby union to extend its reach, particularly in Asia. Other Asian playing countries of note include Singapore, South Korea and China, while the former British colony of Hong Kong is notable within rugby for its development of the rugby sevens game, especially the Hong Kong Sevens tournament which was founded in 1976.

Rugby in the Middle East and the Gulf States has its history in the 1950s, with clubs formed by British and French Services stationed in the region after the Second World War. When these servicemen left, the clubs and teams were kept alive by young professionals, mostly Europeans, working in these countries.

The official union of Oman was formed in 1971. Bahrain founded its union a year later, while in 1975 the Dubai Sevens, the Gulf’s leading rugby tournament, was created by the Dubai Exiles Rugby Club. Rugby remains a minority sport in the region with Israel, as of 2011, being the only member union from the Middle East to be included in the IRB World Rankings.

Rugby union in Africa was spread in the late 19th and early 20th century mainly by settlers and colonials who often adopted a ‘whites-only’ policy to playing the game. This resulted in rugby being viewed as a bourgeois sport by the indigenous people with limited appeal.

The earliest countries to see the playing of competitive rugby include South Africa, and neighbouring Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), which formed the Rhodesia Rugby Football Union in 1895. With the collapse of colonial rule, the popularity of rugby waned, but in more recent times the sport has been embraced by several African nations. In the early 21st century Madagascar has experienced crowds of 40,000 at national matches, while Namibia, whose history of rugby can be traced back to 1915, have qualified for the final stages of the World Cup four times since 1999.

Other African nations to be represented in the IRB World Rankings as Member Unions include Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. South Africa and Kenya are among the 12 “core teams” that participate in every event of the IRB Sevens World Series. At least six countries have adopted rugby union as their de facto national sport; they are Fiji, Georgia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga and Wales.