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Rugby rules: An in depth look

Table of Contents

J P Myburgh

J P Myburgh

A rugby enthusiast, I bring you news and insights from the exciting world of rugby.

Rule book


Rugby, a captivating sport known for its rigorous physicality and strategic depth, is a game that has won the hearts of millions worldwide. Originating in the early 19th century, rugby has matured into two primary forms, Rugby Union and Rugby League, each offering a unique interpretation of the game. A distinctive mix of strength, agility, and tactical understanding, rugby captures the perfect balance of physical and mental prowess. So if you want to know how to play rugby, you must know about rugby rules.

The importance of understanding Rugby’s rules cannot be overstated. As with any sport, the rules shape the game, dictating its tempo and providing the framework for competition. They ensure fairness, safety, and consistency, creating an environment where skill, strategy, and teamwork are paramount. Furthermore, knowing the rules enhances the viewing experience. It turns a seemingly chaotic clash into a tactically rich encounter, highlighting players’ intelligence, precision, and adaptability. Whether you’re a budding player eager to step onto the pitch or an enthusiastic supporter keen to appreciate every last drop kick, goal and tackle, delving into Rugby’s rules offers a deeper connection to this thrilling sport.

History and Evolution of Rugby Rules

The origins of Rugby are steeped in folklore, traced back to the early 19th century at Rugby School in England. The sport was said to be born when William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the school, “showed a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time” and picked up the ball, running towards the opposition’s goal line. This story, though romantic, is more symbolic than factual. The transition from traditional football games to Rugby was a gradual evolution, not a single act of rebellion.

The first official Rugby rules were established in 1845 by Rugby School. Over time, other schools, universities, and clubs adopted the sport, each adding its own adjustments and interpretations. The need for standardization became evident, leading to the Rugby Football Union (RFU) formation in 1871. The RFU introduced a set of universally accepted rules, providing a consistent structure for the growing sport.

One of the most significant shifts in Rugby’s history occurred in 1895 with the Great Schism, where 22 clubs in Northern England broke away from the RFU, forming what is now known as Rugby League. They aimed to allow players to be compensated for time off work for injuries incurred during matches, which was against the strict amateurism enforced by the RFU. This split led to the development of two different codes of Rugby, each with its own set of rules.

Over the years, Rugby’s rules – known as ‘laws’ in the game’s terminology – have continually evolved. Aspects such as scoring values, player safety, and game dynamics have seen substantial changes. For instance, the value of a try in Rugby Union has increased from one point in the early days to five points today, reflecting its difficulty and excitement. Moreover, the introduction of rules like the ‘sin bin’ for temporary suspensions, and the Television Match Official (TMO) for reviewing game incidents have been implemented to ensure fair play and player safety.

As Rugby continues to grow globally, its laws are frequently reviewed and updated, maintaining a careful balance between preserving the game’s traditional character and adapting to the demands of modern sport. Understanding this historical context and the evolution of rules provides invaluable insight into Rugby as we know it today.

Fundamental Rules of Rugby

The laws can initially seem complex, but they form the backbone of a fast-paced, thrilling game. Let’s delve into these fundamental rules.

The Objective of the Game

The ultimate goal in Rugby, be it Rugby Union or Rugby League, is straightforward – to score more points than the opposition within 80 minutes of play, divided into two halves. Teams do this by carrying, passing, or kicking the ball to score points through tries, conversions, penalties, and drop goals. The team with the most points at the end of the match wins.

Scoring: Try, Conversion, Penalty, and Drop Goals

  • Try: A try, worth five points in Union and four in League, is the primary means of scoring. It is scored when a player places the ball down in the opposition’s in-goal area between the try and dead-ball lines.
  • Conversion: After a try is scored, the team is awarded a conversion kick for an extra two points. The player attempts to kick the ball between the posts and over the crossbar from a spot in line with where the try was scored.
  • Penalty: If a player commits a foul, the opposing team is awarded a penalty. They may choose to kick for a goal from the spot of the infringement, worth three points in Union and two in League if successful.
  • Drop Goal: A drop goal, worth three points in Union and one in League, is scored when a player drop-kicks the ball through the goalposts during open play.

Tackling, Rucking, and Mauling

  • Tackling: An opposing player can tackle a player carrying the ball. Once tackled, the ball carrier must release the ball, allowing for a contest for possession. In both forms of Rugby, tackles must be made below the shoulder line, and the tackler must attempt to wrap their arms around the player being tackled, ensuring safety.
  • Rucking: After a tackle in Rugby Union, a ruck can form if at least one player from each team is on their feet and over the ball. Players cannot use their hands to retrieve the ball, but must use their feet to push against the opposing team, trying to gain possession by pushing the opposition back over the ball.
  • Mauling: A maul occurs in Rugby Union when one or more opponents hold up the ball carrier, and one or more of the ball carrier’s teammates bind onto the ball carrier. The team in possession of the ball tries to drive their opponents towards the opponents’ try line to gain territory. If the attacking team cannot retrieve the ball from a maul, then the ball is lost to the defending team.

The Two Codes of Rugby: Rugby Union vs Rugby League

To the uninitiated, Rugby Union and Rugby League might seem interchangeable. However, they are two distinct codes of Rugby, each with its unique set of rules and gameplay strategies.

Understanding the Two Distinct Forms of Rugby

Rugby Union, often referred to as ‘Rugby’, is the more traditional form and is played worldwide. Rugby League, on the other hand, has a substantial following in Northern England, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

Both codes share the basic premise of advancing the ball toward the opponent’s try line to score points and share similar scoring methods. However, the tactical approaches, player formations, and many rules differ significantly.

Key Differences in Rules Between Rugby Union and Rugby League

  1. Number of Players: Rugby Union games are played with 15 players per side, divided into eight forwards and seven backs. Rugby League games feature 13 players, with six forwards and seven backs.
  2. Tackles and Possession: In Rugby Union, the ball can be contested after every tackle via rucks, potentially leading to turnovers in possession. In contrast, Rugby League has a ‘six-tackle rule’, where the attacking team has six chances (tackles) to score before automatically surrendering possession to the opponents, similar to downs in American Football.
  3. Scoring Values: A try is worth five points in Union and four in League. The points awarded for conversions (two points) and drop goals (three points) are the same in Union, while in League, conversions are worth two points, and drop goals are only one point.
  4. Playing the Ball After a Tackle: In Rugby League, the tackled player, after being brought to the ground, will roll the ball behind him with his foot to a teammate – this is known as ‘playing the ball’. In Rugby Union, a ruck usually forms once a player is tackled and the ball is contested.
  5. Lineouts and Scrums: Both are more contested and form a significant part of the strategy in Rugby Union. In Rugby League, scrums still exist but are less competitive, and lineouts are not a part of the game.
  6. Offside Rules: In Rugby Union, players are offside if they are in front of a teammate who last played the ball or is within 10 meters of an opponent waiting to catch a kick, unless they started from an onside position. Rugby League’s offside rules are similar but with subtle differences, particularly concerning the ‘play the ball’ and kick receptions.

These differences may seem minor, but they lead to two different games. Rugby Union is often seen as more continuous and fluid, emphasizing phases of play and possession. Rugby League, however, tends to be faster and more structured, focusing more on individual tackles and set-piece play. 

Positions (Rugby Union)

Rugby Union teams consist of 15 players, each of whom plays a unique role. These roles are generally divided into two main categories: forwards and backs. Each position has its specific rules and responsibilities.


The forwards are typically the larger and stronger members of the team, often tasked with winning possession of the ball, particularly in the scrum and lineout. The forwards positions include:

  1. Front Row: Consists of two props (Loosehead Prop and Tighthead Prop) and the Hooker. These players bind together to form the front row of the scrum. The props provide the power while the hooker attempts to ‘hook’ the ball back in the scrum.
  2. Second Row (Locks): Two Locks form the second row of the scrum, binding together and pushing against the front row. They’re vital participants in lineouts, often lifted by their teammates to catch or disrupt the throw.
  3. Back Row: Comprises the Flanker positions (Blindside Flanker and Openside Flanker) and the Number 8. These players detach from scrums quickly to defend or attack. They’re also heavily involved in tackling, carrying the ball, and securing possession in loose play.


The backs are typically quicker and more agile, often responsible for creating and converting scoring opportunities. They also have specific defensive duties. The backs positions include:

  1. Scrum-Half: This player feeds the ball into the scrum and often retrieves it. They’re key decision-makers and act as the link between the forwards and backs.
  2. Fly-Half (Outside Half): This player receives the ball from the scrum-half and decides whether to kick, run with the ball, or pass. They’re often the primary kicker for penalties and conversions.
  3. Centers (Inside Centre and Outside Centre): These players often receive the ball from the fly half, aiming to breach the opposition’s defensive line. They’re pivotal in both attacking and defensive plays.
  4. Wingers: The Wingers are often the quickest players on the pitch, positioned on the outer edges of the field. They aim to exploit the space created by the other backs, attempting to score tries.
  5. Full-Back: The Full-Back defends the area behind the defensive line and is often the last line of defense. They’re expected to catch and return kicks, join the attacking line, and occasionally kick the ball.

While these are the conventional roles and responsibilities, Rugby Union is a dynamic sport, and players often need to adapt to the game’s flow. For example, backs may need to join a ruck or maul, and forwards occasionally pass or kick the ball. 

Common Penalties and Infringements in Rugby

Despite its physical nature, rugby has a strict set of rules to ensure fair play and player safety. Referees play a critical role in overseeing these rules and enforcing them when infringements occur. Here, we’ll explore some common penalties and infringements in rugby.

Offside: In both open play and set pieces like scrums, rucks, mauls, and lineouts, rugby has offside rules to promote fair competition for the ball. Generally, players are offside if they are ahead of a teammate who last played the ball or is interfering with play from an offside position. When offside, players must only participate in the game once they are onside again. Another common offside occurrence is when defending players advance before the attacking team’s scrumhalf releases the ball. Offside penalties are common, and ensuring that all players adhere to this rule is one of the referee’s key responsibilities.

High Tackles and Dangerous Play: Rugby has stringent rules for player safety. Any tackle above the shoulder line, or any tackle executed dangerously or recklessly, can result in penalties. This includes ‘tip tackles,’ where a player is lifted and dropped headfirst, and ‘spear tackles,’ where a player is lifted and driven into the ground. The severity of the infringement can lead to a yellow card (temporary suspension) or a red card (permanent dismissal from the match) in addition to a penalty.

Not Releasing the Ball or Player: After a tackle, the ball carrier must immediately release the ball, and the tackler must release the tackled player. Failing to do so can result in a penalty. This rule encourages continuous play and competition for the ball.

Obstruction: Players cannot obstruct an opponent who doesn’t have the ball. This includes blocking a player from tackling a ball-carrier or shielding the ball in a ruck or maul. Obstruction often results in a penalty, and in some cases, a penalty try can be awarded if the infringement prevented a probable try.

Incorrect Entry to a Ruck or Maul: Players must enter a ruck or maul from their own side, defined by the ‘hindmost foot’ of the last player in the ruck or maul. Entering from the side or from the opposition’s side is illegal and results in a penalty.

Knock-On and Forward Pass: A knock-on occurs when a player loses possession of the ball, and it travels forward, hitting the ground or another player. A forward pass is when the ball is passed forward to a teammate. Both result in a scrum to the opposition. While not penalties, these are common infringements that referees oversee.

Referees are assisted by assistant referees, also known as the two touch judges, and a Television Match Official (TMO) in most professional games. Together, they ensure the match is conducted within the laws of the game.

Interesting Rules and Exceptions in Rugby

Like many sports, rugby has its share of unique rules and intriguing exceptions. These rules, while less common, add a layer of depth and excitement to the game.

Advantage Rule 

When a team commits a minor infringement, the referee may play an advantage to the non-offending team if they can gain a more advantageous position. This means play continues, and the non-offending team can capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes. If no advantage is gained after a short period, the referee will blow the whistle and return to the original infringement.

The 50/22 Kick Rule

Adding another strategic layer to the game is the recently introduced 50/22 kick rule. Initially trialed in some competitions to encourage more open play and reduce the number of high-impact collisions, it has now become a regular part of the game.

The 50/22 rule allows a team to gain a throw-in inside the opponent’s 22-meter line by kicking the ball to touch within the opponents’ 22 from within their own half (behind the 50-meter line), provided the ball bounces in the field of play before going into touch.

This rule encourages teams to commit more players to defend the backfield, creating more space and opportunities for attacking play in the frontline. It has also brought an exciting tactical dimension to the game, keeping players and spectators on their toes.

Quick Throw-In

To speed up play, a player can take a quick throw-in to themselves or a teammate after the ball has gone out of play. However, the ball must travel 5 meters, be thrown in straight or towards the player’s goal line, and be the same ball that went into touch. If these conditions are not met, play is called back for a standard line out throw.

Scrum-half Offside Rule

In a scrum, the scrum-half who does not have the ball must only advance beyond the middle line of the scrum, before the ball has emerged from the scrum. It is considered offside if they step beyond the middle of the scrum before the ball has left the scrum.

Red and Yellow Cards 

Much like football, rugby uses a card system for serious infringements. A yellow card results in a player being temporarily suspended for 10 minutes, often referred to as a ‘sin bin’. A red card leads to a player’s permanent dismissal from the match. What’s unique is that a team cannot replace a carded player in Rugby Union, leading to them being short-handed, which can significantly impact the game.

With its rich history and dynamic gameplay, rugby is a sport like no other. Its rules, ranging from the fundamental to the unique, shape the game’s character, encouraging strategic depth, sportsmanship, and fair play. There’s always something new to learn in rugby, like the newly introduced 50/22 kick rule. Rugby is a game that continues to evolve, innovate and captivate audiences worldwide. You can visit the International Rugby Board’s official Laws of the Game webpage for a complete and detailed overview of all the rules governing Rugby.


What are 5 key rules for the sport of rugby?

  1. Scoring: Points in Rugby can be scored through tries, conversions, penalty kicks, and drop goals. A try, worth five points, is scored when a player grounds the ball in the opposition’s in-goal area.
  2. Passing: Players can pass the ball to their teammates, but the pass must not travel forward out of the passing player’s hand – this is known as a forward pass and results in a scrum to the opposition.
  3. Tackling: Only the player with the ball can be tackled. A legal tackle must be below the shoulder line, and once a player is tackled, they must release the ball.
  4. Offside: In general, players are offside if they are ahead of a teammate who last played the ball, or if they interfere with play from an offside position. They can only participate in the game once they are onside again.
  5. Knock-On: A knock-on occurs when a player loses possession, and the ball travels forward, hitting the ground or another player. This results in a scrum awarded to the opposing team.
J P Myburgh

J P Myburgh

A rugby enthusiast, I bring you news and insights from the exciting world of rugby.

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