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What is Rugby? A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding This Exciting Sport

Table of Contents

J P Myburgh

J P Myburgh

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

What is rugby



Welcome to the world of rugby, a thrilling, high-paced sport that captures the hearts of millions around the globe. But what is rugby? It’s more than just a game; it’s a test of strength, agility, strategy, and teamwork that provides an exciting spectacle for those watching and a challenging, rewarding experience for those on the field.


With its unique blend of athleticism and tactical gameplay, Rugby has a rich and fascinating history. It has evolved from a simple game played in the UK to a worldwide phenomenon, with two main variations – Rugby Union and Rugby League – and many competitions and tournaments.


Understanding rugby is important for those who want to play the game and those who want to appreciate it as a spectator fully. With its intricate rules and tactical nuances, rugby can seem complex at first glance. However, once you understand the basic principles, you’ll find it’s a deeply engaging and exciting sport.


In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take you on a journey through rugby, exploring its history, rules, key positions, famous tournaments, and cultural impact. Whether you’re a newcomer to the sport or a long-time fan looking to deepen your knowledge, this guide is for you. Let’s dive in!


History and Origin of Rugby


Rugby a long time ago


So, what is Rugby, and where did it originate? The roots of Rugby can be traced back to the early 19th century in Rugby, a town in Warwickshire, England. According to popular lore, the game was born in 1823 when a young student named William Webb Ellis, playing football at Rugby School, disregarded the conventional rules and picked up the ball, running towards the opponent’s goal line. This was the spark that ignited the birth of a new sport.


In 1871, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was established in England to standardize the game’s rules, marking a significant milestone in Rugby’s development. The first-ever international rugby match occurred in the same year between Scotland and England, with Scotland emerging as the victorious side.


Rugby continued to evolve, with key changes and additions to the rules. One of the most crucial turning points was the split between Rugby Union and Rugby League in 1895. This schism occurred due to a dispute over payment to players, leading to the formation of the Northern Rugby Football Union, now known as the Rugby League, in the north of England.


The 20th century saw the international growth of Rugby, with the first Rugby World Cup held in 1987, a tournament now considered one of the most prestigious in the sport. This period also witnessed the transition of Rugby Union from an amateur to a professional sport in 1995, which increased the game’s competitiveness and global appeal.


The history of Rugby is filled with passion and evolution, reflecting the spirit of the sport itself. As we delve deeper into the game’s intricacies, it’s important to remember that the core of Rugby revolves around the values of teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline, and sportsmanship, just as it did back in the time of William Webb Ellis.


Understanding the Game: Rugby Basics


Rugby is a dynamic and complex sport that requires a solid understanding of its basic principles. At its core, the primary aim of rugby is to carry the ball forward across the opposition’s try line and ground it, a feat known as scoring a ‘try’. This manoeuvre involves intricate teamwork, strategic planning, and physical prowess.


Players can run with the ball, pass it laterally or backwards to teammates, or kick it forward to advance towards the opposition’s try line. This constant forward motion, combined with the defensive pressure from the opposition, creates a thrilling back-and-forth dynamic at the heart of the game.


Understanding these fundamental objectives and strategies is the first step towards appreciating the depth and excitement of rugby. As you delve further into the rules, positions, and techniques, you’ll begin to see why rugby captivates millions of fans and players worldwide.


Two Types of Rugby: Union and League


There are two primary forms of rugby: Rugby Union and Rugby League, each with its own rules and characteristics.


Differences between Rugby Union and Rugby League


Rugby Union, often referred to as ‘rugby’, is played with 15 players per side. The game heavily emphasises contesting for possession of the ball, with unrestricted tackles per possession/play and includes complex elements such as lineouts and scrums.


Rugby League, on the other hand, is a faster-paced game played with 13 players per side. It allows a set of six tackles to advance the ball as far as possible before surrendering possession to the opposing team. Scoring systems also differ, with tries worth four points in League and five in Union.


Geographical Spread


Both forms of rugby have global followings, but their popularity varies geographically. Rugby Union is more widely played and followed internationally, with notable popularity in countries such as England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. The Rugby Union World Cup is a global event, drawing teams and fans worldwide.


Rugby League is less widespread but commands a significant following in certain regions. It’s particularly popular in the north of England, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. Although less globally inclusive, the Rugby League World Cup is a major event in these regions.


Understanding these two forms of rugby provides a deeper insight into the diversity and versatility of this thrilling sport.


Typical Equipment Used in Rugby: Ball, Protective Gear, Clothing


Rugby ball


The rugby ball, distinctive with its oval shape, is the primary piece of equipment in the game. It’s designed to be easily carried and passed, but its shape can make it bounce unpredictably, adding an extra challenge.


Players wear minimal protective gear compared to Americal football. Protective gear options include a mouthguard, padded headgear, known as a scrum cap, and thin padding on shoulders, chest, and back.


The clothing worn in rugby includes a jersey, shorts, and socks. The jersey and shorts are typically made of rigid, tear-resistant material to withstand the rugby game itself’s physical nature. Cleated boots are worn for better traction on the pitch.


Safety Considerations in Rugby Equipment


Regarding safety, all equipment used must comply with the game’s laws to ensure player welfare. Protective gear must be correctly fitted and should not pose a risk to the wearer or other players. Any padding worn should be thin and flexible. The studs on the boots should be rounded, not pointed, to avoid injury.


Rugby Competitions and Tournaments


Rugby is played and enjoyed worldwide through various prestigious competitions and tournaments, each showcasing the sport’s skill and spirit at different levels. Read our post about the most iconic rugby tournaments around the world for a detailed look at what’s on offer.


Here’s a short summary.


The Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of international Rugby Union. Held every four years, it brings together the world’s top national teams vying for the coveted Webb Ellis Cup.


The Six Nations Championship is an annual competition between six European nations: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. It is one of the oldest and most respected tournaments in the sport.


Super Rugby is a professional men’s rugby union tournament that features teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Japan. It’s known for its high standard of play and its role in developing players for international competition.


Other noteworthy competitions include the Rugby Championship (a Southern Hemisphere competition involving South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina), the European Rugby Champions Cup (featuring top club teams from the premier leagues of Europe), and the Gallagher Premiership Rugby (the top level of domestic rugby competition in England).


Each of these tournaments contributes to the rich tapestry of rugby, offering different styles and levels of play, and providing a stage for both emerging talents and seasoned professionals to display their skills. For more detailed information on each tournament, please refer to the linked posts.


Rugby Culture


Rugby is more than just a sport – it’s a culture that espouses values of respect, teamwork, enjoyment, discipline, and sportsmanship. These principles are deeply ingrained in every aspect of the game and are what sets rugby apart from many other sports. The game gets played hard and aggressively, but it’s common for opposing teams to get together after a game to enjoy a couple of beers, something that’s deeply loved about rugby by many.


Rugby’s Values and Culture: Respect, Teamwork, Enjoyment, Discipline, Sportsmanship


Respect is paramount in rugby, shown towards teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials. This acknowledgement of others’ roles and efforts fosters a uniquely supportive environment.


Teamwork is the essence of rugby. With each player having a specific role, success hinges on collective effort, reinforcing the importance of unity and collaboration.

Enjoyment and discipline go hand-in-hand in rugby. While the fun of participation is highlighted, it’s equally important to adhere to rules, demonstrating self-control even in high-pressure situations.


Sportsmanship, the cornerstone of rugby culture, encapsulates all these values. It promotes fair and respectful behavior, both on and off the pitch, creating a sense of camaraderie that transcends the competition.


Comparing Rugby and Soccer Cultures


While sportsmanship is valued in all sports, it is particularly pronounced in rugby. Unlike soccer, where dissent towards referees or gamesmanship like diving can be common, such behavior is rarely tolerated in rugby. The rugby ethos dictates that the referee’s decision is final and is to be respected, without dissent.


Rugby players are also expected to exhibit humility in victory and grace in defeat. This sense of mutual respect and the emphasis on fair play make the culture of rugby truly special and are reasons why the sport often prides itself on being a “gentleman’s game.”


Tips when you are considering getting started with Rugby


Embarking on your rugby journey can be an exciting venture, bringing with it the thrill of the game and a wealth of health benefits.


Basic Skills Needed to Play Rugby


Rugby requires a mix of physical and mental skills. Physically, you’ll need agility, strength, and endurance. Mentally, strategic thinking, spatial awareness, and the ability to make quick decisions are critical.


Basic technical skills include passing, catching, kicking, and tackling. However, as with any sport, these skills will develop and refine over time with practice and experience.


Recommendations for Beginners: Training


For beginners, start with a basic fitness regimen to build up strength and endurance. Then, consider joining a local club or team, where you’ll receive structured coaching and the opportunity to practice skills in a supportive environment. Have a look at our comprehensive rugby training exercises guide.


It’s important to learn the rules of the game and understand the roles of different positions. Watching games, whether live or on television, can also be a helpful and enjoyable way to learn.


Health Benefits of Playing Rugby


Rugby offers a myriad of health benefits. It’s a high-intensity sport that improves cardiovascular fitness, builds muscle strength, and enhances agility and speed. It also fosters mental resilience and strategic thinking. Furthermore, the teamwork aspect of rugby can enhance social skills, build camaraderie, and boost self-confidence.


Beginning your rugby journey might seem daunting, but with patience, practice, and a positive attitude, it can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.


The Future of Rugby in the USA


USA Eagles

USA Eagles Vs South Africa – Miles Craigwell. Photo Credit:


As rugby continues to evolve and grow, several trends and potential developments shape the future of the sport, especially from a USA perspective.


Current Trends in Rugby


In the United States, rugby has been gaining traction over the last few years. The sport’s unique blend of physicality, strategy, and camaraderie has attracted a growing number of participants and fans.


The establishment of Major League Rugby (MLR) in 2018 has been pivotal for the sport’s development in the US. The professional league has brought increased visibility and structure to rugby, attracting local and international talent.


Another important trend is the rise of rugby sevens, a faster, shorter version of the game. The inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics has boosted its popularity, providing a more accessible entry point for new players and audiences.


Potential Developments in the Sport


Looking forward, several developments could shape the future of rugby in the US. The continued growth and success of MLR is crucial, potentially leading to more teams, higher quality play, and greater media coverage.


Youth development is another key area. With more schools and colleges offering rugby, there’s a great potential to develop a strong base of homegrown talent.

Furthermore, the increasing emphasis on player safety could lead to rule changes, improving the sport’s appeal to a broader demographic.


Innovation in broadcasting, including the use of technology for enhanced viewer experiences, could also contribute to rugby’s growth in the US.


The future of rugby in the USA is filled with potential. As the sport continues to grow and evolve, it stands to become a significant part of the American sports landscape.




The world of rugby is a fascinating and thrilling realm filled with a rich history, unique culture, and a passionate global community. This sport, born in a small English town, has captivated the hearts of millions around the globe with its unique blend of physical prowess, strategic gameplay, and exemplary sportsmanship. From its two main forms, Rugby Union and Rugby League, to the various prestigious international tournaments, rugby offers a diverse and engaging sports experience.


Whether you are a newcomer eager to learn the ropes or a seasoned fan looking to deepen your understanding, rugby always has something more to discover. The sport’s complex rules and strategies and deeply ingrained values offer a challenging and rewarding venture for players and a captivating spectacle for spectators.


As rugby continues to grow in popularity, particularly in the United States, we look forward to the exciting developments and trends that lie ahead. With a solid foundation of respect, teamwork, discipline, and sportsmanship, the future of rugby is bright, so whether you plan to don a jersey and lace up your boots, or cheer from the sidelines or your living room, welcome to the exciting world of rugby!




How is rugby different from football?


Rugby and football (American) differ in several key ways:



      1. Object of the Game: In football, the goal is to carry the ball over the opponent’s goal line or kick it through the goalposts. In rugby, the aim is to score tries by grounding the ball in the opponent’s in-goal area or kick it through the goalpost.
      2. Player Positions and Numbers: Football teams consist of 11 players divided into offense, defense, and special teams. Rugby teams have 15 (Union) or 13 (League) players, divided into forwards and backs, with all players playing offense and defense.

      1. Handling the Ball: Only the quarterback typically throws the ball in football, and forward passes are allowed. In rugby, any player can pass the ball, but only backward or lateral passes are permitted.

      1. Contact and Tackling: In football, players use protective gear and can block and tackle opponents even without the ball. Tackles are only allowed on the ball carrier in rugby, and protective equipment is minimal.

      1. Game Flow: Football is stop-start, with play divided into downs. Rugby is more fluid, with continuous play until a rule is broken, the ball goes out of bounds, or a try or penalty is awarded.

    1. Scoring: Scoring systems are different – in football, a touchdown is 6 points, an extra point is 1 (or 2 for a two-point conversion), and a field goal is 3. In rugby, a try is worth 5 points (Union) or 4 (League), a conversion kick is 2, and a penalty or drop goal is 3.

    Is rugby harder than NFL?


    Whether rugby is “harder” than the NFL (American Football) depends on how you define “hard.” Both sports demand different skills and have unique challenges.

    Physically, both are tough and require strength, agility, and endurance. Rugby is played continuously with few breaks, requiring sustained cardiovascular fitness. NFL, while more stop-start, involves intense bursts of high impact, requiring explosive strength.

    Strategically, both have complex rules and require tactical understanding. In NFL, the coach primarily dictates strategy with set plays. In rugby, players on the field often make strategic decisions in real time.


    In terms of contact, both are high-contact sports. Rugby requires all players to tackle and be tackled, while specific positions primarily deal with contact in the NFL. In NFL, protective gear is more extensive, but injuries occur in both sports.

    Ultimately, it depends on the individual player’s skills, conditioning, and understanding of the game’s tactical aspects.

    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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