Sep 26, 2019

The rules of rugby

The U.S. rugby team.

The U.S. rugby team before their match against England today. Photo: Francois Nel/World Rugby via Getty Images

If there was ever a time to familiarize yourself with rugby, it's now, as the 2019 Rugby World Cup is in full swing.

How it works: The object of rugby is to score more points than the opposing team by doing things like carrying the ball over their goal line and kicking the ball through their goal posts.

  • You can run forward with the ball, but you can only pass it backwards or sideways.
  • You can also kick the ball. It can travel forward, but any teammates in front of it when it gets kicked are considered offside until the kicker or another teammate runs ahead of them.
  • Details: Each team has 15 players and up to 7 subs; Two 40-minute halves; The field is a little over 100 yards long and 70 yards wide; Like soccer, referees can issue penalty cards (yellow, red).

How to score:

  • Try (5 points): A try is scored when a player touches the ball down inside the opponents' in-goal area (basically an end zone).
  • Conversion (2 points): After scoring a try, that team can add 2 more points by kicking the ball between the goal posts and over the crossbar from a spot in line with where the try was scored.
  • Penalty (3 points): When awarded a penalty after the opponent commits a foul, a team may choose to kick the ball between the goal posts.
  • Drop goal (3 points): Teams can also kick the ball between the goal posts at any time during open play. To do this, a player must drop the ball on the ground and kick it on the half-volley.

Open play:

  • The tackle: When brought to the ground, the ball carrier must release the ball, the tackler must release the ball carrier and they both must roll away from the ball to allow others to come in and contest for it.
  • The ruck: A tackle typically results in a "ruck," in which both teams compete for the ball. Players aren't allowed to handle the ball and must use their feet or dive over it so that it emerges behind the pile, at which point it can be picked up.
  • The maul: This is essentially a ruck while standing up. The ball carrier is standing up and at least one opposition player and one of his teammates are holding onto him.


  • The scrum: This happens after a minor infringement (i.e. forward pass) or if the ball becomes unplayable in a ruck or maul. The forwards on both teams line up and push against each other while the ball is rolled between them.
  • The lineout: To restart play after the ball leaves the field, teams line up about a yard apart while the ball is thrown between them. Players are allowed to lift teammates up to gain possession.

Go deeper, via the N.Y. Times: Rugby underdogs again, the U.S. team hopes to turn a corner

Go deeper