A first-timer’s guide to rugby

By: Will Crothers

Rugby-picture-300x217For those of you coming from smaller towns, or those whose interests don’t venture beyond the big four, University brings a broader level of exposure to other sports. In the stands or on the sidelines, you may find yourself lost or confused over when and why to cheer or jeer. Having an understanding of what’s going on makes the game more enjoyable, or at least provides better ammunition for heckling.

In three years of covering varsity sports, I can say that Rugby is as fun to watch as it is difficult to cover. Part of the difficulty in covering Rugby is the roster logistics, where players may not wear the same number game to game. That is because jersey numbers for the starting 15 players represent their position, not a single player for the season.

Describing the course of play is also difficult, at least in writing, due to the fluidity of play. Painting a picture of the landscape that can be understood in non-rugby terms poses certain limitations. There’s a lot of passing, changes of possession and calls from the official to juggle. Rugby is a game of build-up and break-through, keeping possession while gaining field position into the opponent’s territory.

The immediate comparison that comes to mind is North American football with the tackling, but the fluidity of soccer is very similar to Rugby. I guess the principal that explains the most during gameplay is that the ball can only be advanced by carrying or kicking it. The ball cannot be thrown or touched forward with the hands, or it draws a whistle with a loss of possession. The other core principal is that teammates cannot block their opponent for the ball carrier. These two elements combined will explain a lot of the, perhaps confusing, ways in which the game is played. Like the odd whistle when a player drops a ball they were carrying.

Or why the teams space out players laterally across the field. Because of the prohibition on blocking, the offensive team tries to move the ball to the outside, away from the grouping of defenders. Because it is always X number of defenders versus the single ball carrier, getting the ball outside hopefully decreases the number of potential tacklers in the area, allowing a greater chance of breaking through towards goal. Generally the better a team passes the ball down across the field, the more successful their attack.

You might also observe a foul that results in a team getting possession, to which they’ll immediately kick it out of bounds (also known as in to touch). Think of it as a yardage penalty that is determined by how well the non-penalized team can angle a kick, knowing that if they get it out of bounds they’ll have the ball for a throw-in. It’s the non-penalized team choosing one of three options depending on their location of the field. If they were close to the opponent’s end zone they could have opted to kick through the uprights for points.

This is definitely a non-exhaustive explanation of the game, but hopefully makes attending your first Rugby game more enjoyable. I’d get into the dirty limerick-style Rugby songs or why they drink beer from a used cleat after the game, but there are some things in life that don’t need explaining.

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