With the Men's Six Nations Championship underway, millions of people around the world will be glued to their TV’s. And if you think it looks like fun, then you might be wondering how to start playing rugby.
If you enjoy being active, and like the idea of having fun while building your fitness with team mates, then rugby is the game for you. It’s one of the most inclusive sports around, with teams for men, women, children, and those with disabilities.
There are also different versions of the game, so you can find which is right for you. But before you start looking for a local club, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the basic rules. We’re going to look at the different types of rugby and how to get started, plus some top tips for beginners.
What is rugby?
Very simply put, rugby is a game with two teams, where the idea is to get the ball into your opponent's side of the field and score a try behind the tryline. The ball can be kicked or thrown during the game, but you can only pass the ball to your teammates by passing backwards or sideways, never forward.
Rugby is said to have originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England (hence the name) in 1823, when during a game of football, one of the pupils, William Webb Ellis, decided to pick up the ball and run with it. Whether this is true or not, the Rugby World Cup Trophy is now named after him.
In 1863, a set of rules was decided upon, and in 1871, Rugby Football Union was officially formed. With the first ever international match between England and Scotland being played in the same year.
What are the different types of rugby?
Rugby is played in many different variations, though the 2 main types are rugby league and rugby union (the one played at the Six Nations). Originally, rugby union was played in England by gentlemen amateurs, and rugby league was played by working class guys for pay. There are many similarities between the 2, but each has developed different sets of rules over time.
They’re pretty different in terms of tactics, game management, and playing styles, but perhaps the main on-field difference between them is the fact that rugby league is played with 13 players, whereas rugby union is played with 15. The pitch is also smaller in rugby league as there are fewer players, and the number of substitutions varies too. More substitutions in rugby league means fitness levels are high throughout the game, often leading to more high-impact collisions and more injuries. The points system is slightly different in each too.
Other types of rugby include:
- Rugby sevens: This 7-a-side version of the game has been an Olympic sport since 2016. It’s the most accessible form for beginners, with a game played over 2 halves each lasting 10 minutes. It follows a tournament format, with international competitions spread over 1 to 3 days, and teams often playing several games in a day.
- Touch rugby: This 6-a-side variation originated in Australia, and it takes its rules from rugby league. The main difference compared to other styles of rugby is that there is no tackling, meaning teams can be mixed. This creates a sociable, low-impact sport which is great for beginners and children.
- Tag rugby: A version with minimal contact, each player wears shorts with velcro patches and 2 tags attached to them. You ‘tackle’ by removing one of the tags when in possession of the ball. This 7-a-side game is similar to touch rugby, but in touch rugby a player ‘tackles’ by tapping both sides of the opponents hips simultaneously.
- Wheelchair rugby: Other than the obvious use of wheelchairs, this version is played indoors in a basketball court. There are 2 teams of 4, and they use a white ball that is identical in size and shape to a volleyball. Teams are mixed, with men and women competing in the same team.
These variations of rugby make the game more accessible, and they provide a great introduction to the sport. They allow people to learn the rules and strategies of the game without the pressure of full contact, making them perfect for beginners, women, children and those with disabilities to enjoy.
What is some of the terminology used in rugby?
For the first time rugby player or viewer, the sport can seem a little confusing. Rugby seems to have its own language, so to get you up to speed, here are some of the most common terms you’ll hear when playing or watching rugby. We’ve focused on rugby union here as it’s the most popular variation in the UK:
- Advantage: The referee applies advantage by allowing play to continue despite an obvious infringement of the rules for certain circumstances.
- Foul: Striking, tripping or kicking an opposing rugby player is deemed to be a foul. Penalties are also given for dangerous tackles or obstruction of a player who is not in possession of the ball.
- Free Kick: Granted after minor infringements or after a fair catch. Drop goals are not allowed from a free kick.
- Lineout: With both teams lining up opposite each other, one team throws the ball down the middle of the tunnel. This is to restart play after the ball, or a player carrying it, has gone out of bounds.
- Maul: Occurs when a player carrying the ball is held by one or more opponents, and one or more of the ball-carrier’s teammates hold on (binds) to the ball-carrier. All the players involved are on their feet and moving toward a goal line. Open play has ended.
- Offside: A player is offside when he is in front of his team member who has possession of the ball. The referee penalises an offside by awarding a free kick or a scrum.
- Ruck: One or more players from each team, who are on their feet and in contact, close around the ball on the ground. Players must not handle the ball in the ruck, and must use their feet to move the ball.
- Scrum: 8 players bind together and push against the other team’s assembled 8 for possession of the ball. Scrums restart play after certain minor infractions.
- Sin Bin: This is the bench area where players are sent as a punishment for committing a yellow card offence. Offending players must sit out for 10 minutes while the game continues.
- Touch: When the ball connects with or goes over the touch line (by being kicked or carried by a player). Grounding the ball in the in-goal is a touch-down. Players can use their hands to make the touch-down or they can cover the ball on the ground with their upper body.
So now you’re a little more familiar with some of the terms used in rugby, we're going to take a look at some of the basic rules of rugby for beginners.
What are the basic rules of rugby?
Although the aim of the game is simple, there are lots of rules and laws which can make it difficult to follow for those new to rugby. We’re going to go through the very basics of rugby union (the version played at the Six Nations) to make the game even more enjoyable for viewers, and for those who want to start playing this exciting game.
Simply put, the aim of the game is to use the ball to score more points than the other team. Rugby union is played by 2 teams of 15 players, and you can run with the ball, kick it and pass it, but passing forwards isn't allowed. You can also tackle an opposing player in order to get the ball, as long as there is no rule breaking. A game of rugby union is split into 2 halves of 40 minutes each, with a maximum 10 minute interval, after which both teams change ends. There is a referee, plus 2 touch judges (one either side of the pitch) to ensure the rules are being followed during the game.
Before the start of the match the referee tosses a coin, and the captain of the team that wins decides which end he wants to attack first, or whether his team or the opposition will kick off. The game is started by a place kick or a drop kick from the middle of the halfway line. The ball must travel forwards at least 10 metres from the kick-off - if it doesn’t, the opposition get the choice of a scrum or line-out on the halfway line.
There are 4 ways to score points in a rugby union game:
- Try: When the ball is grounded over an opponents’ goal line in their ‘try zone’ it is worth 5 points.
- Conversion: After scoring a try, the scoring team gets the opportunity to kick the ball over the crossbar (between the uprights). A conversion is worth 2 points.
- Penalty: If the opposition commits a penalty, a team can choose to kick at the goal. A penalty kick is worth 3 points.
- Drop Goal: During open play, a player may drop the ball so it touches the ground and kick it over the goal. This is called a drop goal and it’s worth 3 points.
If a penalty or drop goal is scored during the game, play is restarted with a drop kick from the halfway line, with the team that has conceded the points taking the kick.
How can I start playing rugby?
If you’ve been inspired by the Six Nations, you can play touch rugby in the park with family or friends. This is an easy, low-cost way to get started. But joining a club needn’t be expensive. Almost every city and town in the UK will have a rugby club, and a quick internet search can let you know where your closest one is. There are also some nationwide programs that help beginners get into rugby.
- England: CBRE All Schools has been developed by the RFU to increase the amount of rugby played in schools, and to encourage new players to join local clubs. And O2 Touch create a fun and friendly environment for both men and women of all abilities to get involved in touch rugby.
- Scotland: With over 200 rugby clubs across the country, there’s a club for everyone. And Tartan Touch provides fun, simple and social non-contact rugby. With only 8 simple rules, it’s a great innovative and fast-paced game for all abilities.
- Wales: Passionate about making rugby as accessible, and as enjoyable for as many people as possible, from Hubs, Schools and Colleges to Disability Rugby. Wales has something for everyone, whatever your age or ability.
- Ireland: A major sport in Ireland, they have lots of rugby clubs for men and women, and for all ages and abilities all over the country.
Many clubs offer trial days or taster sessions, where you can go along and meet the coaches and watch a training session to see if rugby is the right sport for you before you join. If you like what you see, you’ll need some essential kit before you can start playing properly, such as rugby boots, clothing, and some protective gear.
When you first join a club as a beginner, you may start by training weekly with a team, learning the rules and key skills, before putting them into practise in a match (when your coach feels you’re ready). Rugby is also a very popular sport at universities, and women’s clubs around the country are always on the look-out for enthusiastic players.
How can I get fit for rugby?
Rugby is a high-impact sport, and injuries are common. It requires you to be fit and healthy, so the better athlete you are, the better rugby player you’ll be. You’re going to be doing a lot of running on a rugby field, so you need to have a good level of cardiovascular fitness. The same goes for strength, and shoulder stability too. Here are some tips for improving these areas, as well as a few exercises to prepare you for playing rugby.
Improving cardiovascular fitness
This is a crucial first step to keeping up at training and in games. People will often start a new cardio programme with a long run, but getting on a rowing machine or a stationary bike can put less stress on your lower back and knees. Take it slow at first, train until you start to feel tired and then rest. You need to take care not to injure yourself while training, and overtraining is the fastest way to get hurt. You’re better off doing shorter sessions 5 days a week, than a long session on a Monday which puts you out for days.
Developing functional strength
Rugby players are strong. They need to perform a range of functional movements during training sessions and matches, so it’s important to do exercises which develop your functional strength.
- Sled pushes: Perhaps the best functional exercise for rugby players, this exercise puts you in the perfect pushing position, which is something you’ll use during scrums, mauls and rucks.
- Plank holds: This is a critical core exercise for rugby players. Injuries are common, so having a strong core is essential to help reduce lower back pain.
- Box jumps: If you’re looking to develop strength and power in your lower legs, box jumps and squats are great exercises to achieve this.
- Push-ups: One of the best exercises to develop your functional strength, push-ups work all your chest and shoulder muscles, while engaging your core, and tightening your butt and legs.
- Burpees: This tough exercise will help develop an essential skill for rugby - getting up off the ground quickly! You’ll be knocked down, a lot, so this will help build those muscles to help you get back up over and over again.
Increase shoulder stability
Unfortunately, shoulder injuries are common in rugby. From ligament strains to full dislocations. However there are some exercises you can do to help strengthen the rotator cuff and surrounding muscles to lessen the chance of injuries occurring.
- Lateral raises: You can do these using both arms at the same time, or just one arm to focus on any differences in shoulder strength. Stand upright with one end of a resistance band under your foot. Keep your elbow straight and lift your arm to shoulder height, lifting the band parallel to your torso. Lower the band slowly, and complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
- Wall slide (with a towel): Stand side on to a wall and start with your arm by your side, with your hand pressing lightly against a folded towel. Slowly maintain this pressure against the towel as you bring your arm up/down in an arc movement. Complete 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Bent-over lat pull: This puts you in a scrum/ruck position, making it a great exercise for rugby players. Loop a resistance band around a sturdy object, hold both handles, and back away until your arms are straight. With your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent, lower your torso toward the floor and extend your arms past your head. Pull the handles toward you, bending your elbows out to the sides until your hands are next to your shoulders. Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
And if you already have a bad shoulder, make sure you strap it up before training and games. It won’t necessarily prevent ligament injury, but it may help with awkward falls that can result in a dislocation.
Different rugby positions
All rugby positions require a different set of physical and technical attributes and it is this diversity which makes the game so accessible to everyone. Here’s a list of the different rugby positions, and what sort of attributes are required:
- 1 & 3 Props: The loose-head and tight-head props make up what is known as the front row (their rugby positions in the scrum). They need a strong neck, shoulders, upper body and legs. And they should enjoy head-to head competition.
- 2 Hooker: Lining up in the scrum between the 2 props, the hooker is one of the forwards’ key decision-makers. They need to have a strong neck, shoulder, upper body and legs.
- 4 & 5 Locks: Forming the second row in a scrum, they provide the power and stability. The 2 locks are usually the tallest, largest and strongest players, and they are also the main jumpers during a line-out.
- 6 & 7 Flankers: They must be excellent all-rounders with lots of energy. Speed, strength, fitness, tackling and handling skills are also essential in these positions.
- 8 Number Eight: Tackling, ball-carrying and support play is this players' areas of expertise. Together with the 2 flankers, they form a unit called the back row, and they need to be an explosive, dynamic runner.
- 9 Scrum-half: They tend to be one of the smaller players on the pitch. This position requires good vision, speed and awareness. They also need to have super fast reactions and very quick hands.
- 10 Fly-half: The decision maker of the team, they’re also often the designated placekicker for penalties, conversions and drop goals. These players are influential, controlled, accurate and powerful, with strong tackling skills.
- 11 & 14 Wingers: This position requires you to be either the fastest or one of the fastest players on the field. You’re responsible for the wide channel, which is where most of the space is, and you need to be able to exploit that space.
- 12 & 13 Centres: The inside and outside centres tend to be strong, dynamic runners with a good eye for exposing gaps in the opposition's defence. They need to be strong and powerful, and must be ready to tackle.
- 15 Full-back: They need to be comfortable catching high balls and launching attacks from the resulting possession. This is a high-pressure position suited to those who can combine tackling, kicking, catching and running with a cool head.
You might feel that you already have the right physique to suit one of the positions, whether you’re tall, strong or athletic. Or maybe you have some of the personality traits to suit a particular position, and then you can work on the physique with the right diet and exercise plan.
And if you’re looking to play rugby regularly, make sure you rest on those days off to give your body a chance to recover. There are also lots of recovery products available which can help speed up the process so you’re ready for your next game.