A Primer for the Rugby Spectator

With the Bingham Cup coming to Nashville, some might be wondering what exactly rugby is, and how it’s played. What follows is my quick attempt to explain this. (Any mistakes are mine.)

I began playing rugby in June 2006, a few months after the Nashville Grizzlies formed, and I played with the team until 2013. Our inaugural season drove home a point that you’ll see expressed on a t-shirt frequently sold at rugby tournaments: Rugby: like explaining sex to a virgin. Except, in this case, the group of men to whom you’re losing your rugby V-card really want to hurt you, and not in that consensual Fifty-Shades kind of way, which, let’s be honest, suddenly looks pretty damn vanilla.

Those first few times you play in a match are like your first few lays: laughable, messy, and likely to be over a lot sooner than you’d planned. Now, as confusing as it is for newbies, rugby is even more confounding for spectators who are only familiar with American football and, maybe, soccer.

Questions you might hear on the sidelines could include:

“How long is this game?”

“Why are they running backwards?” and

“That thing they’re doing now is called a what? Man, scrum sounds dirty.”

So… According to rugby lore, the game was invented in 1823 during a soccer match, when one Brit named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and took off running. I’ve heard more than a few guys (all of them forwards —think “more versatile linebackers”) add to the legend, claiming the lad was a bigger guy who was tired of chasing the faster players.

What is true is this: rugby occupies a middle ground between soccer and American football, being played on a similarly sized field (which is called a PITCH), with H-shaped uprights, and using a ball that looks like a bloated cousin to the pigskin. What differentiates the game? That can take a while to master as a player, but as a spectator here are a few things to keep in mind.

First and foremost, in rugby, you can only pass the ball laterally or backwards, never forward. This is probably the hardest thing to pick up for players accustomed to American football. While you can pass laterally, well, you’re still safer passing backwards because the SIR, which is what referees are called in rugby, may see the pass from a weird angle and think it has gone forward.

In such cases, your team will lose possession, and you will have to suck it up. Why? Because in rugby only the team captain can talk to the sir, who will not hesitate to yellow or red card players for illegal play or repeated instances of disrespect (if you’re like those Grizzlies who know their place around doms, then you’ll never get carded).

As in soccer, rugby uses LINE-OUTS if the ball is kicked, carried, or otherwise knocked out of bounds (also known as “goes into touch”). Unlike in soccer, these line-outs are contested, with both teams lifting at least one player whose job it is to win possession of the ball.

Also like in a soccer match, one may kick a loose ball down the pitch. While this can be effective if the kicker is fast, it is generally frowned upon and likely to get one accused of actually being a soccer player. There are also penalty kicks in rugby. These can result from high tackles or other egregious forms of play. (“Egregious?” those you who have a passing knowledge of rugby may ask. “Isn’t the whole game nothing but?” Though it looks that way, as the saying goes, “Football [soccer] is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”)

So, high tackling brings us to football. Like that American sport, rugby involves a lot of tackling. Unlike football, play does not stop at the tackle, but more on that in a moment…. Though rugby players are not allowed to wear hard pads or helmets, there are soft torso and shoulder pads and minion- or LEGO-looking monstrosities dubbed “scrum caps” to protect the ears of those who play a certain position. This padding is thin and minimal, so the most protection players afford themselves is a lowly mouth guard.

You might be wondering how much like Anastasia Steele one must be to play such a game with so little protection, but a key difference between rugby and American football, when it comes to tackling, is this: we don’t tackle our opponents with our heads.

Do players sometimes get concussions? Yes. I know someone who, at one point, got them like I got nose bleeds (honestly, the latter were so bad I’d slice OB tampons in half and stash a few in my pocket, ready to staunch the flow). But concussions from tackling in rugby happen when, for whatever reason—tackler’s fault or not—a tackle has gone wrong, not when it’s gone “right.”

In a further contrast to football, tackling someone or being tackled during a rugby match is not the end of that play, but merely the beginning of a new phase of play. Moreover, if you’re tackled and the person does not hold onto you, you can get back to your feet, step over the ball, snatch it up, and keep running. Like life, rugby is about nothing else if not commitment.

Once securely tackled, though, you will post the ball back toward your team, setting up the LINE OF SCRIMMAGE. Players from both sides have to approach that line through what is called THE GATE, which you establish based on the angle between your arms and legs when you post the ball.

Now, if your teammates and opponents get to you at the same time, they’ll set up what’s called a ruck atop you and the player(s) who tackled you. If possible, both of you need to get the f%#k out of the ruck ASAP because if you are on the ground, dear, you are the ground. That is, you can’t complain if you get cleated. Well, you can, but you’ll get no sympathy from the sir, who will be ordering you to “roll away.”

Sometimes, the tackle is messy, involving more than two people, and you’re unable to roll away, which sounds a lot better than “struggling-to-crawl-out-of-the-ruck-on-your-elbows-from-beneath-two-guys-whose-combined-weight-is-pushing-500 pounds-and-who-seem-interested-in-a-triad-all-while-trying-to-avoid-accidental-or-purposeful-cleating.” (Some of you, wistful for Folsom, might be thinking, ‘*Sounds like a Tuesday night*’, but you and me, no shade, flag different colors.)

In those times, when you can’t help but hear Bowie and Mercury sing about pressure, you’ll curl up in the fetal position, and cover your head with your arms while clenching your fists. (Trust me, when you do get cleated, that hooligan/gentleman line gets harder to reconcile.)

Other times, though, you don’t get tackled but your forward progress is halted by opposing players. Your teammates will rush up and, with you still standing, surround you and try to push you against the other team and move the ball down the pitch. This is called a MAUL. But the sir, whom I like think of as a “bossy bottom” in these moments, will be telling both teams as soon as the maul forms to “use it,” meaning they must move it one direction or the other, or he or she will “blow it up” by whistling and stopping play.

At that point, a SCRUM will be called. This is probably the most recognizable formation on the rugby pitch. In a scrum, eight players from each team will get into a formation that looks like two half-huddles about to crash into each other. In highly contested or sloppy matches, you’ll hear forwards from both teams joking to each other about how many scrums they have had to do.

Each team will also have a player called a SCRUM-HALF, who is like a quarterback from football except not, because the glory often goes to the faster guys whose hair never gets messed up (these people are known as BACKS).

In any event, when the scrum begins, the scrum-half whose team has possession of the ball will feed it into the middle of the group. Hopefully, the person on his team known as the HOOKER will hook the ball backwards using his foot, so the scrum-half can feed it to the back-line. Again, the backs are typically fast and in desperate need of a biscuit (a part of me really wants to make quote Tolkien’s Gollum—We hates them, Precious—but I was once a back…until carbs.)

Once the backs get the ball, they will—again, hopefully—run north-south (that is, down the pitch, never side to side) and score. In rugby, that is not called a touchdown but a TRY. Unlike the touchdowns in football, you cannot spike the ball in the TRY ZONE (AKA, the end zone). Rather, you must touch the ball down with control. If you lose control of the ball, or if you spike it because you grew up playing football and are so excited to relive your Pee-Wee glory days, then you’ll cost your team that five points and will be penalized for a KNOCK-ON (this happens if you pass the ball forward or it bounces off your body anywhere above your knees).

After you score a try, your team will get the chance to kick for two more points. Unlike football, this conversion kick must be in-line with where the try was scored. How far back you move the ball is up to you. Like football, you can use a tee, but you are also allowed to drop-kick for the conversion.

At that point, the kicker will race back to his side of the pitch because the other team gets to decide when they will kick off to re-start play. Unlike football, the team that just scored receives the kick-off. And it begins again and continues until the forty-minute halves are up.

If you’re lucky, while watching your first match, a player will score his or her first try. When this happens that player will have to run a ZULU. This sometimes takes place on the pitch or at the bar where the post-game social known as the THIRD HALF is held, and it involves the player racing a designated route completely naked while getting doused with beer.

So, even if you don’t drink, go to the third half, for those are (in)famous for their songs. A couple of titles should give you a hint as to what you should expect: “The S&M Man” and “Jesus Can’t Play Rugby.”

The take-away is this: in rugby, players leave it all on the field, then drink up and commiserate with their former opponents, and find a common pitch in irreverence. I’m biased, I know, but there’s no better sport that reveals the sportsmanship of all involved. To see this, all you need do is look beyond the blood, mud, and bruises.






Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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