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Monday, 31 January, 2000, 15:23 GMT
A beginner's guide to ... rugby laws

Click below for an explanation of:

Moving the ball
Set plays
Other terms

The game

Duration: A game of rugby consists of two halves of 40 minutes with injury time added on at the end of each half. This is not as long as you might expect, because physiotherapists are often allowed onto the pitch while play continues.

Referee, England vs France The referee: Signalling a penalty
Players: Each side consists of 15 players, divided into eight forwards and seven backs. A total of seven substitutes are allowed for international matches.

(There are also seven and 10-man versions of rugby union, played almost exclusively at tournaments.)

Officials: There is one referee assisted by two touch judges, who mark where the ball goes out of play, adjudge kicks at goal and inform the referee of foul play.

A fourth official controls replacements and substitutes. There is no video referee.


The object of the game is to score more points than your opponents. There are a number of ways to achieve this.

Try: A try is worth five points. It is scored when a player places the ball on the ground with downward pressure in the in-goal area between the try line and dead ball line of the opposition's half.

Will Greenwood scores vs Canada The try: Must have "downward pressure"

Wales vs Argentina The tackle: There is no limit on the number of tacklers
Kicking: Kicking forms a major part of rugby and is used to start and restart the game, score points, win territory, launch an attack or get a team out of trouble (known as a clearance kick).

If the ball is kicked directly into touch by a player from behind his own 22m line, the resulting lineout is taken where the ball crossed the touchline.

But if he is outside his 22, the lineout is taken level with the place from where the ball was kicked (except in the case of penalties).

Players must be behind the kicker for all set piece kicks, such as kick-offs. But if a kick is made in loose play, then players can be in front of the kicker, although they must not advance towards where the ball is going to land until the kicker has put them onside by getting in front of them.

Players use a wide range of kicks, such as the high, hanging up-and-under/garryowen/bomb; the end-over-end grubber kick; or the speculative chip-and-chase.

Tackling: Only a player in possession of the ball can be tackled. American football-style blocking is not allowed. A tackled player must release the ball after he hits the ground. Neither he nor the tackler can play the ball until they are on their feet.

It is illegal to high tackle above the shoulders, or to "spike" a player by deliberately upending him onto his head. The same goes for the late tackle - taking the player after he has passed or kicked the ball.

It is also illegal to punch, gouge, stamp on or kick another player.

Heavy tackles are colloquially known as dump tackles, while an attempt to prevent the ball being released quickly is sometimes called a smother tackle.

Other terms: Hand-off - a player in possession of the ball fends off a tackler with the flat of his hand; Dummy- sending a defending player the wrong way by faking a pass; sidestep or jink escaping a tackler by stepping around him.


Knock-on/knock-forward: The ball goes forward off the hands or arms of a player and hits the ground or another player. Results in a scrum with the put-in to the opposition.

Forward pass: The ball fails to travel backwards in a pass. Scrum to the opposition.

Oz du Randt knocks on for South Africa The knock-on: The ball is knocked forward
Ball not released: When the ball becomes trapped in a pile up of players, a scrum is awarded to the attacking team if the ball is in contact with the ground and to the defending team if it is held up off the ground.

Scrums can also be awarded if the ball is not thrown into the line-out straight; a restart kick is done incorrectly; the ball is thrown into the lineout incorrectly; a player carries the ball over his own try-line and touches down in-goal; for accidental offside; or a scoring player fails to ground the ball properly in the in-goal area.

Offside: Hideously complicated. Basically, players not involved in rucks, mauls, scrums or lineouts must remain behind the back foot - that is, behind the last attached player.

Penalty: Penalties are awarded for serious infringements like dangerous play, offside and handling the ball on the ground. It is signalled by the referee with a straight arm raised in the air. Players can also receive red and yellow cards, as in football.

The offending team must retire 10 yards for both penalties and free kicks. A team can either kick for goal, run the ball or kick directly into touch with the resulting line-out awarded to them.

Free-kick: This is a lesser form of the penalty. A team cannot kick for goal (unless it is a drop goal). The normal 22 rule applies for kicking for position from a free kick. It is signalled by the referee with a bent arm raised in the air.

Set play/set pieces

Scrum: The eight forwards from each team bind together and push against each other. The scrum-half from the team that has been awarded possession feeds the ball into the centre of the scrum from the side most advantageous for his hooker.

The ball must be fed straight down the middle of the tunnel and the hookers must not contest for the ball until it is put in. If they do, a free-kick is awarded for "foot up".

Lawrence Dallaglio versus France The scrum: The number eight makes the gain line
The scrum is taken again if the ball comes straight out of the tunnel; or it wheels more than 90°; or it collapses.

Lineout: A maximum of seven and a minimum of three forwards line up parallel with each other between the five-yard and 15-yard lines. The hooker of the team in possession throws the ball in, while his opposite number stands in the "tramlines" - between the touchline and the five-yard line.

All players not involved in the lineout, except the scrum-half, must retire10 yards.

The ball must be thrown in straight down the middle of the lineout and the hooker must not cross into the field of play while throwing in.

Jumpers can be lifted by their team mates, but the opposition's jumpers must not be obstructed, barged or pulled down.

Loose play

Ruck: A ruck is formed when two or more players from opposing sides arrive at a breakdown in play and the ball is on the ground.

Maul: A maul is essentially the same thing, but the ball is held off the ground by a player.


Kick-off: A coin is tossed and the winning captain elects to take or receive the kick.

Both halves of the match are started with a place kick from the centrepoint of the halfway line. The kick must cross the opposition's 10-yard line, which the opposition are not allowed to encroach beyond until the ball is kicked.

If the ball does not travel 10-yards; or it goes straight into touch; or it goes over the dead ball line at the end of the pitch the receiving team can opt for a scrum or a kick again.

After a score, the game is restarted from the same place under the same restrictions, with the conceding team drop-kicking the ball to the scoring team.

22 drop-out: A drop-kick is taken from the 22m line if a team touches down in its own in-goal area, but did not carry the ball over the try-line; or if the ball is kicked over the dead-ball line from any other play than the kick-off.

The ball only needs to cross the line, but if it goes directly into touch a scrum is awarded to the receiving team at the centrepoint of the 22m line.

Other terms

Blindside: The narrow side of the pitch in relation to a scrum or a breakdown in play.

Openside: The broad side of the pitch in relation to a scrum or a breakdown in play.

Gain line: A hypothetical line beyond which the attacking team must progress to gain territory after a set piece or a breakdown in play.

Phase: Roughly, a phase is the time a ball is in play between breakdowns. For example, first phase would be winning the ball at the lineout, and passing to a centre who is tackled.

Second phase would be winning the ball back from the ensuing breakdown and attacking again

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