[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 19 October 2007, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
All you need to know about rugby
England fans at the 02 arena in London

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Rugby union fever is sweeping England ahead of the World Cup final in Paris on Saturday. But many who have been caught up in the fervour remain clueless about the game itself and the culture surrounding it.

Traditionally dismissed by footballers as egg-chasers, it's the rugby players who will have all eyes on them this weekend. An estimated 15 million on this side of the Channel are expected to watch England play South Africa in the World Cup final in Paris.

Every so often a sport reaches out far beyond its normal fan base. But for many, rugby union is perplexing - arcane and, to some, elitist. The truth is it's not. So, from line-outs to player etiquette; fans' fashion to cauliflower ears, here the Magazine offers a crash course.


The story goes that rugby was born in 1823 at Rugby School when William Webb Ellis disregarded the rules of football, took the ball in his arms and ran with it. It has evolved a long way since, into a very technical sport, but you only need to know the basics to enjoy a match.

The BBC's Sarah Campbell, a delicately-built rugby innocent, ventured on to the battlefield at a school in west London to find out.

There she bravely interrogated the hulking Craig Dowd, a former New Zealand All Black, 6ft 3ins (1.91m) tall and 18 stones (114kg), for answers, as revealed in the videos on the right.


Despite the physical, even brutal, exchanges on the pitch, the aggression is largely within the laws of the game.

Lewis Moody and Sebastien Chabal
Violence over, let's have a drink
There is the odd scuffle and rugby had its own "Eric Cantona" moment when former Ireland international Trevor Brennan assaulted a fan and received a five-year ban.

But veteran footballer Jimmy Greaves says he is so impressed by rugby's spirit it has replaced football as his main sporting passion.

Others have detected a cultural shift from football to rugby but some believe that has been overplayed.

Key aspects to look out for in rugby include:

  • Low-key celebrations - no robotic dancing or going to the crowd
  • Any back-chat to the referee is punished by moving the penalty forward 10 yards
  • Players rarely fake injury
  • Gracious in defeat - handshakes, as in football, and "tunnels" of applause at pitch-side followed by socialising in the bar

Jeff Probyn, who played in the 1991 final loss to Australia, says rugby "teeters on the edge of violence and the self-control is part of that".

"Because it's such a physical game if you carried it on, you would end up fighting all the time and not playing, so within the individual players there's a self-control button."

Jeff Probyn
There are probably more thugs in rugby than in soccer, the only difference is they're on the pitch
Jeff Probyn
Former England player

Shaking hands at the end draws a line under the game, he says.

"Whatever goes on on the pitch stays there. Your opposite number may have spent the match kicking you but you shake his hand."

Probyn says it would be simplistic to think football is played by oiks and rugby by gentlemen.

"It's a bit unfair on soccer, which isn't generally a violent game. There's a lot of pressure on players and the authorities have allowed players to question referees.

"There are probably more thugs in rugby than in soccer, the only difference is they're on the pitch and that's a controlled area."


For those people new to following the oval-shaped balls, there's a number of key questions that need to be answered, such as what do I wear, what do I drink and how should I behave?

Rugby fan in Paris
1: Rugby shirt is a must (up-turned collar optional)
2: Lager, preferably bitter but never white wine
3: Stonewashed jeans, not shellsuit bottoms
4: Comfortable shoes such as deck shoes - no trainers

The outfit of the typical fan (pictured right) has long been rugby shirt, jeans and comfortable shoes. Unlike at Twickenham, where Barbour jackets and green wellies are also evident, England supporters in France have followed football's lead and dressed in anything from St George outfits to funny wigs.

While purists have always favoured bitter or Guinness as their bevvie of choice, the continental spirit that has imbued the current World Cup means newcomers will not be frowned on for drinking lager. However, white wine spritzers might be a cultural shift too far.

When in the stadium, there's no segregation - rival supporters sit side-by-side. Fans are expected to respect the anthems and allow players to prepare to kick penalties without being whistled.

And club allegiances are left at home. Whether fans support Wasps, Leicester or Sale simply doesn't matter following England.


Unlike in football, the repertoire of songs for England supporters is quite small, with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot the main anthem:


Most computers will open this document automatically, but you may need Adobe Reader

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

(Print out the full lyrics using the link, right.)

And if you really want to rub it in, here's the Afrikaans translation:

Hang laag liewe strydwa
Want jy moet my huis toe vat
Hang laag liewe strydwa
Want jy moet my huis toe vat

Why don't rugby players have mid-life crises?
They stay stuck in adolescence
Why do rugby players like smart women?
Opposites attract

The spiritual slave-song was written 150 years ago and adopted by the Twickenham faithful in 1988 when England beat Ireland.

According to rugby legend, it was first sung that day by a section of supporters from the Douai School in Woolhampton, who were inspired by three tries scored by the Nigerian-born Chris Oti in front of where they sat, in the lower east stand.

But Swing Low is not to the taste of all England supporters and some prefer Jerusalem.


Rugby's defining scar of battle, hematoma auris, or cauliflower ears, can afflict any sportsman that risks a head injury.

After a sharp blow, a large blood clot develops under the skin and blocks the flow of blood to the cartilage, that gives the ear its shape. If the cartilage dies, the ear shrivels and becomes lumpy.

England coach Graham Rowntree
Graham Rowntree played without a scrum hat
Some players, like former England lock forward Alex Codling, managed to keep their ears fully-formed throughout their careers.

"I've worn a scrum hat for many, many years and that's the easiest way to avoid it," he says. "Before becoming professional, at school, I wore tape. Some players are uncomfortable wearing it but I didn't mind."

He says one common remedy for team mates was the use of leeches to suck out the fluid.

More conventional treatment involves draining the blood and reconnecting the skin to the cartilage, but going back on a rugby pitch to do battle once more disrupts this recovery.

Jeff Probyn has one cauliflower ear, his right, from a blow he received from the boot of a Wasps team mate in 1986.

"I drained it three or four times and my wife stuck a pin in it but I got fed up with it and never bothered. If a player is that bothered he can get it operated on, unless he wants to wear it as a badge of honour."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I know lots of "rugby fans" but very few have been to watch a league match - revealing themselves as international part-time, armchair fans. Rugby may be "on the up" this week but the proof of the pudding will be in the crowds at domestic games.
Andrew, Newbury

My wife is an avid football fan and goes to all the Reading home games. Two years ago I took her to see London Irish play Harlequins. She was amazed to see no segregation of fans, most people enjoying a pint (Guinness of course) on the terraces and the friendly banter between the "rival" fans. I have not yet converted her bet carry on trying.
Peter Mills, Bracknell

Just look at the passion with which the players sing anthems. England-Russia - pathetic. England-France - Dallaglio had veins popping out of his head he was singing with such passion. Enough said... come on England!
Marion, Cambridge

Dear Rich from Newcastle, you should hang your head in shame. Footballers are, generally, overpaid under performers. They appear to take little pride in their 'work' and are disrespectful of anyone who questions them, especially the officials. It stinks of a genuine lack of morals and pride. Unlike the rugby lads who give their all and more in the name of the game. Come on England....
Jason, Fleet, Hants

Andrew. I fully agree. Many of the 15 million people will go straight back to round ball. Anyway, back on subject... being a recent convert from football (well 12 years to be precise) I can honestly say that it was the best choice I have ever made. I love the game. My highlight was going to Croke Park and sitting next to a die hard Ireland fan. He had huge shamrock tattoos on his arms, the works! He was the most gentle soul I have ever met. I was expecting him to cause trouble for me and my friends but he was buying us drinks, chatting freely to us and even applauded the one good move by England. You never see that in football. Rugby is all about respect and togetherness. The same can't be said to football. Come on England!
Scott Holland, Northwich

I grew up within sight and sound of the hallowed turf of Kingsholm rugby ground in Gloucester and with that experienced the mingling, singing and indeed drinking of rival fans. Never did I experience the edgy, lagered up, something is going to kick off feeling I now get if I'm in the area of a number of London football clubs on match day. I think rugby is less tribal, more social much like cricket, an excuse to enjoy a bevy and talk balls...
Richard, London

Swing Low was probably adopted as England's "anthem" because it is a song that all rugby players know. It has been sung in rugby clubs throughout the land for many years - long before 1988.
Len Jones, Westcliff on Sea, UK

I'm sick of all this rugby is great football is rubbish. I love football and always will no matter how often the players argue with the ref and how over the top goal celebrations are. Rugby is ok and I'll be watching it on Saturday hoping that we win but I don't see why just because the rugby team and doing well we have to always slate the footballers by saying football is all wrong. How often do you see a footballer stamp his studs on an opponents chest or throw a punch without being sent off and slaughtered in the press, it happens in rugby most games.
Rich, Newcastle

Bit of a sweeping statement on the stone washed jeans front. Chinos, shorts, kilts and cords are also common place. Here's hoping the football fraternity have learned something from this world cup, how to behave in front of the referee, respect your opponent and entertain the fans. Unlikely right enough. Good luck England.
Scottie, Scotland

'Sweet Chariot' is only the main English anthem; supporters of other rugby-playing nations - including Wales, Ireland and Scotland - have other songs. Besides, the repertoire of songs sung in the bar after the match by all supporters can be much larger (though not necessarily suitable for this website!).
Huw B, London

I've never been a rugby fan until the last world cup. What is amazing is how the England team surprise us again and again while the football team disappoint us again and again. It is so encouraging to see how the rugby boys fight back and no wonder the game is on the up.
Christina Spybey, London, United Kingdom

"Swing lo ..." goes back a few years more than 1988. In 1959 when playing for The Royal Leicestershire Regiment in Germany, it was a prerequisite at the after-game booze-up - complete with hand gestures!
David, London

The difference between football and rugby can be summed up in one word, "Respect'. How many times have you seen football fans clap an opponent's goal? You often see opponents tries and skill clapped in rugby. Which ever way the game goes on Saturday I will be proud of England if they do their best and should S Africa win, good luck to them.
Ian, Leicester

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific