Rugby in the modern age is a high-paced game of skill and attrition in which 15 players on opposing sides spend 80 minutes hammering away at each other’s goal line. Watching a game, however, how can you spot the difference between a ruck and a maul? And why does the referee keep blowing their whistle at what sometimes seems like every few minutes? We’ve done all the hard work and compiled the following guide for everything you need to know during a game.
How does one keep score?
The basic aim in a game of rugby is to score more points than the opposition over two 40-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime break. Points can be scored in four different ways:
Try: A player on the attacking team presses the ball down in an opponent’s in-goal area or on their goal line. Scoring a try is worth five points and earns the scoring team the right to attempt a conversion.
Conversion: A conversion is taken from a spot on the field of play in line with where the ball was originally grounded in the opposition’s in-goal area, so it’s obviously better to score as close to the uprights as possible. A successful conversion is worth two points, and is sometimes referred to during commentary as “adding the extras.”
Penalty kick: Penalties for various infractions can be used to take a shot at a goal via a place kick. A successful kick is worth three points.
Drop goal: A team is awarded three points when a player successfully slots a drop-kick through the uprights in open play. The best example of this is Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal against South Africa in extra time to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003.
What are those commentators saying during a game?
Releasing the ball: When a player is tackled, they must release the ball once they are on the ground.
Ruck: A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team who are on their feet and in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground.
Maul: A maul forms when a player carrying the ball is held off the ground by one or more opponents, and one or more of the ball carrier’s teammates bind onto them.
Scrum: In the event of an infraction by either team, eight players in the forward packs of each team bind together and try to push the other team off the ball. The team awarded a scrum has an advantage because it puts the ball into the scrum on a signal from their hooker, who then rakes the ball back to their side.
Lineout: A lineout is contested when a ball goes outside the field of play. The teams line up side by side, with the advantage to the team throwing the ball in as they call out a play and supporting players can assist to lift the jumping player.
Why did the referee just blow their whistle?
Offside: In general, a player is in an offside position if that player is positioned further forward — that is, nearer to the opponents’ goal line — than the teammate who is carrying the ball or the teammate who last played the ball. Being in an offside position is not, in itself, an offense, but an offside player may not take part in the game until they are on-side again.
Forward pass or knock-on: If a pass goes forward or a handling error has resulted in a knock-on by the attacking team, a scrum will be awarded to the opposing team.
Failure to release player or ball: After a tackle, the tackler must immediately release the ball carrier and the ball carrier must release the ball. If release does not occur within a reasonable time frame, the referee will award a penalty to the opposing team.
Failure to roll away: Any players on the ground when a ruck or maul is formed must immediately roll away from the ball, so as to allow continuity of play for the team in possession. Failure to do so will result in the award of a penalty to the opposing team.
Joining a ruck/maul from the side: When joining a ruck or maul, all players must do so from behind the feet of the last teammate. If they join from the side, they are in an offside position and a penalty will be awarded to the opposing team.
Unplayable ball in ruck or maul: If the ball becomes unplayable in a ruck or maul (for example, it’s trapped underneath players on the ground but neither team is at fault), the referee will award a scrum to the team who was in possession before the ruck or maul was formed. If it’s not clear who was in possession, the referee will generally award the scrum to the team going forward.
Dangerous play: World Rugby has cracked down on dangerous play in recent years, and players are now strictly forbidden from tackling an opposition player in the air or above the line of the shoulders. Failure to abide by such rules can result in a penalty to the opposing team and, potentially, a yellow or red card, which will then require the player at fault to spend some time in the sin bin.
Once the whistle blows, what happens next?
Most infractions ultimately have three consequences. If the infraction is severe and within kicking range, it’s most likely teams will be awarded a penalty and opt to take a shot at goal. However, they can instead elect to kick the ball out deep into opposition territory and earn the right of throwing the ball into the subsequent lineout in an attempt to score a try.
More minor infractions tend to result in a scrum, although it’s worth noting that teams that have been awarded a penalty also have the option of choosing to feed a scrum where the infraction took place instead of kicking for goal or touch.