England take on Argentina in what is the first game of an epic Autumn Internationals Series at Twickenham! For rugby fans across England, this is the once chance each year to see Courtney Lawes and co take on the best of the Southern Hemisphere on the hallowed turf of the ‘Old Cabbage’ patch.

Whether you’re an ardent egg chaser or simply enjoy the legendary rugby social more than the game itself, we’ve put together this handy little guide to help you through the intricacies of what can be quite a confusing sport.

From handoffs to hookers and mauls to mulligrubbers, take a look at our guide to rugby union and you’ll be an expert before the next big game.

Objective of The Game

Rugby is a game in which the object is to carry the ball over the opponents’ goal-line and force it to the ground to score.

Sound too Easy?

There is one vital catch to the above description. To go forward, the ball must be passed backwards. The ball can be kicked forwards, but the kicker’s team-mates must be behind the ball when the ball is kicked.

This apparent contradiction creates a need for teamwork and structure, as little can be achieved by any one individual player. Only by working as a team can players move the ball forward towards their opponents’ goal-line.

Like all sports, rugby certainly has its unique aspect, but it is essentially about the creation and use of space. The winners of a game of rugby will be the team of players who can get themselves and the ball into space and use that space wisely, while denying the opposing team both possession of the ball and access to space in which to use it.

The Positions:

There are eight ‘forwards’ and seven ‘backs’. There are common names for positions, but some regional variations may exist.

Positions By Number:

  1. Loosehead Prop
  2. Hooker
  3. Tighthead Prop
  4. Second Row (alternatively named lock in some regions)
  5. Second Row (alternatively named lock in some regions)
  6. Blindside Flanker
  7. Openside Flanker
  8. Number 8
  9. Scrum Half
  10. Fly Half (alternatively named first five-eighth in some regions)
  11. Left Wing
  12. Inside Centre (alternatively named second five-eighth in some regions)
  13. Outside Centre
  14. Right Wing
  15. Fullback


How Are Points Scored?

There are four main ways to score points in the game of rugby.

Try – 5 points

A try is scored when the ball is grounded over the opponents’ goal-line in the in-goal area.

A penalty try can be awarded if a player would have scored a try but for foul play by the opposition. A penalty try is now worth seven points with no conversion attempted.

Penalty – 3 points

When awarded a penalty after an infringement by the opposition, a team may choose to kick at goal.

Conversion – 2 points

After scoring a try, that team can attempt to add two further points by kicking the ball over the crossbar and between the posts from a place in line with where the try was scored.

The conversion kick can be taken either as a place kick (from the ground) or a drop kick.

Drop goal – 3 points

A drop goal is scored when a player kicks for goal in open play by dropping the ball onto the ground and kicking it on the half-volley.

What Happens During ‘Open Play’?

The term ‘open play’ refers to any phase in the match where the ball is being passed or kicked between team-mates and both teams are contesting for the ball. In open play, the team in possession tries to get the ball to players in space who can make forward progress towards the opposing goal-line.


Each half of the match is started with a drop kick from the centre of the halfway line. The non-kicking team must be 10 metres back from the ball when it is kicked and the kick must travel 10m towards the opposition goal-line before hitting the ground.


A player may pass to a team-mate who is in a better position, but the pass must not travel towards the opposing team’s goal-line. It must travel either directly across the field, or back in the direction of the passer’s own goal-line.

By carrying the ball forwards and passing backwards, territory is gained.

If a forward pass is made, the referee will stop the game and award a scrum with the put-in going to the team which was not in possession at the time of the pass. In this way, a forward pass is punished by that team losing possession of the ball.


When a player mishandles the ball, i.e. drops it or allows it to rebound off a hand or arm, and the ball travels forwards, it is known as a knock-on. This is punishable by a scrum to the opposition and therefore a turnover of possession.

Why Are They Kicking The Ball So Much?

If a player chooses not to pass the ball to a team-mate or run with it, that player may kick the ball instead. The kick can travel forwards, but any team-mates in front of the ball when the ball is kicked are out of play (offside) until either they retreat behind the kicker or are played onside by a team-mate who was behind the kicker.

Retaining possession of the ball following a kick is a challenge. Kicking strategies include:

  • kicking into space, so that team-mates have time to run onto the ball before an opponent can get to it
  • kicking out wide, at an oblique angle to the field, so that the winger or outside centre can catch the ball
  • kicking the ball to touch (off the field of play) resulting in a lineout with the throw-in to the opposition. This concedes possession of the ball but allows the kicking team to contest for the ball in a much more advantageous position on the field.


Where The Action Gets Physical – The Ruck, Maul and Tackle

As well as being an evasion game which requires creation and use of space, rugby is also a contact sport. In fact, contact situations can be the very mechanism by which players create the space they need to attack. The three most common contact situations which occur in open play are the tackle, the ruck, and the maul.

The tackle

Only the ball carrier can be tackled by an opposing player. A tackle occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground, i.e. has one or both knees on the ground, is sitting on the ground or is on top of another player who is on the ground.

To maintain the continuity of the game, the ball carrier must release the ball immediately after the tackle, the tackler must release the ball carrier and both players must roll away from the ball. This allows other players to come in and contest for the ball, thereby starting a new phase of play.

The ruck

A ruck is formed if the ball is on the ground and one or more players from each team who are on their feet close around it. Players must not handle the ball in the ruck and must use their feet to move the ball or drive over it so that it emerges at the team’s hindmost foot, at which point it can be picked up.

The maul

A maul occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and one or more of the ball carrier’s team-mates holds on (binds) as well (a maul therefore needs a minimum of three players).

The ball must be off the ground and the team in possession of the ball can attempt to gain territory by driving their opponents back towards the opponents’ goal line. The ball can then be moved backwards between players in the maul and eventually passed to a player who is not in the maul, or a player can leave the maul carrying the ball and run with it.

What Is the Scrum All About!?

The scrum is a means of restarting play after a stoppage which has been caused by a minor infringement of the Laws (for example, a forward pass or knock-on) or the ball becoming unplayable in a ruck or maul. The scrum serves to concentrate all the forwards and the scrum-halves in one place on the field, providing the opportunity for the backs to mount an attack using the space created elsewhere.

In 15-a-side rugby there are eight players in the scrum on each team and in rugby sevens each side has three. The ball is thrown into the middle of the tunnel between the two front rows, at which point the two hookers can compete for the ball, attempting to hook the ball back in the direction of their team-mates. The team who throws the ball into the scrum usually retains possession, because the hooker and scrum-half can synchronise their actions.

Once possession has been secured, a team can keep the ball on the ground and in the scrum and attempt to drive the opposition down field. Alternatively, they can bring the ball to the hindmost foot of the scrum, where the ball is then passed into the backline and open play resumes.

What Happens When The Ball Goes Into Touch?

The lineout is a means of restarting play after the ball has gone into touch (off the field of play at the side). The lineout concentrates a selection of forwards in one place near to the touchline, so the backs have the rest of the width of the field in which to mount an attack. The key for the forwards is to win possession and distribute the ball effectively to the backline.

The forwards assemble in two lines, perpendicular to the touchline, one metre apart. The hooker throws the ball down the corridor between these two lines of players. Because the thrower’s team-mates know where the throw is likely to go, that team has an advantage in retaining possession. However, with speed of thought and movement, the opposition can contest for the ball and the lineout frequently results in a turnover of possession.

The player who successfully catches the ball can keep it and set up a maul, or can pass to the receiver (a player who stands next to the lineout to wait for such a pass) who then passes to the fly-half and on to the backline.

Lifting at the Lineout

To allow players to catch high throws in the lineout, it is permissible for the catcher to be supported by team-mates while jumping to catch the ball.

Safety is a prime concern here, and any player who is off the ground must be supported until that player returns to the ground. A player may not be tackled while in the air, and holding, shoving, or levering on an opponent are all offences punishable with a penalty.

What Does Offside Mean?

Rugby’s offside Law restricts where on the field players can be, to ensure there is space to attack and defend.

A player is in an offside position if that player is further forward (nearer to the opponents’ goal-line) than the team-mate who is carrying the ball or the team-mate who last played the ball. Being in an offside position is not, in itself, an offence, but an offside player may not take part in the game until they are onside again. If an offside player takes part in the game, that player will be penalised.

In a tackle or ruck situation, offside lines are created at a tackle when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball, which is on the ground. Each team’s offside line runs parallel to the goal line through the hindmost point of any player in the tackle or on their feet over the ball.

Advantage? Isn’t that tennis?

The advantage Law in rugby union allows the game to be more continuous and have fewer stoppages. Sometimes, during a game, an infringement of the Laws may be committed where a stoppage in play would deprive the non-offending team of an opportunity to score.

Even though the Laws state that the non-offending team should be awarded a penalty, free-kick or scrum, they are given the opportunity to continue with open play and attempt to score a try.

In this instance, the referee will allow play to continue rather than penalise the offence.

How Are Penalties Enforced?

Infringements of the Laws which have a material and significant impact on the opposition are punished with the award of a penalty kick. If the place where the penalty is awarded is within range of the posts, the team will usually choose to kick for a goal from a place kick. The ball is placed on a kicking tee and the kicker attempts to kick it between the posts and over the crossbar. Three points are awarded for a successful kick.

A team may choose not to kick for goal. Other options include a scrum, a ‘quick penalty’ to bring the ball into open play, or kicking for touch (where the kicking team has the throw in to the resulting lineout).

A free-kick is awarded for less significant offences. A team may not score points directly from a free-kick. A team may opt for a scrum instead of a free-kick.

Why Did the Referee Blow The Whistle?

For anyone who is not familiar with the finer points of the Laws of rugby it can sometimes be hard to tell why the referee has stopped play for an infringement. Here we look at some of the most common reasons why the whistle may have blown:

  • Advantage being played
  • Forward pass or knock-on
  • Failure to release player or ball
  • Failure to roll away
  • Joining ruck/maul from the side
  • Unplayable ball at ruck or maul

Glossary Of Key Rugby Terminology

Ankle tap – An ankle-tap or tap-tackle is a form of tackle. It is used when the player carrying the ball is running at speed and a defending player is approaching from behind. The defender dives to deliver a tap to the attacker’s foot (or feet) causing the player to stumble.

Blindside – The narrow side of the pitch in relation to a scrum or a breakdown in play; it is the opposite of open side. The blindside flanker is expected to cover the opposing team open side at scrum and breakdown.

Blitz defence – A defensive technique which relies on the whole defensive line moving forward towards their marked man as one, as soon as the ball leaves the base of a ruck or maul.

Blood bin or blood replacement – a player who has a visible bleeding injury may be replaced for up to fifteen minutes (running time not game time), during which he or she may receive first-aid treatment to stop the flow of blood and dress the wound. The player may then return to the pitch to continue playing.

Box-kick – This is a kick taken from behind a scrum, normally by the scrum-half, in which he turns away from the scrum facing the touchline, and kicks the ball back over the scrum into the clear “box” of space behind the opposition to allow his own team to chase through and regain the ball in undefended territory.

Breakdown – The breakdown is a colloquial term for the period immediately after a tackle and the ensuing ruck.

Conversion – If a team scores a try, they have an opportunity to convert it for two further points by kicking the ball through the goal.

Crash ball – An attacking tactic where a player receives a pass at pace and runs directly at the opposition’s defensive line. The crash ball runner attempts to commit two or more opposing players to the tackle, then attempts to make the ball available to team-mates by off-loading in the tackle or recycling the ball quickly from the ruck.

Dummy runner – another offensive tactic; a player on the attacking team runs towards the opposition as if running onto a pass, only for the ball to be passed to another player, carried on by the ball carrier or kicked forwards. As with a dummy pass, this tactic draws defenders away from the ball and creates space for the attacking team.

Dummy pass – an attacking manoeuvre, where the ball carrier moves as if to pass the ball to a team-mate, but then continues to run with the ball himself; the objective is to trick defenders into marking the would-be pass receiver, creating a gap for the ball carrier to run into.

Garryowen – A Garryowen or up and under kick, is a high short punt onto or behind the defending team.

Grubber kick – a type of kick which makes the ball roll and tumble across the ground, producing irregular bounces making it hard for the defending team to pick up the ball without causing a knock-on. It gives the ball both high and low bounce and on occasions, the ball can sit up in a perfect catching position.

Haka – The haka is a traditional Maori dance performed by the New Zealand All Blacks immediately prior to international matches. It serves as a challenge to the opposing team.

Hand-off – Handing off (also called fend) is the action by the ball carrier of repelling a tackler using his arm. For the action to be legal, the ball carrier’s arm must be straight before contact is made; a

Hooker – the player who is in the centre position of the front row of the scrum and who uses his/her feet to ‘hook’ the ball back. Hookers also normally throw the ball in at lineouts.

Mulligrubber – a type of kick which  is directed towards the ground and forced to bounce. Often used in situations where either the ball needs to be placed in a specific position.

Openside – the broad side of the pitch in relation to a scrum or a breakdown in play. The openside flanker is expected to cover the cover the opposing team openside at scrum and breakdown. It is the opposite of blindside.

Sin bin – The notional area where a player must remain for a minimum of ten minutes after being shown a yellow card. In high level games, the sin bin is monitored by the fourth official.

Spear tackle – a dangerous tackle in which a player is picked up by the tackler and turned so that they are upside down. The tackler then drops or drives the player into the ground often head, neck or shoulder first.

Turnover – when a team concedes possession of the ball, particularly at the breakdown, they are said to have turned the ball over to the other team. This can happen due to defending players stealing the ball from an isolated attacker, counter rucking, a knock on, an intercepted pass or the ball not emerging from a maul (wherein the referee awards the scrum feed to opposing team).

“Use it or lose it” – If a maul stops moving forward the referee will often shout “use it or lose it” to the team in possession of the ball. This means they must pass the ball within a five-second time period.