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Your FAQs on rugby

(1) History of the Rugby Union (2) Organisation of Rugby Union

(3) Playing the game (4) Terminology


What are the origins of rugby?

There is not definitive history of where rugby came from or when or how. The game is likely to have started as an amalgamation of soccer and other games including the Eton Wall Game and Winchester football.

The most famous, and widespread, legend on the founding of the game says the game originated at Rugby school in England, hence the name, when one of the pupils, a 16-year-old William Webb Ellis, picked up the ball during a game of soccer in 1823 and ran with it. Of course the story is most likely apocryphal, since games of some description, involving running with ball in hand, had existed for centuries before that.

Despite the historical unreliablilty of the Webb Ellis story, it has become an enduring part of the game and the Rugby World Cup trophy is named the Webb Ellis Cup.

What are the differences between Rugby Union and Rugby League?

Rugby union and Rugby League are two separate games that evolved from a common rugby origin, and although they share many common features, the differences are marked.

Despite their origins, Union and League are now best regarded as different sports – though the styles of player and play have become increasingly similar in recent years.

The main differences in laws, is that League teams have only 13 players whereas Rugby Union has 15. In Union line-outs are used to re-start play when the ball goes out of play.

The scoring is different too. A League try is worth four points while Union's is valued a five; a drop goal in League counts for just one point while in Union it is worth three; a League penalty clocks up two points and the Union version three but a conversion kick following a try is worth two points in both codes.

In League an attacking team can only be tackled six times each attack before the ball is turned over, where as in Union there is unlimited tackles.

Rugby League has always been professional, where as payment for players in Union was only legalised in 1995 (see more below).

Why did they split?

The original split in 1895 was over the issue of paying players. Rugby Union held out as a strictly amateur sport, ie playing for no financial benefit, whereas Rugby League allowed professionalism in the game. The split was very acrimonious and the issue was one of the most divisive issues in the sport.

For a 100 years, at least on the surface, the Union code stuck to their principles and steadfastly refused to permit player payments of any kind, including things such as boot sponsorship and book deals. It was also against the Union rules on amateurism for union players to be involved in any way with league. Anyone who turned to league to earn a living was banned from playing the Union game ever again.

However, as the 20th century progressed the amateur status of the game was under increasing pressure. In August 1995, in the face of widespread abuses (in the form of under the table payments, player trust funds, etc) and pressure from the top players who were being expected to put in many hours of training in an era of increasing media interest in the game, the game's governing body the IRB finally relinquished and Rugby Union became fully professional at all levels.


Where is the game of Rugby Union played?

Rugby Union is the more popular code of rugby on a global scale and is played in over 100 countries worldwide. As of 2000, there were 92 official Unions making up the International Rugby Board (see below) or IRB.

The traditional powerhouses of rugby union in terms of popularity, numbers of people playing the game and international sucess remain the 'Home Unions' of England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales as well as France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

What are the major international competitions?

International rugby currently revolves around a cycle building towards the Rugby World Cup, which has been staged in a different host country every four years since the inaugural tournament in 1987 in New Zealand and Australia.

Along the way there are two major annual international competitions; the Six Nations in Europe and the Tri-Nations in the southern hemisphere with other Test matches spread in between, most notably in June when sides from the north tour southern hemisphere countries and vice versa in November

The Six Nations tournament was borne out of the Five Nations which is the oldest, and probably most famous, competitive rugby union tournament in the world. It is contested by England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. For more information, check the Six Nations section.

The Tri-Nations, first contested in 1996, sees New Zealand, South Africa and Australia compete every June/July/August. For more information, and a full history, click here.

What is Rugby Sevens?

Rugby Sevens is an abbreviated format of Rugby Union. Instead of having 15 players on the pitch, each side only has seven comprising of three 'forwards' and four 'backs' (see below for definitions). Most of the rules are similar to that of the 15-man game except the games are shorter, normally between 10 and 20 mins. Games are usually fast paced and high scoring with handling and good tackling at a premium. The creation of the World Sevens Series competition has given fresh impetus to this form of rugby. There is also 'Rugby Tens' played to a lesser degree, the difference being that you have five forwards and five backs.

Who are what is the governing body for rugby, what do they do and where are they based?

The governing body for international rugby is the International Rugby board (IRB), who are based in Dublin, Ireland. Their website is

The IRB are responsible for deciding and implementing the laws of the game, which can be found in this section. The IRB are the umbrella organisation of the international game, with the individual national rugby unions governing rugby – under the IRB laws – in their own countries, for example the South African Rugby Football Association (SARFU) who run the game in South Africa, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) who administer the game in England.


How do you score points in Rugby Union?

For a proper explanation on scoring, check out Law 9.

The values of scoring in Rugby Union has undergone a number of changes since 1871. The last change to the scoring values was when a 'try' (i.e touching the ball down in an opponents’ in-goal area) was increased from four points to five points in 1992. The first player to score a five points try was Inga Tuigamala for New Zealand against Australia in Sydney in July 1992.

Until 1971 a try had only been worth three points but in the modern era, the desire to see more running rugby, opposed to the use of the boot, has meant the authorities have wanted to reward teams more for scoring tries. 

What are the positions and numbering in rugby?

1. Loosehead prop

2. Hooker

3. Tighthead prop

4. Second-row or Lock

5. Second-row or Lock

6. Blindside flanker

7. Openside flanker

8. No.8

9. Scrum-half (also known as half-back)

10. fly-half (also known as stand-off or out-half or first five-eighth)

11. Left wing

12. Inside centre

13. Outside centre

14. Right wing

15. Fullback

What is the difference between a tightead and a loosehead prop?

A loosehead prop lines up for the scrum on the left hand side of the hooker in the front-row, and the tigthead on the right hand side of the hooker. When the two front-rows interlock with each other for the scrum, the loosehead has one side of his head out of the scrum (the left side), and scrummages against the opposition tighthead. The tighthead has both sides of his head in the scrum, and scrummages against the loosehead.

What is the difference between a blindside and openside flanker?

The blindside or 'shortside' relates to the position on the pitch where the ball is. For example if the ball is near the left hand touchline, anything left of the ball would be referred to as the 'blindside' (the smaller side), and anything right of the ball would be 'openside' (the bigger side). A blindside flanker therefore is the flanker who takes the blindside position in the scrum. For example if there was a scrum near the left hand touchline, the blindside flanker would scrummage on the left side of the scrum, and the openside on the right. If the scrum forms exactly in the centre of the pitch then there would be no specific blindside or openside, and flankers would generally agree to scrummage on either the right or the left.


Who or what are the Lions?

'The Lions' is a nick-name for a team that is made up from players from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales – i.e the British Isles or 'Home Unions'. Used to be called the British Lions but in deference to the Irish players it is now called just the Lions. It is not known who came up with the name but it has its origins in the 1920s.

The team usually tours every four years to South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. The last tour was to Australia in 2001 and the next tour is planned for New Zealand in 2005.

What are the nicknames of international rugby teams?

The nicknames of rugby teams are wide and varied. Here is a selection of some of the more renowned rugby nicknames.

Australia – The Wallabies

New Zealand – The All Blacks

South Africa – The Springboks

Argentina – The Pumas

Italy – The Azzurri

France – Les Bleus

Uruguay – Los Teros

USA – The Eagles

Who or what are the Barbarians?

The Barbarians, or Baa-baas as they are sometimes referred to, are an invitational side that has a long and warmly regarded history in the game. Playing in black-and-white hooped shirts they have drawn their players from across the globe playing a number of both international and club sides since their formation in 1890. For more on their history, click here.

What is a 'Test'?

A Test match is an international game between two sides that are deemed to be the best a country can produce. The term most likely has its origins in the idea that to play the best side from another country was the unltimate test in rugby, hence the phrase. The first Test match was played between England and Scotland in Edinburgh in 1871.

What is a 'cap'?

A player wins a 'cap' when he makes an appearance for his country. The tradition has its roots in the early days, however, players are still given cloth caps with the date and opposition embroidered on them. Hence a player who had 39 caps has made 39 appearances for his country in Test matches.


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