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Rugby union is a full contact team sport, a form of football which originated in England in the early 19th century. One of the codes of rugby football, it is based on running with the ball in hand. It is played with an oval-shaped ball, outdoors on a level field, usually with a grass surface, up to 100 m long and 70 m wide. At each end of the field is an H-shaped goal.

William Webb Ellis is often credited with the invention of running with the ball in hand in 1823 at Rugby Schoolmarker when he allegedly caught the ball while playing football and ran towards the opposition goal. Although the evidence to support it is doubtful, the Ellis story was immortalised at the school with a plaque unveiled in 1895. In 1848, the first rules were written by pupils - this was one of recognized events in the early development of rugby; others include the Blackheath Club's refusal to adopt the rule revisions of The Football Association in 1863 and their resultant decision to leave this organisation of which they were founding members, and in 1895, the split between rugby union and rugby league.

Rugby union has been governed by the International Rugby Board since its formation in 1886 and currently has a membership of 115 national unions. In 1995, the IRB removed restrictions on payments to players, making the game openly professional at the highest level for the first time.

The Rugby World Cup, first held in 1987, takes place every four years, with the winner of the tournament receiving the Webb Ellis Cup. The Six Nations in Europe and the Tri Nations in the southern hemisphere are major international competitions held annually. Major domestic competitions include the Top 14 in France, the Guinness Premiership in England, the Currie Cup in South Africa, and the Air New Zealand Cup in New Zealand. Other transnational competitions include the Magners League (which is essentially a domestic competition throughout the Celtic Nations), involving Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams; the Super 14, involving South African, Australian and New Zealand teams; and the Heineken Cup, involving the top European based teams of their respective domestic competitions.


The origin of rugby is reputed to be an incident during a game of English school football at Rugby Schoolmarker, Rugbymarker, England, in 1823 when William Webb-Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it. Although this tale is apocryphal, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after him. Rugby football stems from a game played at Rugby Schoolmarker, Rugbymarker, which old pupils initially took to university; with Cambridge believing that Old Rugbeian Albert Pell was the first student to form a 'football' team. During this early period different schools used different rules, with former pupils from Rugby and Etonmarker attempting to carry their preferred rules through to their universities.

Significant events in the early development of rugby were the production of the first set of written laws at Rugby Schoolmarker in 1845, the Blackheath Club's decision to leave The Football Association in 1863 and the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The code was originally known simply as "rugby football"; it was not until after a schism in 1895, which resulted in the separate code of rugby league, that the name "rugby union" came to be used for the game itself. Supporters of both codes will frequently refer to theirs as merely "rugby", unless they are differentiating between the two.

The first rugby international took place on 27 March 1871, played between England and Scotland. By 1881 both Ireland and Wales had representative teams, and in 1883 the first international competition, the Home Nations Championship had begun. 1883 also saw the first rugby sevens tournament at Melrose - the Melrose Sevens, which is still held annually. Five years later two important overseas tours took place; a British Isles team visited Australia and New Zealand - although a private venture, it laid the foundations for future British and Irish Lions tours; and the 1888 New Zealand Native team brought the first overseas team to British spectators.

From 1905 through to 1907, all three major Southern Hemisphere rugby countries sent their first touring teams to the Northern Hemisphere; Dave Gallaher's New Zealand in 1905, followed by Paul Roos' South Africa in 1906 and then Herbert Moran's Australia. All three teams brought new styles of play, fitness levels and tactics, and were far more successful than critics at first believed. 1905 also saw the first French internationals.

The years during both World Wars saw an end of international rugby games and union-sponsored club matches, but competitions continued with service teams such as the New Zealand Army team.

In 1973 the first officially sanctioned international sevens tournament took place at Murrayfield, as part of the Scottish Rugby Union centenary celebrations. In 1987 the first Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand and Australia, and the inaugural winners were New Zealand. The first World Cup Sevens tournament was held at Murrayfield in 1993.

Rugby union was famously an amateur sport until the IRB declared the game 'open' in 1995, removing restrictions on payments to players. However, the pre-1995 period of rugby union was marked by frequent accusations of "shamateurism" in some quarters.


A rugby tackle: tackles must be low down on the body, with the aim of impeding or grounding the player with the ball

It is important to distinguish between the Laws of rugby union, and its rules. The Laws are set out by the IRB and apply to every game of rugby union; to how it is played on the pitch. The rules differ from competition to competition and are set out by the competition organiser. It dictates such things as how many substitutions a team can make, or if extra time is played in the event of a draw.

Rugby union is played between two teams; each team starts the match with 15 players on the field and may make replacements (for injury) or substitutions (tactical changes). In international matches, up to seven replacements/substitutes are allowed; in domestic or cross-border tournaments, at the discretion of the responsible national union(s), the number may be increased to eight, of whom three must be sufficiently trained and experienced to provide cover for the three front row positions. Players in a team are divided into eight forwards (two more than in rugby league) and seven backs. Forwards are generally bigger and stronger, and take part in the scrum and lineout, while backs are generally smaller but faster, more agile and often the main points scorers for the team.

Points can be scored in several ways - a try, scored by grounding the ball in the in-goal area, is worth 5 points and a subsequent conversion kick scores 2 points. A successful penalty kick or a drop goal each score 3 points. The values of each of these scoring methods have been changed over the years. The team which scores more points wins the game.

At the beginning of the game, the captains and the referee toss a coin to decide which team will kick off first. Play then starts with a drop kick, with the players chasing the ball into the opposition's territory, and the other side trying to retrieve the ball and advance it back. If the player with the ball is tackled, frequently a ruck will result.

Forward passing (throwing the ball ahead to another player) is not allowed. The ball tends to be moved forward in three ways - by kicking, by a player running with it, or within a scrum or a ruck (formerly also a maul). Unlike in American football, "blocking" is not allowed, so only the player with the ball may be tackled or rucked. When a ball is knocked forward by a player with his/her arms, a "knock-on" is committed, and play is restarted with a scrum.

When the ball leaves the side of the field, a lineout is awarded against the team which last touched the ball. A number of players from both teams line up, at least 5m from the sideline, and the ball is thrown in by the hooker. Lineouts are one of the chief differences between the two rugby codes, as they do not occur in rugby league.

Games are divided into 40-minute halves, with a break in the middle. The sides exchange ends of the field after the half-time break. Stoppages for injury or to allow the referee to take disciplinary action, do not count as part of the playing time, so that the elapsed time is usually longer than 80 minutes. Unlike in many other sports, there are no "time out". The referee is responsible for keeping time, even when—as in many professional tournaments—he is assisted by an official time-keeper; when time has expired, whether at the end of the first half, or at the end of the game, the referee will wait until the ball is 'dead' before blowing for half-time or full-time.

The field of play on a rugby pitch is as near as possible to a maximum of 100m long, and 70m wide. There are several lines crossing it, notably the half way line, the goal line/try line (on which the goal posts are located), the "twenty two", which is 22m from the goal, and the dead ball line, which is 10m behind the goal line. Tries are scored between the goal line, and the dead ball line. A ball over the dead ball line is out of play. Rugby goalposts are H-shaped, and consist of two poles, 5.6m apart, connected by a horizontal crossbar 3m above the ground. Unlike some other sports, there are no goalkeepers, and the section underneath the crossbar is not used. The original pitch dimensions were in imperial units, but have since been converted to the metric system.

There are generally three match officials - a referee, and two touch judges, who indicate that the ball is "in touch" and other decisions with their flags. In addition, for matches in high level competitions, there is often a television match offical (TMO; popularly called the "video referee"), to assist with certain decisions, linked up to the referee by radio. The referees have a system of hand signals to indicate their decisions.

Common offences include high tackles, collapsing the scrum, not releasing the ball when on the ground or being off-side. Penalties can be taken by the non-offending team in various ways - taking a short, tap kick then running with the ball, kicking the ball from hand (punting) for field position, place kicking (for goal) or choosing a scrum. Players may be sent off (signaled by a red card) or temporarily "sin-binned" for ten minutes (yellow card) for foul play, and may not be replaced.


The most basic items of equipment for a game of rugby are the ball itself, a rugby shirt (also known as a "jersey"), shorts, socks, and boots, which have soles with studs to allow grip on the turf of the pitch. The studs may be either metal or plastic but must not have any sharp edges or ridges.

Protective equipment is optional and strictly regulated. The most common items are mouth guards, which are worn by almost all players. Other protective items that are permitted include protective head gear, thin (not more than 10mm thick) non-rigid shoulder pads, and shin guards, which are worn underneath socks. Bandages or tape can be worn to support or protect injuries; some players wear tape around the head to protect the ears in scrums and rucks. Female players may also wear chest pads.

Fingerless gloves (mitts) are sometimes worn to improve players' grip on the ball.

It is the responsibility of the match officials to check players' clothing and equipment before a game to ensure that it conforms to the laws of the game.

Governing bodies

The international governing body of rugby union (and associated games such as sevens) is the International Rugby Board (IRB). The IRB headquarters are located in Dublinmarker, Irelandmarker.

Six continental associations, which are members of the IRB form the next level of administration; these are:

SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby) is a joint venture of the South African Rugby Union, the New Zealand Rugby Union and the Australian Rugby Union, which operates the Super 14 and Tri Nations competitions.

National unions oversee rugby union within individual countries. These are affiliated both to the IRB and with their respective regional association.

Global reach

Rugby union has established itself as a popular sport for both spectators and participants, particularly in Australia, Argentina, Cook Islands, England, Fiji, France, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, New Zealand, Niue, Namibia, Romania, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga, and Wales.

Other places with lasting traditions in rugby, as a minority sport in most cases, include Andorra, Barbados, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Côte d'Ivoire, Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Moldova, Morocco, The Netherlands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The United States are the most recent Olympic gold medalists, winning the event at the Paris Olympics in 1924, which was the last year rugby was played at the games. Large numbers of players are active in North America, and the national teams of Canada and the USA regularly qualify for World Cups.

Japan, also a country with many registered players, will host the 2019 World Cup. It will be the first country outside of traditional playing areas to host the event, and is viewed by some fans of the game as an opportunity for rugby union to extend its reach, particularly in Asia. Previously, Japan unsuccessfully bid to host the 2011 tournament, narrowly losing to selected host New Zealandmarker.

The International Rugby Board (IRB), founded in 1886, governs the sport worldwide and also publishes the game's laws and rankings. There are currently 95 full members and eight associate member countries. According to IRB figures, rugby union is played in over 100 countries spanning six continents by men and women of all ages. The IRB controls the Rugby World Cup, the Women's Rugby World Cup, Rugby World Cup Sevens, IRB Sevens World Series, Junior World Championship, Junior World Trophy, Nations Cup and the Pacific Nations Cup. It holds votes to decide where all of these events shall be held, except in the case of the Sevens World Series. For that competition, the IRB contracts with several national unions to hold individual events.

Women's Rugby

US women's rugby: NC Hustlers vs. Midwest II

Records of women's rugby go back over 100 years - the first mentions of the game being in New Zealand in 1891 and France ten years later. In the past 30 years the game has grown in popularity among female athletes, and, according to England's RFU, is now played in over 80 countries.

The English Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) was founded in 1983, and is the oldest formally organised national governing body for women's rugby.

Major international competitions

The most important tournament in rugby union is the Rugby World Cup, a men's tournament that takes place every four years among the elite national rugby union teams. South Africa is the current holder, winning the 2007 tournament held in France. They beat 2003 winners England in the final; no World Cup winner has yet retained the trophy. England were the first team from the Northern Hemisphere to win, the previous champions being New Zealand (1987), Australia (1991 and 1999), South Africa (1995). Major international competitions are the Six Nations Championship and the Tri Nations Series, held in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively.

The Six Nations is an annual competition involving the European teams , , , , and . Each country plays the other five once. After the initial internationals between England and Scotland, the 1880s saw Ireland and Wales begin competing, forming the Home International Championships. France joined the tournament in the 1900s and in 1910 the term Five Nations first appeared. However, the Home Nations (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) excluded France in 1931 amid a run of poor results, allegations of professionalism (rugby union was officially amateur until 1995) and concerns over on-field violence. France then rejoined in 1939-1940, though World War II halted proceedings for a further eight years. France has played in all the tournaments since WWII, the first of which was played in 1947. In 2000, Italy became the sixth nation in the contest and Romemarker's Stadio Flaminiomarker, where their games are played, is the smallest venue in the tournament. Ireland are the reigning Six Nations champions, having won their first Grand Slam in 61 years by beating Wales in Cardiff on March 21, 2009.

The Tri Nations is an annual international series held between the southern hemisphere teams of , and . The Tri Nations was initially played on a home and away basis with the three nations playing each other twice. In 2006 a new system was introduced where each nation plays the others three times, though in 2007 the teams played each other only twice, as it was a World Cup year.Especially since 's strong performances in the 2007 World Cup, a number of commentators believed they should join the Tri-Nations. This was first seriously proposed for the 2008 tournament, then for 2010, but came much closer to reality after the 2009 Tri Nations tournament, when SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) extended an official invitation to the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR) to join an expanded Four Nations tournament in 2012. This move has generally been met with great approval from all parties involved. The invitation is subject to certain conditions, like the guaranteed availability of Argentina's top players, most of whom play professional club rugby in Europe at present.

Amidst all the international competitions there are also various Test matches and series, often as part of tours by national teams, which generally take place from September to December and from June to August.

Olympic rugby

Rugby union was played at the Olympic Games in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924. As per Olympic rules, the nations of Scotland, Wales and England were not allowed to play separately as they are not sovereign states. Rugby sevens has been played at the Commonwealth Games since 1998 and on 9 October 2009, the International Olympic Committeemarker voted with a majority of 81 to 8 that rugby be reinstated as an Olympic sport in at least the 2016 and 2020 games, but in the sevens, 4-day tournament format. This is something the rugby world has aspired to for a long time and Bernard Lapasset, president of the International Rugby Board, said the Olympic gold medal would be considered to be "the pinnacle of our sport" (Rugby Sevens).

Women's international rugby

Women's International Rugby began in 1982. Over six hundred women's internationals have been played by over forty different nations. As well as the women's World Cup event (which takes place every four years), there are also other regular tournaments, including a Six Nations, run in parallel to the men's competition. The New Zealand Women's team are the current World Cup holders.

The first female rugby world cup was in 1991.


Beach Rugby match

Besides the full-contact, 15-a-side code, three major variants exist:
  • Rugby sevens (7's, or VIIs), is a fast-paced variant which originated in Melrosemarker, Scotland in 1883. In rugby sevens, there are only 7 players per side, and each half is normally 7 minutes. Major tournaments include the Hong Kong Sevens and Dubai Sevens, both held in areas not normally associated with the highest levels of the 15-a-side game.
  • Touch rugby, in which "tackles" are made by simply touching the ball carrier with two hands.
  • Mini rugby, also known as "New Image Rugby", which originates in England, is a variety mainly used to coach children.
  • Rugby tens (10's or Xs), a Malaysian variant with ten players per side.
  • American Flag Rugby, (AFR), like mini rugby, is a mixed gender, non-contact imitation of Rugby Union designed for American children entering grades K-9.

Other less formal variants include beach rugby, and street rugby.

Influence on other sports

Rugby union, and its immediate ancestor rugby football, has had a strong influence on several other sports.

The Gridiron codes, American football and Canadian football, are derived from early forms of rugby. Confusingly, in Canada, Canadian football has also frequently been referred to as "rugby football", and a number of national and provincial bodies were called "Rugby Football Unions" or "Rugby Unions", such as the Ontario and Quebec Rugby Football Unions. For example, in the Encyclopedia Canadiana, the entry Rugby Football begins by referring to "the Canadian development of rugby union or "English rugger" introduced into Canada in the third quarter of the nineteenth century", but later states that "the Canadian game is a radical departure from rugby union".

Australian rules football has been influenced by a large number of sports, including rugby football and cricket. Many authors believe that the primary influence was rugby football and other other games emanating from English public schools. Tom Wills, the founding father of Aussie Rules, also attended Rugby Schoolmarker.

Gaelic football is not an offshoot of rugby union and the political direction of the Gaelic Athletic Association has traditionally meant an active opposition to the growth of rugby in Ireland. Rugby union, being of English origin, was seen as one of the "barracks games" and a symbol of British colonialism. In response to the encroachment of English sports, Irish nationalist Michael Cusack set up the GAA.
In particular, "Rule 42" of the GAA's Official Guide forbids foreign sports, including rugby, being played on GAA-controlled property. However, in recent years this rule has been lifted, and rugby has now been played in some GAA grounds, including Croke Parkmarker; see List of non-Gaelic games played in Croke Park for exceptions to this rule.

Rugby lends its name to wheelchair rugby (also known as "quad rugby" or "murderball"), but the sport is more strongly influenced by wheelchair basketball, ice hockey and handball than rugby union. Likewise, the sport of underwater rugby, is related to rugby in little more than name.

In addition, rugby union has a strong reciprocal influence on rugby league as well as common ancestry.

See also


Printed sources

  • Bath, Richard (ed.) The Complete Book of Rugby (Seven Oaks Ltd, 1997 ISBN 1 86200 013 3)
  • Griffiths, John (1987). The Phoenix Book of International Rugby Records. London: Phoenix House. p. 5:3. ISBN 0460070037.

Electronic sources



  1. Origins of Rugby - Codification - "The innovation of running with the ball was introduced some time between 1820 and 1830."
  2. Law 2 The Ball
  3. Law 1 The Ground
  4. William Webb Ellis - fact or fiction?
  5. Early Rules
  6. Marshall (1951), pg 13.
  7. Marshall (1951), pg 13-14.
  8. Godwin, p10
  9. Godwin, p18
  10. Stubbs, p118
  11. Law 3 Number of Players
  12. Law 9.A.1 Points values
  13. Midgley, p394
  14. Law 6 Match officials
  15. Law 4 Players' Clothing
  16. Regulation 12 Provisions relating to player dress
  17. Encarta (1997)
  18. Stubbs (2009)
  24. Bath, p71
  26. Bath p77
  27. Stubbs, Ray, The Sports Book, p115
  28. "Rugby football" in Encyclopedia Canadiana, p110
  29. Geoffrey Blainey, Leonie Sandercock, Ian Turner and Sean Fagan have all written in support of this view. See, for example: Richard Davis, 1991, "Irish and Australian Nationalism: the Sporting Connection: Football & Cricket", Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies Bulletin, v.3, no.2, pp. 49-50 and; B. W. O'Dwyer, 1989, "The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football", Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1.


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