The USA, the land of opportunity, seems to have finally grasped rugby with both...
With the 2019 Rugby World Cup looming and my uncanny ability to chat rugby 24/7 (even if nobody’s interested) about to step up a gear, I decided it was time to write a beginner’s guide to rugby and the World Cup. Apologies now to my friends and family reading this who will wish I had written it much, much sooner so they would not have been quite so confused every time I started talking!
Rugby is becoming more and more popular on a world stage, this year’s tournament is destined to be the most watched globally and, with any luck, more people will take an interest in the sport towards the end of the year. It could only be a bonus if those people were able to show some understanding of the rules of rugby as soon as they can.
So, what are the basic laws (take note: rugby has laws, not rules)? Each match squad is made up of 23 players. This is split into eight forwards, seven backs and eight replacements. A game lasts 80 minutes: 40 minutes for each half. Depending on the nature of the game, usually, a tied score at the end of the 80 minutes results in a draw, however, in the case of knock-out matches or finals there is the potential for extra time and a penalty shoot-out if necessary to determine an overall winner. The referee is the ‘man in the middle’, controlling the match and making decisions – aided by two touch judges and, for televised matches, a TMO (Television Match Official). They can all communicate with each other during the match, asking for events on the pitch to be checked and for clarification over whether tries have been scored or not.
As with most sports, the aim of the game is to get the highest number of points. These points can be scored in a number of ways: a try (grounding the ball on or over the try line), worth five points, or a converted try (when the ball is kicked over the posts after being touched down in the try area), for seven points; a penalty, where the ball is kicked over the posts from a tee at the spot where an infringement occurred, worth three points; a drop-goal, where the ball is kicked over the posts from the hand during open play, also worth three points.
Infringements are anything that the referee deems outside the laws of the game. This can be anything from obstructing an opposing player; punching, trampling or kicking a player; to tackling too early/too late/too high (above the shoulder) or in the air. For the most serious offences, the referee can also issue cards as well as award a penalty. A yellow card means the player is out of action for 10 minutes, known as being sent to the sin bin. A red card means the player misses the rest of the match and is likely to face a ban thereafter. The basic aim of the match is to stay behind the ball otherwise, for want of a simpler way to explain things, the player is offside and the opposition will be awarded a penalty.
The thing that seems to confuse most newcomers to the sport: the ball can only be passed backwards. If the ball goes forwards from the hands of a player, either in a pass or dropped onto the floor, the opposition will be awarded the ball through a scrum. During a scrum, the forwards bind onto each other in what looks like a big cuddle. The ball is put in to the scrum and both teams compete to win it so that play can continue on their terms. There may be times when the referee isn’t certain that stopping play immediately for either a penalty or a scrum is the best option for the team that would be awarded the ball. In this instance, he will play advantage until the team runs out of that advantage – by scoring, making an infringement of their own or simply not getting very far. An advantage is usually also over if the team kick the ball away, although this will depend on where the ball lands and what happens next. Players are then brought back to the spot where the infringement occurred for either a penalty or scrum, depending on the severity of the error.
During a match, you will see the referee wave his hands around a lot. He’s not directing planes to land, he is signalling what is occurring at that time. One thing to be aware of is that the referee always points to the team being awarded with the ball.
Obviously, as you get into the sport, there is a lot more to know and a lot more that you will learn, but hopefully this gives some idea as to what it’s all about.
The structure of the tournament is such that there are 20 teams taking part, split initially into four pools of five. During the pool stages, everyone will play each other once with four points awarded for a win and two for a draw, with a bonus point available if a team scores four or more tries or loses by 7 or fewer points. The top two teams from each pool go through to the knock-out stages where the winner of the group will play a runner-up from a different group. The knock-out stages consist of quarter-finals and semi-finals with the winners going through to the next round. At the end of the semi-finals there is, obviously, the final but also a third-place play-off.
In terms of the history of the tournament, the first was held in 1987 and won by New Zealand. The World Cup has previously been held in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France and South Africa. This is the first time it has been held in Asia and New Zealand are the most successful team with four wins. This year, the tournament is being hosted by Japan, which is probably not the most obvious choice for some of you. However, Japan has the fourth largest population of rugby union players in the world and are currently ranked 11th. They famously beat South Africa during the 2015 World Cup – arguably the biggest shock of the professional era.
Importantly, especially if you are used to watching football, you won’t see fans or players questioning the referee. Shouts of “Referee!” are almost unheard of from the stands. If you do want to sound like you know what you are talking about, here are some phrases that should see you through the tournament:
“He’s holding on!” – to be used when a player has been tackled and is on the floor, but the ball is not immediately playable.
“That’s high!” – when a player is tackled above the shoulder. Particularly look out for stiff arms connecting with the head and make subsequent “Oooo” noises to indicate your displeasure, especially if seeing it in slow motion through a replay.
“Don’t just kick it!” – teams seem to like kicking the ball back and forth to each other when they don’t think running will get them anywhere, this can be boring and not lead to anything. Equally, it can be very worth doing, so judge it as you see it!
Any kind of “ooof!” after a big tackle will go down well.
There are, of course, lots of other things that can be shouted and just general noises of appreciation or displeasure should be easy to make at appropriate times. These are just some of my favourites and yes, I do scream at the TV for the full 80 minutes, much to the embarrassment of my family watching with me!
A thoroughly professional performance, that’s the best way to describe Ireland'...