For the Win: Rugby World Cup Cheat Sheet

Ireland may be out of the Rugby World Cup – be still, my disappointed heart – but there are four teams still left. And as the matches are on at a slightly more amenable time in North America than in Europe, here’s a quick intro to the game so that you can watch and enjoy. Think of it like American football, without helmets or padding, and you’ll be about a tenth of the way there.


Each team has 15 players on the pitch, and seven more on the bench, which can all be substituted during the match.  Names of positions are almost as incomprehensible as cricket ones (five-eighths, anyone?) but here are the ones you’ll hear most often.

The front row: the three players at the front of the scrum (hooker, loosehead prop, tighthead prop). These are usually short-ish, muscular and very wide men along the lines of Castrogiovanni. Almost every team has at least one Castro lookalike.

The second row: the two players in the second row of the scrum. Usually wide but not so much so, and mostly taller: Ireland’s Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell are both 6’6″. They also jump – assisted by front row players – in lineouts.

The back line: these are the fast runners and try scorers – not to be confused with the backs, who are the last three in the scrum.

Fly-half: This is the player who usually does all the penalty kicks, drop goals, and also is responsible for a lot of the decision-making and strategy of the game. They also tend to be more good-looking than the average rugby player: perhaps because they’re never in a scrum. See Jonny Wilkinson, Ronan O’Gara, and Dan Carter.


The winning team is the one with the most points at the end of 80 minutes of play. You get points by:

  • kicking the ball over the posts from play: drop goal (3 points). Not very common in rugby union.
  • kicking the ball over the posts as a penalty (3 points). Pretty common.
  • scoring a try (5 points) i.e.: grounding the ball on or past the opposition’s try line, or touching the ball to the posts. The ball has to be in the player’s control when it’s grounded; it can’t have bounced before going over the line, and the player can’t be out of touch i.e.: his feet have to be within the sidelines. If the ref is unsure about a try, he will refer it to the video ref (officially called the TMO) who decides.
  • Once a try has been scored, you can “˜convert’ it for two more points: the kicker can kick the ball over the posts from anywhere on the pitch that’s in line with the place the try was scored. Sometimes this is super-easy, and sometimes it’s nearly impossible.


Forward pass: the ball must always be passed backwards or sideways- a forward pass is illegal, and any tries or drop goals which result from one are disallowed (Tommy Bowe got the bad side of this in our match against Italy). However, the ball can be kicked forward, though it’s next to impossible to dribble a rugby ball: usually the player will kick it forward and then chase it, hoping to get to it before the opposition.

Knock-on: if the ball is knocked forward by a player’s hands or arms. This gives a scrum to the opposite side.

Eye-gouging: most often happens in scrums, and highly dangerous as several players have been blinded this way. Punishments are severe, and can be imposed after the game – Italy’s Ghiraldini got 15 weeks’ suspension for gouging Cian Healy.


Bad tackles: unlike American Football, it is illegal to tackle a player when he doesn’t have the ball. Players can be penalised for tackles off the ball, late tackles, tackles in the air (in the lineout or jumping to catch a ball) and high tackles i.e.: anything above the shoulders. The tackler must aim to bring the player to the ground with arms or hands – you can’t trip or shoulder a player with the ball. You will see players running with the ball shoulder or push attempted tackles away.

Not releasing or rolling away: once a player has been tackled and brought to the ground, he must release the ball, and the tackler must release him: the ball must be available for play. Most often you’ll see players curled up in the foetal position, covered in opposition players, except for their arms, which are straight out towards their team. It’s kinda cute.

Bleeding: if a player is actively bleeding, he must leave the pitch until he’s stopped bleeding. He can be replaced by a sub temporarily, and the sub doesn’t count towards replacement subs.



Kicking into touch: If a player kicks the ball straight out over the sidelines from within the 22-metre line, their team gets a line-out at the place the ball went out. It’s a well-used strategy to gain territory, but can backfire if the ball isn’t accurately kicked.

The ruck and the maul: A ruck essentially looks like a pile-on: it happens when a player is tackled, goes down, and both teams try to cover the tackled player to get position. If the ball doesn’t come out quickly enough, the ref will call a scrum. A maul is similar to a ruck, but the player with the ball has managed to stay on his feet and his team members form a scrum-like push behind him.

The lineout: happens when the ball has gone out of touch: where and how determines the location of the lineout and which team gets to throw in to it. Players from each team (usually at least five, but it varies) form two lines one metre apart, perpendicular to the side line; a player from the team who didn’t put the ball out of play throws the ball straight down the middle of the gap between the teams. Teams usually have coded calls to determine the type of throw and their reaction. Players can be lifted up by their team-mates as well.

The scrum: eight players from each team arrange themselves like so, once the ref has given the ok with the commands “Crouch, touch, pause…engage!”

One player (the scrum half) rolls the ball in to the gap between the front rows, and the teams then try to get the ball by pushing forward and kicking the ball backwards through the scrum, where it’s picked up by the scrum half. There are a lot of rules about proper conduct within a scrum: with the weight of each team in the scrum usually over 800kg if not closer to 900kg (just under 2000lbs), there is a lot of potential for injury to the front row. Full details here.

Southern -v- Northern Hemisphere: this usually refers to the Six Nations teams (Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Italy), and the Tri Nations teams (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) plus Argentina, who are the top teams in the world. Other notable teams tend to be from the Pacific Islands – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga. This World Cup is unusual as the quarter finals ended up being divided into Southern and Northern sections (Ireland -v- Wales, England -v- France, South Africa -v- Australia, and New Zealand -v- Argentina), and thus the same for the semi-finals (Wales -v- France and New Zealand -v- Australia).

There are more rules, but I’m not sure I could explain them all even if I knew them. Unlike in soccer, the reason you almost never see a rugby player arguing with a referee is that even they don’t know all the rules (or so the joke goes). This little introduction should be enough to let you follow the play without wanting to slap the commentator: highlight videos and (I think) live matches are available here.

So, is anything unclear? Any other terms you’ve come across that need explaining? And who will you be rooting for at the weekend – New Zealand, Australia, Wales or France?

6 replies on “For the Win: Rugby World Cup Cheat Sheet”

I really am impressed on how you have explained the game. After spending my childhood watching my brother plan and my adulthood watching with my husband I am a huge fan of rugby. As a South African I will support the South. Sorry girls we just better at the game :-). But I will be backing New Zealand. ( At the moment yes I am just a little bit bitter against our game against Australia )

I for one, cant wait until Argentina play along side us in next years Four Nations. You guys are pretty gutsy.


From 8 until 17, I attended a school with mandatory rugby for boys. Two of my closest friends dated rugbiers (sp? Or is that just a Spanish word?). My mother is a huge rugby fan.  My neighborhood has three of the most important rugby clubs in Buenos Aires. And yet this is the first time I managed to understand the rules. Thanks!

(Also, did you watch Argentina-Scotland?? It was incredible!)

You’re so welcome! I have a warm glow of satisfaction now:)

“Rugbiers” might just be Spanish… in Ireland we say “rugger buggers” but that’s kind of derogatory…

I only got to see the highlights, unfortunately, but it was great!

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