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WIlliam Webb Ellis statue“Cricket is a gentlemen’s game played by gentlemen,
Football is a gentlemen’s game played by thugs,
Rugby Union is a thug’s game played by gentlemen,
And Rugby League is a thug’s game played by thugs.”

This quote is from an era when there was a clear class and geographical division within sports in the UK. The dividing lines have blurred somewhat since then, but still exist to some extent today; cricket and Rugby Union are generally taught in the private school system, Rugby League is taught in the north of England, and Football is taught in the state school system.

There is a general confusion about the game of Rugby: where did it come from; why are there two types, and what is the difference between them; and how does this game actually work?


History of the game

Rugby started at Rugby School as one of the many variations of the game of Football played at public schools around the country.  It is apocryphally told that in 1823 William Webb Ellis picked up the ball in a game of football and ran with it. Despite the lack of evidence to support this story, it has lead to the naming of the Rugby World Cup as the ‘William Webb Ellis Trophy’.

By the 1850s and 1860s Rugby started to spread across the rest of the UK.  In 1863, the formation of the Football Association (FA) formalised the split between football and rugby. In 1871, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was formed, codifying the rules, and setting the course for the future of Rugby.

However, in 1893, amongst accusations of violations of the games strict principals of amateurism, a great schism occurred between the southern teams and the northern teams.  The northern teams formed their own Northern Rugby Union in 1895.  This is the start of the game of Rugby League.

In 1995, Rugby Union joined Rugby League in becoming professional.


How the game works.

Each team is made up of 15 players in rugby union, and 13 in rugby league.  Within both games, the players are split into fast running backs, and usually larger and more powerful forwards.  In rugby union, there are 8 forwards, whereas in rugby league there are 6.  Both teams have 7 backs.

The basic aim of the game is to score more points than the other team.  Points are scored by either touching the ball down in the far end of the opposing team’s half (called a try), or by kicking the ball over the cross bar between the posts (called a drop goal in open play, or a penalty goal, if played after a foul).  A try can be ‘converted’ by kicking the ball over the cross bar, and between the posts for further points.

The two games differ slightly in the amount of points awarded for each score, thus placing different emphases on the strategies.

Players carry the ball forwards, but can only pass the ball backwards.  The ball can also be kicked forwards. Due to the restriction on passing the ball forward from one player to another, if the ball is passed forwards, or if the ball is dropped and goes forwards, then a foul is called.

Only the player who is carrying the ball may be tackled.  In Union, if a player is brought to the ground, and held in the tackle, they must release the ball. At this point, the tackling player must release the player who was being tackled. If no other players have arrived, both players may stand up, and continue to compete for the ball.  If other players have arrived, they may try to push over the ball, to prevent the opposition retrieving it.  This is called a ruck.

If a tackled player is not brought down to the ground, then competing for the ball may continue in the air. The ball may be ripped out of the hands of either player, and pulled back to the rest of the team.  Until the ball is released, both teams are able to push (or drive) the ball and surrounding players forwards. This is called a maul.

In rugby league, both of these parts of the game have been removed, in order to make the game flow more freely.  Once a player has been tackled, and held, then play pauses and restarts by the tackled player rolling the ball backwards to a team mate, while the opposition must retreat 10 yards.  After 6 tackles, the ball is handed over to the other side.

Rugby scrumIf the ball goes into touch (off the side of the pitch), or the player carrying the ball touches the side line (note: unlike football, where the ball has to completely cross the line to be off, in rugby it only needs to touch the sideline) then play has to be re-started.  In rugby union, play is re-started with a line out, and in rugby league with a scrum.

A scrum is an essential part of the union game, but less so in league.  The scrum is consisted of all of the forwards: 3 in the front row, 2 in the second row, and 3 in the back row (1 in league).  The ball is fed into the side of the scrum between the two teams, by the scrum half of the team who was awarded the scrum.  The hookers of each team try to hook the ball back with their feet to their team, while the rest of the forwards try to push the opposing team backwards away from the ball.


A gentlemanly pastime

Due to the physical nature of the game, unlike football, the referee is respected and obeyed.  There is a lot of aggression on the pitch, but very seldom does that aggression lead to indiscipline.  High tackles, dangerous tackles, or high studs are quickly penalised, as is dangerous play in a scrum.

Rugby matches are frantic and action packed, but all of the aggression is focused on the field. By the end of the match, the teams shake hands, and often go for a drink together afterwards.  Likewise, there is almost never any trouble between fans of opposing teams.  There is almost always a carnival feel to a match, with long term supporters meeting each other as old friends.  Drinking is allowed in stadia, and supporters are allowed to sit together, and for those who are new to the game, there will always be a friendly fan around to explain the nuances of the sport.

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