An American’s Explanation of Rugby

We dropped into England in the middle of the Rugby World Cup and were immediately smitten with World Cup fever. We are particularly susceptible to getting caught up in big events like this when we travel. The excitement is contagious, whether it’s the World Cup of Badminton or the Euro Finals of Kitten Wrangling. It doesn’t really matter to us.

It would have been helpful, however, to understand a bit more of the game before our arrival. But after carefully and diligently studying matches while nursing porters and ciders in some of the UK’s finer establishments, we have discerned a few things to impart to you, our dear readers, should you ever find yourself in the midst of some sort of rugby furor.

The first thing to realize is that Rugby is really just like America’s favorite game, football (sorry baseball, but it’s true). By this I mean, naturally, American football, not to be confused with any other sports utilizing balls and feet. Rugby balls are different, as is the equipment worn, the scoring, how the game is played, and many other factors. Otherwise, the two sports are entirely identical.

The name “rugby” derives from the ancient Gaelic word “roog-beesh”, which means death by wearing tight shorts. And so a match begins with the ceremonial donning of very small, very tight shorts. These specially designed shorts are the player’s principle piece of equipment and achieve four objectives: 1) to make gigantic, burly men appear more dapper and harmless, so as to confuse the opposition; B) to “hold it all in”, so to speak, as “dangling” and “protuberancing” are serious infractions in the sport; 3) to constrict the body of the player into the shape of Mr. Incredible, and in so doing, D) painfully incite all the players to a hastier conclusion of the match. Otherwise rugby players wear no other protective gear of any kind.

Whereas American football begins with the strategically practiced coin toss, the rugby match begins usually after primitive ritual chanting (akin to two sumo wrestlers facing off) and grunting in unison to demonstrate their effectiveness as a team and their lack of danglies. This ritual display of manliness can go on for hours. Actual game play begins with something like a jump ball, the only worthwhile element of basketball borrowed by this gentleman’s game, except that the ball is not tossed up in the air but instead rolled on the ground. To fully understand this, one must first grasp the concept of the scrum.

“Scrum” is also an ancient Gaelic word, but its meaning can’t be readily translated into English. Many linguists agree that, fundamentally, it means “hug”. But in Gaelic it carries a connotation of bleeding. Hence a truer translation might be “hug until someone bleeds”. The social roots of the scrum as applied in rugby seem obvious: at some point in history, two men embraced in a hug. Then, one said something impolite and untoward to the other and the two men set out to squeeze each other to death. As men are terribly social creatures, others joined in, forming a hugging mass of men attempting to render their opposition lifeless. As men became civilized and the act of scrum became a part of a sport, the “no-danglies” and “no protuberances” rules came into being and modern rugby was invented.

So rugby begins with a scrum, watched carefully by an official who, upon spotting the first indication of bloodshed, rolls the oversized, overinflated, oblong ball under the mass of men. For some time the ball just lies there, unnoticed, until it is spotted and picked up by one of the men, who–having broken his hold within the scrum–is squirted out of said scrum. It is imperative that he land within the boundaries of the field (sometimes called a pitch, sometimes not), lest he be charged with going out of bounds and his shorts tightened up one size (the typical penalty).

A Rugby ball, courtesy of

At this point game play is at its most similar to football. The object of the game is to advance the ball past the defending opponents and cross the goal line to make a touchdown. See? Just like real football. Except that there are no downs and no plays: the ball must be advanced continuously, but the ball can never just be thrown forward (ok, that’s totally unlike real football). The ball can be pitched backwards or sideways, or it can be placed on the ground for another player–hopefully of the same team–to pick up and advanced some more, or it can be handed directly to another player. Sometimes play is stopped randomly so the men can scrum some more, mainly to check for danglies or protuberance infractions on the part of the opposing players. So like I said, just like American football.

In an often exciting blast of energy a player will sometimes break free or be squirted out of a scrum and will cross the goal line to score. The player must–and this is critical–dive across the goal line, regardless of whether any of the opposing players are nearby. Otherwise, the score is invalidated. Next, all of the scoring player’s teammates must pile onto him, burying him under a mountain of protuberance-free mankind, in an attempt to nearly suffocate him. Attempting to suffocate the scoring player is merely a tradition, technically not against the rules nor required, but as there are only limited numbers of their team members it is in the team’s best interest to stop just short of actual suffocation. This is why rugby is known as a gentleman’s game.

Now is the most confusing part for Americans to understand about rugby. The touchdown is 5 points. You might want to write that down and commit it to memory. 5 points. Not 6, but 5. Just remember this memory jog: rugby has 5 letters, so a rugby touchdown is worth 5 points. Real American football 6 points, rugby 5 points. Got it?

The confusion deepens with the extra point. In rugby, like in American football, the team just having scored a touchdown has the opportunity to tack on an extra point by kicking it through the goal. Except–and here’s the kicker (pun intended hahaha)–it’s two points. That’s right, the “extra point” in rugby is two points. This might seem rather a misnomer to Americans, after all why should they call it an extra point when it’s actually two extra points, but remember that they’re on the metric system in Europe. This explains a lot about Europe when you think about it.

You might also wonder if there is a field goal, and rightly so. Yes, there is indeed a field goal, namely a kick from mid-field that is worth three points. When a rugby field goal is kicked it is the most American-like moment in the game. Except that it can come at any time and they don’t use a tee and it can come from any corner of the field or (sometimes) from the stands or parking lot. Field goals do not require a suffocation of the kicker, though he is often subject to gentlemanly butt-patting. After any rugby score, they scrum up and do it all over again.

A rugby match is a timed game, and the winner, as one should expect, is the team with the most points when time runs out. If the teams are tied at the end of normal play, the game is declared a tie unless the game is a tournament match. In this case a “scrum of death” is called, wherein a scrum is held with the winner being the team of the final survivor.

Other noteworthy points of rugby include the offside rule, where one team is penalized for no apparant reason, much like as in soccer (aka “futbol” for our German readers); the penalty kick, which is unique to rugby and is when the violator of a dangly or protuberance rule is held down and kicked in turn by each of the opposing team’s members; and the rules of player substitution which include the rule that if a player was substituted he cannot return to play unless he was substituted to receive medical attention to get bleeding under control (actually, I didn’t make that one up).

Finally, the sport of professional rugby is managed by the World Rugby Congress, presided over by a King in a pub in Dublin.

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