Rugby, also called rugby football, is a type of football that first started in the United Kingdom. Specifically, it originated from the Rugby School, an independent, public boarding school located in Rugby, Warwickshire, England. In modern society, rugby is organized within two primary sports: Rugby League and Rugby Union. Both are characterized by kicking and dribbling of the ball with the feet, along with passing of the ball with the hands. However, they differ somewhat in the rules (laws) applied to each.


A forward from team Italy attempts to tackle team Ireland's ballcarrier during the Royal Bank of Scotland 6 Nations rugby tournament, February 2017.

A forward from team Italy attempts to tackle team Ireland's ballcarrier during the Royal Bank of Scotland 6 Nations rugby tournament, February 2017. Rugby is a fast-paced sport with heavy contact, which makes the risk of injury greater than in many other sports, including American football and soccer.
(Marco Iacobucci EPP/


(Marty Melville/Getty Images)

The New Zealand national rugby (All Blacks) team adopted a traditional war dance—the Haka—to perform before every match. This started in 1884, when the first New Zealand global team performed this dance before the match. Initially the war dance was performed while the team wore their native costumes, but this practice quickly went by the wayside.

The All Black rugby spectators enjoy this Haka pregame tradition. The Haka has been termed “The greatest ritual in world sport.” However, the opponents' reaction varies greatly, with some ignoring the celebration and others treating the tradition with respect. Sometimes there has been resulting controversy based on the opponents' reactions. For instance, during the 2011 World Cup, the French team approached the All Black team as they performed the Haka. The French players stood within 10 feet of the celebratory war dance, and were fined as a result.


Rugby can be played by people of all ages and abilities. Because rugby is a contact sport, children are introduced to the sport gradually. They learn the game through modified rules and activities that make it less dangerous, such as through play involving no contact.

Rugby is played in over 40 countries of the world. The countries where rugby is most popular is Australia, France, Jamaica, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Wales.

The Rugby League International Federation, headquartered in Sydney, Australia, coordinates professional rugby in about 30 nations, where 12 of the countries have full international member status. The top countries within the Rugby League include Australia, New Zealand, and England. Two major professional competitions are held regularly: the Australasian National Rugby League and the European Super League. The Rugby League World Cup, its top international competition, is held every four years on average.

The Rugby Union has teams in over 100 countries around the world—being considered the most popular form of rugby in the world. As of the end of 2010, 118 unions (countries) were members of the International Rugby Board (IRB; with headquarters in Dublin, Ireland), the governing body of the Rugby Union. The first-tier countries include Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales. Other countries include Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Fiji, Georgia, Japan, Namibia, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Spain, Tonga, the United States, and Uruguay. In 1995, the IRB removed the rules that prevented players at the highest level of its organization from accepting money for playing rugby. The IRB conducts its Rugby World Cup every four years. The winner of the competition receives the Webb Ellis Cup. The next competition was scheduled to take place with England hosting the 2015 event and Japan, the 2019 competition.


From this beginning, the modern game of rugby was developed and organized at the Rugby School, located about 80 mi. (130 km) northwest of London, during the mid-eighteenth century. During its first 100 years, players were allowed to handle the ball but no one could run toward their goal with the ball in their hands. Running with the ball was introduced sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century. At that time, the Rugby School created the first recognized written rugby rules, and it became a widely played game around the world. Soon, two distinct types of rugby developed: handling and nonhandling.

The Football Association formed using the non-handling form of rugby, with the Rugby Football Union (Rugby Union) later forming in 1871. Near the end of the nineteenth century, amateur players began to play for money. The Northern Rugby Union was formed in 1895. In the twentieth century, specifically in 1922, the Rugby Football League (Rugby League) formed. Rugby is very popular throughout most of the world.


The professional form of rugby is called the Rugby League, with 13 players on each team during the start of each match. The amateur game (now professional at its highest level, as of 1995), called the Rugby Union or the Rugby Football Union, is played with 15 men on each team during the start of play. Players for the Rugby Union include eight forwards and seven backs (which include one full back, two halfbacks, and four three-quarter backs).

The Rugby League, sometimes also called Rugby League Football, has positions that are divided between forwards and backs. The forwards are further divided into hooker, prop, second-row forward, and loose forward. The backs are divided into full back, right wing three-quarter, right center three-quarter, left center three-quarter, left wing three-quarter, stand-off half (or five-eighth), and scrum half (or half-back).

Forwards are generally larger and stronger than backs. They primarily run with the ball, make openings for the backs, and tackle their opponents. Backs are usually smaller in size and faster in speed.

The ball and uniform

Rugby is played with an oval-shaped inflated ball made from leather. It is 11–12 in. (28–30 cm) long, along with being 23–24 in. (58–62 cm) in (long-axis) circumference and weighing 14–15 oz. (400–440 gm). Rugby players wear jerseys, shorts, and shoes, but do not wear any type of protective equipment or padding.

The field and periods

The game is played on a field that extends approximately 109.4 yd. (100 m) in its longer length, with a goal line on each end. At the center of each goal line is positioned a goal post. An “in goal” area is located beyond the goal line, being approximately 24.1 yd. (22 m) in depth. The shorter length (of the field is approximately 75.5 yd. (69 m) wide. Each side line is bounded by “touch lines,” which are approximately 10.9 yd. (10 m) apart. Halfway down the field, dividing the field into half, is the “halfway” line.

Professional rugby is played within two 40-minute periods, with a half-time rest period of no more than five minutes. The two teams reverse sides at the beginning of the second period. Games, usually called matches, can be delayed by no more than two minutes for any specific reason per delay. Substitutions (interchanges) are allowed in rugby, with substitutes permitted to stand on the sidelines (called the “bench”) at the start of the game.


A referee officiates the match. The referee is the only one that applies the laws of rugby, along with being the timekeeper for the game. In addition, two “touch” judges officiate at rugby matches. The touch judges guide rugby play from the touch zones and signal with a flag when the ball or a player crosses the touch line on either side of the playing field.

The game

A rugby match starts with a kickoff from the center of the halfway line. The ball must be kicked past the 10-yard line of the opponent. The players on the opposing team can then kick, dribble, pass, or run with the ball if they are on the “onside”; that is, they are behind the ball in the direction it is being advanced. If an opponent gets the ball, they can also tackle the player. When a tackle occurs, the tackled player must immediately release the ball so that it can be picked up or kicked by a player on the opposing team.

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In all forms of play, the ball cannot be passed forward toward a team's goal. Passes can only be made laterally (to the side) or backward with respect to the motion toward the team's goal. In addition, players on the same team as the player carrying the ball cannot be ahead of this person.

During the matches, players cannot contact (“charge”) each other except with their shoulders. Contacting players, or obstructing a player's motion, who are not holding the ball is illegal. The referee will call a penalty for the following willful actions: striking, tripping, and holding. When penalized, the opposing team receives a penalty kick at the site where the penalty was made.

Matches continue without a break except for time taken for penalty plays, out-of-bounds (“in touch”) plays, and after a score occurs. A score will cause a kickoff to occur at the center of the halfway line. After a referee-issued penalty is completed, play restarts with a “set scrummage,” also called a tight scrummage. This involves a player awarded the penalty to roll the ball into a tunnel formed by opposing team members; specifically, groups of forwards in three rows with the goal to push their opponents away from the ball so they can kick (“heel”) the ball toward their teammates who are located behind the line.

A “loose scrummage” occurs when players from each side close around the ball without any referee action. The group of players forming the loose scrummage push against their opponents in the attempt to kick the ball behind them as other players wait to receive the ball from them.

When the ball goes out of bounds, play is restarted with a “line-out,” in which both groups of forwards line up at the point where the ball goes out of bounds, either at a right angle or straight out from their opponents. The referee than throws the ball down the middle of the opposing teams and over their heads so the teams can fight for control.


Warming up is important, as it is with any type of exercise or physical activity, because it helps to prepare the muscles before they are asked to do more strenuous work. Such a warm-up period may consist of about five minutes of light exercise or walking. Doing stretches are also recommended during the warm-up routine.

Once finished playing rugby, it is a good idea to spend about five minutes cooling down. Light exercise, such as walking, along with stretching, helps the body to settle back down to its normal routine.


Rugby is a fast-paced, highly intense sport to play. Because it is a heavy contact sport, injuries will occur. Injuries in rugby are more frequent than they are in American football or soccer. Adolescents and teenagers from the ages of 10–18 years experience the most injuries. Boys are at higher risk from injuries than are girls.

Most injuries occur while involved with tackling, either being tackled or doing the tackling. Common injuries occur to the fingers and thumbs, along with those to the legs, arms, and hands. Many injuries are muscular strains or contusions (bruising), sprains, dislocations, fractures, lacerations, and overuse injuries. Nearly one out of seven injuries occurs as the result of sprains or strains to the ankles. Head injuries, including concussion, are also a big concern to rugby players.

Injuries can be minimized by preparing for games with adequate conditioning and stretching exercises. Preseason conditioning is especially important because injuries are likely when one first begins playing. Such conditioning should include a gradual increase in the intensity and duration of the game. Proper techniques and tactics should also be learned to help minimize injuries. Correct tackling, offensive and defensive skills, and other such methods are highly important for avoiding serious injuries.



Playing of rugby helps to improve the strength in the upper and lower parts of the body. It also improves cardiovascular fitness and endurance. One's speed and agility also benefits from the playing of rugby.



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Harris, John. Rugby Union and Globalization: An Oddshaped World. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Lipscombe, Trevor Davis. The Physics of Rugby. Nottingham, UK: Nottingham University Press, 2009.


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William A. Atkins, BB, BS MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.