The Rules of Rugby:
From the pitch and scrum to rucks and scoring a try.

New Zealand’s national sport deciphered so you won’t confuse a ruck for a scrum when following “the rugby” at the pub.

Rugby is not just a sport in New Zealand, it's a national obsession! So much so we've put together a simple guide to rugby rules so you can convincingly talk the talk and watch "the rugby" at the pub or follow along at home.

The whole country reached fever pitch in September and October 2011, when the Rugby World Cup was hosted in New Zealand, and after a 16-year drought, the All Blacks finally raised the World Cup aloft once more, to underline the fact that they are consistently been the best team in the world.

If you're visiting New Zealand on an adventure travel trip, particularly in late summer and winter, then you may well be able to tie in watching a game of rugby - either a provincial game, a Super Rubgy game (teams from NZ, South Africa, and Australia), or if you're lucky, an All-Blacks test.

Rugby at the old Carisbrook Stadium, Dunedin

Just click on the specific question below about the rules of rugby that you’d like answered:

Is rugby basically (American) football without pads?

No - rugby, football and gridiron are all very different games. There’s a common misconception that rugby is just “American football” (otherwise known as “gridiron”, whereas "football" usually refers to soccer here) played without pads -- a surefire way to put your foot in your mouth. The main similarities between rugby and American football are that they’re both running games played with a ball that’s roughly the same shape and size. Although Kiwis just can't get enough of rugby and the sport is very popular in the UK and South Africa among other places, rugby hasn’t really caught on in North America, yet. (We've got our own theories as to why, but we may save the conspiracies for another time...)

What type of a field is rugby played on?

Rugby is played on a rugby pitch. The pitch is expected to be a grass field 100 metres long by 69 metres wide. The sidelines are called touchlines and there are two in-goal areas which are expected to be 10 to 22 metres deep with a tryline marking the front and a dead ball line at the back. The goal posts are located on the try line and are 5.6 metres apart with a crossbar set at 3 metres. The height of the posts varies.
Other important lines on the pitch include the half way mark at 50 metres. A dashed 10 metre line set each side of the the 50 metre line, which is used to judge kickoffs, and a solid 22 yard line marked 22 yard from each tryline. Other lines include two dashed lines set at 5 and 15 metres marked parallel to each touchline that are used mostly to identify the zones for lineouts.

rugby pitch

How many players are on a rugby team?

Rugby Union teams are known as "15s" because they consist of two groups of players: 8 forwards and 7 backs. Each position has specific responsibilities during the match and the numbers 1-15 on the players’ jersey refer to the position they play, rather than a personal squad number, and generally every team uses the same standard formation.
Forwards "the pack": The main role of the 8 forwards, who play in the first 3 rows of the formation, is to gain and retain possession of the ball and play in the scrum, so they are usually larger and stronger but slower and less agile than the backs.
#1: Prop (Loose head)
#2: Hooker (Rake)
#3: Prop (Tight head)
#4: Lock (Second row)
#5: Lock
#6: Flanker (Blindside)
#7: Flanker (Openside)
#8: Number 8 (Eightman)
Backs: The main role of the 7 backs positioned behind the forwards is to take the ball won by the forwards and score points, either by running or kicking the ball.
#9: Scrum half
#10: Flyhalf (1st 5, short for the first five-eighth)
#11: Wing (Prop, left winger, three quarters)
#12: Inside Centre (2nd 5, or second five-eighth)
#13: Outside centre
#14: Wing (right winger, three quarters)
#15: Fullback (custodian or sweeper)

Rugby Sevens is a variant of Rugby Union developed in Hong Kong in the 70s that features only 7 players per side instead of 15, but is less popular in New Zealand than 15s.

What is the Haka?

The haka is a symbolic war dance, most famously performed by the All Blacks before the start of each match. First the Haka leader, normally an All Black of Maori descent, will instigate the Haka and spur on those who are to perform the Haka with the following words:
Ringa pakia
Uma tiraha
Turi whatia
Hope whai ake
Waewae takahia kia kino

all blacks haka
Then the team starts the Haka as a group. Here are the words to the most popular version, the Te Rauparaha Haka, based on a Maori legend of a warrior who celebrated with this war cry after eluding the enemy:
Ka mate Ka mate It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora It is life It is life
Ka mate Ka mate It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora It is life It is life
Tenei Te Tangata Puhuruhuru This is the hairy man
Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra Who caused the sun to shine again for me
Upane Upane Up the ladder Up the ladder
Upane Kaupane Up to the top
Whiti te ra The sun shines!

How does a rugby game start?

A coin toss determines the team which will kickoff first. The kicking team will send their forwards to one side of the pitch at the 50 metre line. The opposing forwards will move in front of their opposites, but spread out behind the 10 metre line in preparation to receive the kick.
The kicker, who can be any member of the team, will set the ball on the ground and start the match on the referee's whistle most often kicking the ball high and short to the opposing forwards (he can also kick it long and deep or away from the forwards if desired). The kick must travel forwards at least 10 metres and land in bounds. The kicker's forwards will charge down the pitch attempting to catch the ball themselves. If a receiving team's forward successfully catches the ball, he will attempt to advance the ball normally running into a large amount of opposition. His supporting forwards will then often bind around him to prevent him being brought to the ground and losing possession of the ball.
The second half of a match is started in the same way except the teams have switched ends of the pitch and the team starting the match kicking now receives the ball.

What is the difference between a maul and a ruck?

A maul is formed when more than two players have bound together around the ball carrier, if the ball is held up off the ground. If the ball has gone to ground, then the group of bound players is called a ruck. The very important principle of rucks and mauls is that once they are set, two imaginary offsides lines become present at the back of each team's rucking/mauling players extending from touchline to touchline. Any player running into the zone who is not joining the ruck or maul, from behind this line before the ball leaves, is considered offside and a penalty can be awarded to the other team.

What are the most common types of rugby penalties?

Offside is the most common penalty during a match. If a penalty is awarded within goal kicking distance of a team's kicker, the team captain may elect to have the kicker take an uncontested place kick at goal for three points from a spot determined by the referee called a mark. If the kick is successful, play is restarted at the 50 metre line with a drop kick back to the scoring team.

A 22-metre dropout: After an unsuccessful penalty kick, play is usually restarted by a drop kick (a kick executed by allowing the ball to hit the ground before kicking it) to the kick attempting team from the 22 metre line.

Other common penalties include violent play, barging, not releasing the ball, obstruction (blocking) and diving over a collapsed ruck. Other options available to a team awarded a penalty include restarting play by a tap kick through the mark with the opposing team ten meters away or an uncontested kick to touch which is awarded back to the team receiving the penalty award.

Free kicks: For minor infringements, such as a foot up in the scrum, a free kick can be awarded. A free kick is just like a penalty kick except it cannot be taken directly at goal and if it goes to touch, the other team is awarded the ball for the lineout.

What is a scrum in rugby?

Very often a player will lose the ball forward during a tackle or just while running and receiving a pass, thus knocking-on. If the ball is quickly picked up by the other team, the referee will let play continue to allow the recovering team to take advantage of the mistake. If no advantage occurs, then the referee will whistle for a scrum to be set at a spot he indicates on the pitch also called a mark. The team that did not lose the ball is awarded the ball to put into the scrum. A scrum is also awarded whenever a pass is made in which the ball goes forward.

The typical procedure of scrummaging involves each set of front row players binding and the hookers calling for the locks to join the formation. The flankers join on each side of the locks setting their shoulders below a prop's outside buttock. The No. 8 joins at the back between the hips of the two locks. While this is occurring the captain of the forwards can be calling a move while the backs are shouting out code words signalling what move they will be running. The forward pack with the put in is then allowed the courtesy of initiating the coming together of the scrum. Upon a prearranged signal between the hooker and scrumhalf, the scrumhalf will roll the ball into the tunnel underneath the two locked together front rows. Each of the hookers will then attempt to push the ball behind him with a sweep of his foot. All of this is occurring while each pack is attempting to push the other backwards driving themselves over the ball.

If the ball is won cleanly, most often the scrumhalf will run to the back of the scrum to retrieve the ball from in front of the No. 8's feet and pass it to the backs, to a breaking loose forward, or make a run or kick of his own. The opposing scrumhalf will follow looking for a chance to snap up any loose ball. The No. 8 may also decide to pick up the ball himself, and start a back row move from the back or base of the scrum.

One exciting aspect of scrummaging is the pushover try. A pushover try is scored when a scrum is set close to the attacking tryline. The attacking scrum will keep the ball at the No. 8's feet driving the defending pack backwards across the tryline. Once the ball has been dragged across the tryline, the No. 8 or scrumhalf will touch the ball down for the try.

What is a line-out in rugby?

The other common set piece in rugby, besides the scrum, is the lineout. After a ball has been kicked or run into touch (out of bounds), the forwards of each team will line up at the spot indicated by the touch judge as the touch mark. Normally, the hooker of the team being awarded the ball will be the person to throw the ball back into the lineout. The other forwards will lineup at least 5 metres away from him but no further than 15 metres. The opposing team will lineup to match their counterparts. Someone on the team with the throw-in will call a coded signal indicating who the ball will be thrown to and any subsequent move. At the same time the flyhalf should also be calling a move. The hooker will then throw the ball to the intended receiver who has jumped into the air. Most often the throw is to the locks who are jumping in the second and fourth positions in the lineout supported by the players on either side of them. Once a jumper does jump, these supporting players are allowed to lift him higher into the air and hold him there. Once the ball is secured, most often many of the forwards on both sides of the ball bind together and a maul will ensue until the ball is produced for another phase.

How do you score a try in rugby?

If and when the ball is produced from a ruck or maul without penalty, usually by the scrumhalf, the ball will most often be passed to a forward charging back through the defence or to the flyhalf who has pre-determined a course of action. The flyhalf is the person normally determining all moves which the backs will run. Once he has received the ball he will then start a run, make a pass, or kick the ball. All of this must be done very quickly as the opposing backs and forwards will be quickly rushing up to tackle whomever has the ball.

The moves the backs run will include a number of different manoeuvres and ploys to put the backs into open running space. Common running tactics include loops, switches, dummies, and miss passes. A loop is where a player will make a short pass to another and then run around to the other side of that player to receive a return pass. A switch is where two players will cross paths allowing the ball carrier to pass behind himself to a runner running on a different angle. A dummy is a faked pass to another runner freezing or decoying the defender. A dummy switch is a switch where the ball carrier does not pass the ball to the crossing runner. A miss pass is a pass which is thrown past the first immediately available supporting player to runners further past him.

When the ball is being run, a player tackled to the ground must immediately release the ball (the defender tackling the runner must release the runner after the tackle) making it available to both teams. Typically the tackled player will attempt to place the ball closest to his own supporting players. Those supporting players will make a decision to pickup the loose ball or drive over the ball and tackled player to bind together into a new ruck. The defending team will do the same thing in an attempt to push the attacking team backwards. If the ball is picked up and advanced again by either side, a maul can quickly ensue if the advance is checked by the defence and the ball does not go to the ground. Each time a successive ruck or maul is set, it is described as a phase of play.

Once a player makes a break over the tryline, he must touch the ball down to the ground to be awarded the 5 points for the try. If he loses the ball in the dead ball area, the ball will come out and play will be restarted with a 22 metre dropout. Often a player will cross the tryline close to one of the touchlines and will turn back towards the posts before touching down. This is done to provide a better angle for the person attempting the conversion kick. The kick for extra points must be taken from a mark perpendicular to the spot where the try was touched down. Thus the kicker's job is typically made much easier when the try is awarded centered between the posts.

The conversion kick is a place kick taken immediately after the try and worth 2 points. The defending team must retreat behind the tryline but can rush the kick once the kicker makes a move towards the ball to kick it through the uprights.

Who are the All Blacks?

The national rugby team -- or should we say national religion -- in New Zealand! Learn more about the history of New Zealand rugby.

Is rugby just a bloke (guy) thing?

Absolutely not! The Black Ferns in New Zealand (National Women's team) are a formidable opposition and play against many other teams around the workd. Oh, and as far as spectators go, who wouldn't want to watch Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams?


So not just a bloke thing - still don't believe us?

Check out these videos…

The "trailer" for a video competition set by "Glacier Country", here in NZ - a rugby challenge at the top of glacier (where you'd end up if you went on a helihike on an ACTIVE NZ trip) The winning entry in the competition, from members of a female team from Barcelona, Spain - winning an all-expenses paid trip for 7 to New Zealand during the World Cup.
The girls received a great welcome on their trip to New Zealand, and were featured on national television, including some footage of their high-altitude rugby game on the top of Fox Glacier. You can see how they got on on this clip on the One News website.

And something for the girls…


The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, the new All Blacks jersey un-rippable, but the loudest cheers during the All Blacks vs Tonga match in the 2011 World Cup was this Sonny Bill Williams moment.

And for some inspiration, here's Jonah!