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May 20, 2019

Rugby 101: A quick start guide – Part 1

To the newbie on the rugby pitch, the game can be a little tricky to follow. I’ve been spectating for a while now and still find myself asking, “What just happened?” Putting together this quick start guide – thank you Rugby Canada and World Rugby – helped with understanding the basics. Check the list of key terms included at the end of this article, if something you read needs a little more explaining. 

Read Part 2 of the quick start guide for more information on playing the game – tackling, rucks, scrums, and lineouts.

Now channel a little Sean Connery Scottish burr as you read along – it makes it a little more fun.

Where rugby began

The story goes that rugby was first conceived during a schoolyard game of football in England in 1823. It has continued to evolve into a game of honour and discipline with players very serious about respecting the laws of the game and each other.

The object of the game

The objective of rugby is to score more points than your opponent – sounds pretty straightforward. Essentially, teams work together to move the ball to find a player with free space to run, avoiding tackles, and touching the ball down in the opposing team’s end (dead ball area) to score a try. The team with the most points at the end of the second half is the winner.

The game of 15s is played with fifteen players on each side over two forty-minute halves. Players are always in motion with the clock running continuously throughout the match unless a penalty is called. It is a fast-paced, strategic game that is action packed from start to finish.


There isn’t much equipment required. Players are required to wear a mouth guard – mandatory for play. Cleats and team jerseys, socks and shorts make up the rest of the uniform.

The game is played on a pitch – a large grassy surface that is 100m long and 70m wide with uprights at each end of the field.

The rugby ball is similar to the North American football – just a little larger and without laces.

Two rules of thumb

You’ll likely notice this first one right away. A distinctive feature of rugby is that the ball can only be passed backwards or sideways between team members – never forward. You have to pass the ball back to move it forward. If a forward pass is made, a violation is called resulting in a scrum to the opposing team (more on scrums in Part 2).

A second rule of thumb is to always stay behind the ball – or your teammate with the ball. If you are ahead of the ball and touch it, that results in being offside – and a penalty is awarded to the opposing team.

Recap: the two things to remember are pass backwards and stay behind the ball or the teammate with the ball.

How to score

Scoring with a try

As mentioned, teams score by running the ball into the opponent’s end (the dead zone) and touching it down on the ground for a try. This is worth five points.

Scoring with a conversion

Following a try, just like in North American football, teams can kick – called a conversion – for two more points. The kicker sets up for the conversion perpendicular to where the ball was touched on the ground for the try. The ball must be kicked between the goal posts and above the crossbar to result in two additional points for the kicking team.

Scoring with a penalty kick

A team may take a penalty kick following – you guessed it – a penalty to the opposition. It is taken from the point on the field where the penalty occurred. If the ball goes through the goal posts, the kick is worth three points.

Scoring with a drop goal

A final way to score is a drop goal. This play is difficult and not used very often. During live play, a player can drop the ball to the ground and once it has landed, they can attempt to kick it through the posts. This is worth three points.

Moving the ball

Now that you know how to score, you should know how to move the ball into scoring position. Teams can use any combination of passing backwards or sideways, or kicking and chasing to move the ball down the field. The idea is to use any of these methods to free up open space and get the ball to the dead ball area for a try.

Teams typically use a backwards or sideways pass to move the ball down the field towards the opposing team’s end. And don’t forget – a forward pass will result in a violation so make sure those passes are backwards or sideways.

But passing isn’t the only game in town. Teams can also move the ball by kicking and chasing it inside the boundaries of the pitch. All players must be behind the kicker to be able to chase the ball.

The positions

One of the great things about rugby is that it is a game for everyone. The different positions require different skill sets making it possible for all players to find a way to contribute to the team’s efforts. There is a need for big players, small players, fast players and strategic players. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know about the positions.

In a game of 15s, there are lots of players and lots of action to follow. The names of the positions may sound a little different at first – scrum half, hooker (yes that’s for real), and prop. A handy piece of information is that the jersey number always refers to the player’s position…I did not realize that until I was a couple of seasons in (insert eye roll). This diagram will help you to visualize where players line up in a scrum.


Players 1 through 8 are forwards. These players tend to be the bigger, stronger, and heavier members of the team. Forwards typically use their strength and size to move and protect the ball – often times in short gains made against the opponents biggest, strongest, and heaviest members. These are the players that bind together in a scrum using their strength to get the ball.


Players 9 through 15 are backs. These players tend to be the faster, smaller, more agile members of the team. Backs typically use their speed and agility to find weaknesses in the opponent’s defence. These are usually the players running the ball into the dead ball zone for the try.


Rugby is a tough game. There is one rule that is important to remember and it is designed to keep players safe: “Be fair. Play fair.”

In the name of keeping the game safe, here are a few things players cannot do:

  • Obstruct opponents;
  • Tackle too early, too late, or above the shoulders;
  • Tackle a player when they are in the air;
  • Do anything that is unfair or dangerous.

More to come

This article covered some key information on the basics of rugby. Check out Part 2 of the quick start guide for a little more information on playing the game – tackling, rucks, scrums, and lineouts.

One more beginner’s guide that is helpful can be found on the Aurora Barbarian’s website at: Aurora Barbarian’s: A Beginner’s Guide to Rugby Union

Key term definitions

The following is a list of key terms to help explain the rugby basics:

  • Pitch: the field of play. It is 100m long by not more than 69m wide – a little longer and a little wider than an American football field.
  • Dead ball area: the area past the goal line measuring 10 and 22m at the each end of the field where a try is scored.
  • Touchline: the side boundary of the field (sideline).
  • Try: the act of scoring points for your team – forcing the ball down over the opposition’s goal line. A try is worth 5 points.
  • Conversion: the kick following a try to attempt to add two extra points. The scoring team can receive an additional two points by kicking the ball between the goal posts for a conversion.
  • Forward Pass: a violation; it occurs when the ball is passed forward to another teammate which results in a scrum to the opposing team.
  • Knock on: occurs when a player loses possession of the ball and it goes forward. Results in a scrum to the non-offending team.
  • Tackle: occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and brought to the ground. Only the ball carrying players may be tackled.
  • Offside: occurs when a player is further forward (closer to the opponent’s goal line) than the teammate who has possession of the ball. If the offside player engages in play, they are penalized.
  • Lineout: occurs to restart the play when the ball goes over the touchline (the side boundary of the field). The non-offending team gets possession of the ball and controls the throw in.
  • Throw in: occurs to restart play when throwing the ball down the middle of the lineout.
  • Free Kick: follows a minor violation allowing the non-offending team to restart play unopposed. The offending team retreats 10 metres and waits for the opponent team to kick the ball. A free kick cannot be taken for goal.
  • Ruck: occurs after a tackle with the ball on the ground. One or more players from each team who are on their feet close above the ball (like a tunnel) and compete for possession. The ball is moved with the feet only. When the ball reaches the further back player’s foot in the ruck it may be picked up.
  • Scrum: occurs after a penalty or infraction to restart play. The forwards from both teams bind together in three rows, the ball is thrown into the scrum by the non-offending team’s scrum half and the hooker attempts to win possession of the ball for their team.
  • Forwards: the eight positions (wear #s 1-8) that pack in a scrum or throw and jump in a lineout. Positions include loose-head prop, hooker, tight-head prop, 2-locks, blind-side flanker, open-side flanker and number 8.
  • Backs: the seven players (wear #s 9-15) that spread out and attempt to run the ball from the scrum or lineout. Positions include scrum half, fly half, left wing, inside centre outside centre, right wing and full back.

Other resources

Rugby Canada is the administrative body for rugby in Canada. Rugby Canada oversees the development of the sport in communities across the country and supports elite programs for prospering young players as well. Their website provides information on provincial unions, national teams, competitions, officials, safety, camps and clinics and much more.

The game of rugby is well represented in each of the ten provincial unions with more and more young girls and women playing across the country. Links to provincial unions can be found on the Rugby Canada site – or by clicking on the province below:

Provincial unions will have information on rugby clubs in your neighbourhood or follow this link on SeeWhatSheCanDo to find a rugby club in your community.


Check out Athlete Advisor, our online business directory for more information on rugby in your community. Find, rate and review rugby clubs, local community offerings and businesses that will help you do your thing!

Find an event or start a group on our SWSCD Hub. Check out Part 2 of the quick start guide on our Discover blog.

Do you have a good resource on the basics of rugby or a story about how the light went on for you? Tell us about your experience on our Inspire page.


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