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The History and Rules of Rugby

Updated on November 3, 2010

Rugby is one of the forms of football played with an oval, inflated ball. Although kicking and dribbling with the foot are a part of the game, its most characteristic feature is the handling of the ball with continuous passing movements swinging from end to end of the field. The game has its largest following in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and France, in all of which countries it is a major sport, played by numerous amateur and professional teams. The amateur game, with which this article is mainly concerned, is played with 15 participants on each team and is often referred to as "Rugby Union" to distinguish it from the professional "Rugby League" game. The latter resembles amateur Rugby in its major aspects, although there are some differences in the rules and only 13 players on a team. There is no professional "Rugby League" in the United States and the amateur game has been subordinate to the popular fall sport known there as football. United States football (and Canadian football, which closely resembles it) developed through an evolutionary process in which Rugby, as played in the 1870's, was a major early influence. Rugby itself evolved from earlier forms of the game known in the United States as soccer and in Britain as association football, or simply as "football".

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History of Rugby

Forms of "football", in which objects of various shape were kicked up and down fields of various size, go back to classical times; and, in one or another of its guises, the sport enjoyed popularity in England from the 12th century. The consensus of historians is that the game played in the early 19th century by some English schools and universities was an all-kicking game resembling modern soccer.

This would seem to be confirmed by the traditional account of an event which took place at Rugby School in 1823. The story was preserved on the school campus where, much later, a plaque was set in the wall, bearing the legend: "This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who, with a fine disregard for the rules of football, as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A.D. 1823." It may be assumed that some of Webb's schoolmates began to experiment with this innovation. Elsewhere in England during the succeeding decades, there were, in addition to the many who continued to play the conventional all-kicking game, a few who preferred "that Rugby game" in which ball carrying was permitted. In 1839, a game of the Rugby type~gained popularity at Cambridge University, and, later, Oxford students were also playing it.

In 1861, the noted Blackheath team, which had played the earlier kicking game, experimented with the rushing aspects of Rugby. Soon, there came into being a pair of organizations which brought about a permanent separation of the two games. In 1863, the London Football Association, which preferred the all-kicking game, drew up rules for association football (or soccer). In 1871, the Rugby Union was created, formulating rules for the rushing game and officially adopting for it the name by which it has since been known- Rugby.

Conditions of the Game

The preferred dimensions for the turfed Rugby field are not more than 110 yards from goal line to goal line and not more than 75 yards from touch line (side-line) to touch line- as against a width of 53 yards in United States football. Goal posts similar to those of an American football field are set in the middle of each goal line. The posts, which must exceed 11 feet in height, are 18.5 feet apart, and the crossbar is 10 feet above the ground.

Parallel to each goal line is a line 25 yards therefrom. A halfway line, parallel to each goal line, divides the field in half, like American football's 50-yard line. On each side of the halfway line there is a line parallel to and 10 yards from it. Not more than 25 yards behind each goal line is the dead-ball line, parallel to it; 25 yards is the preferred distance. This territory behind the goal line is known as "in goal," and corresponds to American football's end zone, except that the latter extends only 10 yards behind the goal line. Thus the entire field (preferred dimensions) is almost twice the area of the American football gridiron.

The leather-covered, inflated ball is oval (technically, a prolate spheroid). The length of the long axis is 11 to 11.25 inches; the circumference around the long axis is 30 to 31 inches. The circumference around the short axis is 24 to 25.5 inches. These axis circumferences are larger than those of an American football, which is, however, of the same length. The Rugby ball is thus "fatter"—more rounded, less pointed. It was the type used in American football before World War I.

In Rugby's early period there were 20 players on a team; but since 1875 the number (in the amateur game) has been 15. Eight of these men, usually the heavier ones, are forwards who correspond to the linemen in American football and who "pack down" in set scrummages in a designated order. The other seven are backs, including the full back, scrum-half, stand-off half, left and right wing threequarter, and left and right center threequarter. No substitutions are permitted, and therefore a team suffering injuries must play shorthanded.

The uniform consists of shorts, jerseys, knee-length socks or stockings, and heavy, ankfe-length, cleated shoes. It is similar to that used in soccer rather than to the heavily padded one used in American football. No helmets are worn. Although Rugby, like American football, is a game featuring running and tackling, no interference ahead of the ball carrier is permitted; and serious injuries are far less common than in American football.

Scoring and Rules of Rugby

A game, or match, as it is usually called, consists of two 40-minute halves with a 5-minute interval between them when the teams exchange the goals they are to defend. There is no overtime to break ties. Points are scored on the following basis: try- 3; successful conversion after a try- 2; goal from a free kick or a penalty kick- 3; drop-kicked goal otherwise obtained- now 3 points (until the mid-1940s, 4 points).

A try corresponds to the touchdown in American football but is less highly rewarded in the scoring. It is made when a player touches down the ball (in his possession) behind the opponents' goal line. He attempts to do so as near the center of the goal posts as possible, for reasons explained in the next paragraph.

A try is followed by an attempt at conversion, similar to the point-after-touchdown conversion in American football. It involves place-kicking the ball between the goal posts (or the imaginary lines extending upward from them) and over the crossbar. The kick is attempted from a point directly in front of the place where the ball was downed when the try was made. If the try was made directly between the goal posts, the conversion will be made from directly in front of them, at whatever distance from the goal posts that the converting team chooses. Should the try have been made five yards from the touch line (sideline), the conversion must be attempted at any spot five yards from the touch line, hence at a wider angle. In that case, the converting team usually kicks from farther back, in order to narrow the angle. Until 1959, one player held the ball, but it is now placed directly by the kicker, usually in a heel mark to keep it point upward. Opponents must line up behind their goal line and must remain there until the kicker starts his run for the kick.

A free kick is made after a player catches the ball and signifies, by calling "mark" and by making a heel mark in the ground, that he does not intend to run with it (fair catch). He may then make a place kick or a drop kick in an attempt to score 3 points (or he may punt for distance) from the place where the mark was made. A place kick or drop kick for a 3-point score may also be attempted when a penalty kick is awarded for certain rule violations by the opponents. The drop-kicked 3-point goal "otherwise obtained" is referred to as a dropped goal. It is made when a player in possession of the ball elects to drop-kick it over the goal posts instead of attempting to make a try. Sometimes the drop kick is made on the run.

Differences between Rugby and American Football

It will be noted that kicking is more highly rewarded in Rugby, ball carrying more highly rewarded in the style of football which developed in Canada and the United States. Not only the scoring values but the shape of the ball contributes to the greater importance of kicking in Rugby. The rounder-pointed ball is easier to control with the foot, especially in drop kicking, which is virtually a lost art in American football. Conversely, the narrower American ball is easier to grip with one hand and to forward pass in spiral fashion.

There are three other major differences between Rugby and the American game :

1)Interference with would-be ladders in front of the ball carrier, or blocking, is illegal in Rugby. In fact, no member of the ball carrier's team may be ahead of the ball carrier, who is, accordingly, "on his own." Any such teammate would be offside, a penalty or nullification resulting. If the ball carrier cannot elude a tackier, his usual recourse is to pass the ball sidewise or backward to a teammate in a better position to advance it. Or, he may punt the ball to move it far downfield. When passing the ball, the player usually throws it underhanded with both hands. The wider Rugby field makes lateral passing more effective than it is in American football.

2)The forward pass in Rugby is illegal at all times, a rule which follows automatically from the offside provision discussed in the preceding paragraph. A "throw forward", or throw in the direction of the opponents' goal line, is penalized if ruled willful. Otherwise, a scrummage results. The term "scrummage" is associated with a third (and perhaps the most important) major difference between Rugby and American football.

3) Ruby has no scrimmage and no series of downs. Fluid and continuous (much more nearly akin to soccer) except when penalties, scores, or out-of-bounds plays occur.

When a Rugby player is tackled or impeded so that The word "scrummage" bears a close resemblance to the American term "scrimmage," and the -latter was obviously derived from the former. However the differences between the two are more important than the similarities, even though both are "mass" plays in which the heavier forwards play an important part in aiding the ball-carrying backs. There are two types of Rugby scrummage: (1) the "tight" or "set" scrummage, which occurs after an infringement or when the ball becomes buried and unplayable in the ruck, and in which the forwards go down in a set formation; and (2) the "loose" scrummage, which occurs spontaneously when the ball is held or trapped briefly, as often occurs after a tackle or a line-out (return of the ball from out-of-bounds). In both cases the aims are the same, namely either to "heel" the ball to the backs or to "wheel the scrummage" and dribble the ball forward with the feet. The American scrimmage starts with the ball in possession of a given team, and it remains so after the center passes or hands it back, barring a misplay. Here the scrummage differs radically.

In the set scrummage, the eight forwards of each team line up in opposing groups. They are not in a straight line of eight, but generally in a 3-2-3 or 3-4-1 formation, that is, there is a group of three in the front line, two or four in the second line, and three or one at the rear. The forwards of the leading trios of each team lock arms around each other's waists and brace themselves shoulder to shoulder against their opponents, while the other forwards get set to press against their teammates from positions directly in back of them, to give their "packs" greater power. The scrum-half of the team awarded the scrummage throws the ball straight into the tunnel between the opposing leading trios of forwards. He is not permitted to throw it toward his own pack. After the ball has been thrown, the forwards, forbidden to handle the ball in the scrummage, begin to push against their opponents and to vie with them in kicking or "hooking" or "heeling" the ball in such a way that it will come out through the back of the scrummage and be recovered by their own scrum-half or one of their other backs, all of whom must remain behind the scrummage line until the ball emerges. Thus the scrummage is an "impartial" play, far more akin in purpose to hockey's face-off or basketball's center jump than it is to American football's scrimmage.

When the ball is kicked or rolls into touch (out of bounds), it is returned to play by a line-out. This consists of the two sets of forwards lining up in two straight lines at right angles to the touch line. A player, usually a wing three-quarter from the team which has not put the ball into touch, then throws in the ball in a straight line above the heads of the forwards, who jump for it and try either to knock it to one of their backs or to catch it and throw it to him.

Rugby, in general, is a more "open" game than American football, with play fluctuating all over the field, and action less often interrupted. Whether it is, on this account, superior, is purely a matter of taste, but Rugby calls for at least as much skill, speed, ruggedness, and stamina as does any other form of football.

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