Guide to the Rules of Rugby Union and Rugby League

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  • Basics
  • Union
    • Positions
    • Formation
    • Game Play
    • Scoring
  • League
    • Positions
    • Game Play
    • Scoring
  • Further Reading

Rugby, named after the town in which it was invented, is sport that enjoys popularity all over the world. Here we take you through the rules of the game and explain the differences between the two major codes, rugby union and rugby league.

Basics of the Game

Rugby is a full contact ball sport played between two teams. Each team attempts to get the ball to the opposite end of the field and touch it down on the ground to score what is known as a try. The ball is carried forward in players hands and can be thrown between layers, but only with a backward or level pass.

As well as scoring tries, it is also possible to score by kicking the ball between the H shaped goal posts at a height above the crossbar. Conversions are scored by kicking the ball from the ground through the posts and are a dead-ball situation that occurs following a try, penalties are also taken from the floor at stops in play caused by infringements of the rules. Drop goals can be scored from open play at any point in the game, but rather from kicking the ball from a stand on the ground, the kicker drops it from his hands and strikes it on the bounce.

Though all these ways of scoring are common to both formats they are worth different amount of points in different versions of the game.

Other similarities include the layouts of the pitch which are the same save for the fact that rugby union fields are slightly bigger, the physicality of tackles used to stop the opposition as they carry the ball forward and the length of the match (80 minutes). Whilst the basics of the game and the mechanics of things like kicking, passing and tackling are very similar, when it comes to actual game play, the different codes are quite different. Let’s take a more detailed look at how each works.

Rugby Union

This is the form of rugby you will see played in contests such as The Six Nations, The Aviva Premiership, The Heineken Cup and The European Challenge Cup. In this form of the game there are fifteen players on each side.


The team can be divided into seven ‘forwards’ and eight ‘backs’. The forwards are generally the biggest, strongest players and it is the forwards who take part in scrums, line outs, mauls and rucks, all of which involve using battling for possession of the ball.

If the forwards are concerned with winning and keeping the ball, then the backs are dedicated to converting that possession into points. The scrum half will take the ball when the forwards have recovered it from a ruck or a scrum and will then distribute it to the fly half. The fly half then orchestrates the side’s attacking play. The three ‘quarters’ behind him usually attempt to make runs and put together moves that result in tries whilst the full back stands well behind the rest of team (when in possession) so he can take any kicks from the opposition and return them, or generally act as a last line of defence if possession is ‘turned over’ quickly and a counter attack is launched against his team.


The difference between forwards and backs is more obvious when a team is attacking. The forwards will be around the ball in a pack formation, pushing things forward with the scrum half and fly half, back from them looking to take possession when it is secured. The backs are then normally found in diagonal line, going out into the side of the pitch where there is more space and back towards their own half. Being arranged like this helps the team in possession progress. As the ball can only be passed backwards the ‘line’, has to advance in this staggered manner to allow the ball to be moved along to points where an advantage can be pressed.

When defending, however, the team will try and organise itself into a flat line. This is simply because if the players are all in line with each other it is much harder for opposition backs to weave between them and make a breakthrough that could lead to a try.

Game Play

Whilst game play is fluid, with the attackers free to put together moves to try and score points in any legal manner, it tends towards a few set scenarios. There are three common ways that a team may try and advance. They might kick the ball forward, either into play or into touch. The person carrying the ball might opt to ‘take into contact’, which consist of driving ahead into the oppositions defensive line and depending on the forwards to help recover the ball when a tackle is made, or they might pass it along trying to open up a gap in the defence for one of the backs to burst through.

If the ball is kicked to the other team and they retain it whilst it is in play, the game continues but with the attacking and defending roles switched. If it goes into touch then there is a line out taken by the team who didn’t kick it out. If the ball is carried in the hands then, either the player will go through and make a try or, more commonly, the opposition will tackle them. If they are tackled to the floor (tackles have to be controlled, below shoulder height and cannot consist of a shove, barge or kick) then a ruck will follow. This is where forwards from each side try and gain control of the ball by advancing over it. (As we’ll see later rucks are one of the biggest differences between rugby union and rugby league).

A maul is similar to a ruck but rather than a player being taken to ground, they are held on their feet by the opposition. Forwards from both sides will pile in and try and get the ball back.

Play also breaks down if a player runs off the pitch. As with the ball bouncing out of play, this results in a lineout.

The other common way for play to break down is for an infringement. Minor infringements such as ‘knock ons’ (playing the ball forward with your hand) and being offside (being ahead of the ball) result in a scrum, with the non-offending side getting the put in.

More serious offences result in a penalty. This could include a high tackle, coming in to a ruck or maul from the side rather than head on, trying to collapse a maul or scrum (which is dangerous) or holding a player when they don’t have the ball. Other fouls may be more of a cynical attempt to gain an advantage, with holding the ball once a player has been tackled being a very common example (once grounded, players need to let go of the ball, which is why rucks occur, to try and keep a move going after a tackle).

When a team is awarded a penalty they can kick for goal, kick the ball out of touch, or choose to have a scrum (their put in). Alternatively, the penalty player can just tap the ball against his boot and restart normal play immediately. When a penalty is kicked into touch, it is the side who were given the penalty that get to take the line out rather than the other way around.


In rugby union a try is worth five points, a conversion is worth another two and a penalty is worth three points, as is a drop goal.

Rugby League

This is a newer version of the game and was formed with the intention of making a more fast paced watchable game. It is the same as rugby union in most of its rules, but the few differences there are make for a big difference in the way the game is played.


In rugby league you only have 13 players, seven backs and six forwards. They operate in a similar fashion to their counter parts in rugby league, and this applies to attacking and defensive formations too. So, again, the forwards are generally the biggest, strongest players whilst backs are faster.

Game Play

The biggest difference in rugby league is the structure of game play. As detailed above, in rugby union there are various ways in which play can break down and possession can be contested, but none of them guarantee that the ball will change hands. Indeed, it normally takes a mistake or a great bit of defensive play to recover the ball (aside from when the ball is kicked forward, trading off possession for field position).

In rugby league there is a ‘tackle count’. When a team has the ball and is attempting to progress up the field every tackle made by the other side is counted. When they have made six tackles, the ball is handed over to them. It’s not too dissimilar to the first downs system in American football, where a team has four attempts to make a certain amount of progress. In rugby league, a side has to score within six tackles of getting possession or give up the ball.

With this being the case, possession is not contested in rucks every time a tackle is made. Instead, once a player is floored (as long as they don’t spill the ball in the process) they are allowed to get up and roll the ball back to the dummy half who, as a scrum half would in rugby union, then distributes the ball.

Once a tackle has been made the defending team have to retreat ten metres. Only two players from the defending team can be closer than this. They can are called markers and any player can be a marker at any point, though it is almost always the player who made the tackle. If there is no marker the tackled player can restart play himself without needing to roll the ball back. This can make for a quick attack.

As teams want don’t want to give away possession closer to their own end than necessary, they will usually opt to kick the ball up the field after five tackles.

Another big difference in rugby league is that scrums are essentially non contests. Because the ball is fed to the back of the scrum it is almost impossible for the defending side to win the ball. As such, scrums are simply a way of restarting the match, but with the defending sides having to deal with the disadvantage of having their organisation disrupted by the fact their forwards are temporarily tied up.

There is also a difference in the rules regarding line outs resulting from the ball being kicked out of play. In union if the ball is kicked out without bouncing then the opposing team get a lineout from where the kick was taken as opposed to where it went out of play. This is to encourage accurate kicking, and to try and make sure teams don’t solely use the ploy of hoofing the ball up field to gain position. In league, the rule is that kicks in to touch have to be taken from behind the attacking players 40 metre line and have to go out of play behind the defence’s 20 metre line. In addition, they need to bounce. As this makes things more difficult, in league the ploy of kicking to gain position will often be left until the fifth tackle, and even then it is more common to see a ‘bomb’ kick than a kick to touch. This is where the hall is kicked high, but not too far, giving attackers a chance to get under it and recover it, or at least make up ground and stop the team receiving the kick from building up much forward momentum.


This is another major variation. In rugby league a try is worth four points, a conversion is worth two, as is a penalty, whilst a drop goal is only worth one. This means it would take six drop goals to make up for a converted try. In union six drop goals would be worth 18 points, more than two converted tries and a penalty.

This system highlights the fact that the rules of rugby league are focused towards a fast paced game focused around attempting to score tries, rather than the more attritional approach often seen in union where, as turnovers are few and far between, slowly making long periods of possession count is more important.

Further Reading


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