In Instant Expert #1: The Basics of Rugby, we offered a complete beginner’s guide to the Game, which aimed to give you just enough essential information to be able to understand Rugby World Cup 2015 and the Game as a whole.

But as essential as that was, The Basics will only take you so far. If you’re to progress to truly understanding what is going on out there on the pitch, you’ll need to reach the next level of understanding. We’re calling it Stage II: The Rules of Rugby Made Simple.

We believe that as the world becomes whipped up into a frenzy of all things Rugby World Cup 2015, you’ll need more than a basic grasp of the rules to survive and thrive. You will need a more rounded understanding of who does what, when, where and why, and an understanding of why the little man keeps blowing his whistle.

This being Rugby, one of the more complicated games on the planet for the uninitiated, it could get confusing. But we promise it won’t. We’ve kept everything as light and painless as possible, distilling just the essentials and leaving out the stuff you don’t yet need to know.

So, if you’re quite ready, let your education begin again…


All the best games need rules, otherwise they fall into chaos. Rugby has many rules but we’re distilling things down to the following four points. 

i. The Fundamental Rule

The ball must never be passed or knocked forwards from a player’s hands. It can be thrown sideways or backwards, or it can be kicked in any direction, but never passed forwards. If it is, the referee will award a scrum to the opposition. (see below)

ii. Onside and Offside
Staying onside is crucial and should be the aim of every player. Whenever the ball is in play, any player who finds himself ahead of a team-mate carrying the ball, and who then actively attempts to play the ball, is deemed to be offside and likely to concede a penalty, taken from the place the offence was committed. (The offside rule also comes into play at set-pieces and when rucks and mauls are formed, though this falls under Really Advanced Rules of Rugby and will only complicate matters here.)

iii. Penalties and Foul Play
Penalties are generally awarded for fouls, many of which will go unseen by the human eye watching from the stands or on television. Often, numerous niggly fouls take place while the players are rucking or mauling, with players perhaps thinking the referee will not spot their nefarious acts. But he does and metes out penalties as punishment. Fouls, when they occur, fall in to one of four categories: Obstruction, Unfair Play, Repeated Infringements or Dangerous Play/Misconduct. The severity of these can often lead on to point iv. 

iv. Disciplinary Matters
Cards are dealt to any player who engages in the foul play detailed in point iii. A yellow card is a final warning. Any player receiving one is sent to the sidelines for 10 minutes in what has become known as the ‘sin bin’, leaving his team a player light and cursing his name. If, on his return, he commits another offence worthy of a caution, that player then sees a red card and is sent off for the remainder of the match.


There are four main ways to score points and win a Rugby match. They work as follows…

i. A Try

The showpiece approach to point scoring, this ideally involves a player flinging himself full-length over the try line, having run half the length of the pitch like a gazelle in heat. Alas, it doesn’t always work that way.

To score a try (worth 5 points), the player must simply place the ball on the ground with downward pressure in the in-goal area – the zone behind the goalposts, between the try line and the dead ball line. If any part of his body crosses the touchline – the white line marking the edge of the pitch – the try will not count. Crucially, the player must also be in control of the ball as they ground it.

Tries can be scored in a number of other ways, besides running over the try line and touching the ball down. These include a pushover try, scored by driving the opposition’s scrum back over its own line; the momentum try, where a player slides into the in-goal area (providing he does not make a ‘double movement’ to get the ball over the line); and the penalty try, awarded when a team illegally obstructs an opponent to prevent them scoring an almost certain try.

Unlike in association football, an ‘own try’ cannot be scored. If a player touches the ball down in his own in-goal area, it is usually an act of defensive desperation and results in a drop-out – the defending team drop-kicks the ball back down the field to restart the match.

ii. A Conversion
If a team scores a Try, they are awarded a place kick that allows them to convert it into an extra two points if it sails between the posts and above the crossbar. A conversion can be taken from any distance in line with the spot where the try was scored.

iii. A Penalty Kick
This is a kick at goal that comes as a result of an infringement, with the ball placed where the infringement took place, or from where the ball landed if the player is obstructed after he kicks it downfield. A successful kick is rewarded with three points, providing it sails over the crossbar and between the posts.

iv. A Drop Goal
A further three points are awarded for a drop goal, which can be scored from anywhere on the pitch as long as the ball touches the ground between being dropped and kicked, and as long as it also passes over the crossbar and... ah yes, you know the rest.


You will soon note that the shrill toot of the referee’s whistle is a regular sound in Rugby, signalling that the ball has gone out of touch or that the referee has spotted an infringement by one of the players or teams. When this occurs, he’ll restart the match with a set piece – either a lineout or a scrum. Now these are crucial, so concentrate hard here.

i. The Lineout
This, essentially, is a jumping contest to win possession of the ball. The two teams line up past the five-metre line with a metre between both lines. The hooker of the team awarded the lineout throws the ball towards a player on his team, primed to rise and catch the ball. A carefully choreographed game of bluff and deception, the player rising will choose his moment to jump, lifted by his team-mates and hanging high in the air for what seems like an eternity, like an extra in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When he catches the ball, that ball is very much back in play.

ii. The Scrum
Perhaps the most confusing element of the Game to the uninitiated, a scrum most often results from play being stopped for a forward pass, a knock on or for accidental offside. What occurs in the scrum is muscular, terrifying and complicated, but in a nutshell the act is a contest of brute force between the two forward packs. Once the ball has been ‘fed’ into the scrum, straight down the middle of both packs, the more dominant pack retrieves it by heeling it towards the back of the scrum and into the hands of their hooker, from where flowing play resumes once more.


Only the player in possession of the ball can be tackled – otherwise the Game would degenerate into a lawless free-for-all. The tackle must be made below chest height and, when tackled, the player must release the ball after he hits the ground. Neither he nor the tackler can play the ball again until they are back on their feet.


In Rugby, the ball cannot be passed forwards. Backwards and sideways, yes, but never forwards, towards the opponent’s dead ball line. Likewise, if the ball is knocked on by a player while attempting to catch or pick it up and the ball hits the ground, it’s a knock-on and the referee will blow for an infringement. As it also is if the player is tackled and the ball goes forwards. (However, if the player fumbles the ball during any of the above, but catches it before it hits the ground, it is not a knock-on.)

A knock-on will result in a scrum being awarded to the other team. One key exception to all of this is if a player knocks on during a charge-down – which is the act of him charging down an attempted kick downfield by an opponent. If he knocks on here, it is not a knock on and play continues – possibly as reward for the on-rushing player risking the ball being kicked firmly into his face.


These two crucial elements of the Game are both similar and different.

i. The Ruck

This occurs when a tackled, ball-carrying player goes to ground. They must release the ball immediately, at which point the race is on to gain possession of it, providing it remains in play and on the ground. The tackled player’s team-mates will quickly arrive and bind together over the ball and push their opponents’ back, using their feet to ‘ruck’ the ball back to their side. Players joining the ruck can only bind on from the back, never the side.

To gain possession, both sides must try to drive over the ball to make it available for their team-mates behind them. If the ball disappears and does not come out of the ruck after five or so seconds, the referee will likely award a scrum to the team he considers to have had the greater forward momentum in the ruck.

ii. The Maul
The maul is very similar to the ruck, only the player carrying the ball remains on his feet, allowing his team-mates to bind on and push their opponents back. A maul begins when there are at least three players – the ball carrier and one player from either team.

And that is that.

Actually, that is very far from being that. What you have just read (and hopefully memorised) is only scratching the very surface of the Game and its many, many rules. It’s not a definitive guide but it should give you enough knowledge to progress from Absolute Beginner to Enlightened Intermediate.

Of course you are not yet at the Expert stage, but in time and with enough matches under your belt, that will come.

Instant Expert #1: The Basics of Rugby

Instant Expert #3: From 0 to 4 Billion, Rugby World Cup in Numbers

Instant Expert #4: The Numbers Game

Instant Expert #5: War Games, A History of the Haka

Instant Expert #6: Deciphering The Referee’s Hand Signals

This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Nick Harper.