A beginner’s guide to rugby union

Did you know that ‘the RUC’ is a shortening of the ACT Rugby Union Club? That’s right – as well as being the best place in Canberra to enjoy a cold beverage with mates, our roots go back to the early days of rugby in the ACT. For years, locals have flocked to the Inner North’s most fun, accessible, and welcoming Club to relax with likeminded people and enjoy a bit of ‘the game they play in heaven’.  

So, what is rugby? 

Rugby union is a sport where two teams of 15 players on the field compete to reach the highest score in 80 minutes by either grounding the rugby ball over the try line or by kicking the ball between the goal posts when given the opportunity. 

The game began almost 200 years ago in England, and it has since been embraced by athletes in Australia, New Zealand, and around the world. The story goes that during a game of football at The Rugby School, local lad William Webb Ellis (who the Rugby World Cup is named after) got fed up with the rules and scooped the ball up in his arms and ran with it.  

The ensuing game was so much fun that the boys developed a set of rules that became what we now call rugby. Although the game’s roots are in the 19th Century, the modern era of rugby didn’t truly begin until 1995 when the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) declared rugby to be an open game, removing restrictions on payments and benefits for players.  

The professionalisation of rugby led to the inception of competitions like the Super 12 all around the world, giving athletes the opportunity to make a living out of their football talents.  


The objective of the game is to score more points than your opponent, and there are only 4 ways to score points: 

  • A try is scored when a team plants the ball over the opposition team’s try line. A team is awarded 5 points for a try
  • After a try is scored, the team that scored is given an attempt to ‘convert’ the try by kicking the ball from the ground between the goal posts and above the crossbar. A conversion attempt must be taken in line with where the try was scored, with the kicker able to choose how far out to kick from, and if successful, awards the team 2 points
  • When one team is penalised, the other team can choose to take a penalty goal attempt from the spot of the infringement. If the penalty goal is successful, the team is awarded 3 points
  • A team can also attempt a drop goal at any time. A drop goal is like a penalty goal but taken during open play without time to set up and the ball must be drop kicked (a unique technique for kicking the ball). A successful drop kick awards a team 3 points

Basic Rules  

One of the first things to understand about rugby is that almost every play is contested. The only non-contested plays are when a team is awarded a penalty or free kick and they are allowed to tap the ball with their foot to restart play, and when a penalty goal is attempted, where the defending team must stand 10 metres back until the ball is kicked.  

Since most of the game’s play begins with either a kickoff, a scrum, or a lineout, it’s incredibly important for a team to be well-drilled in these set pieces. A team that can regularly secure possession of the ball from these restarts will in turn have more time with the ball in hand, and therefore more opportunities to attack. Part of the Brumbies’ recent success can be attributed to their dominant lineout plays, especially when they’re close to the try line.  

The other main rules to understand are that if the ball is fumbled and goes forward, or if the ball is passed forwards out of the hands, it is a turnover. When the ball is kicked, players must be standing behind the player who kicks the ball or they cannot be involved in the next play. All tackles must be below the shoulder with defenders having to use their arms to wrap up the ball runner rather than just using their shoulder. 

After a tackle is made, both teams compete for possession in the ‘ruck’. The tackled player must release the ball while each team tries to secure the ball by pushing the opposition back. The ruck is the most confusing part of the game for beginners (and backs), and a good tip to see whether your team is doing well is by watching the halfback standing behind the ruck. When possession is safe, they will be lining up the next ball runner or setting up for a kick.  

Since there is very little guaranteed possession in rugby, territory (or field position) is highly valued. Teams don’t like playing the game in their own half as you could lose the ball and concede, so you will see more long kicks in rugby union than in rugby league. 

A lineout occurs when the ball or the player carrying the ball go over the sideline and out of the field of play. To restart the game, the hooker of the team who didn’t go out of play must throw the ball straight between a pack from each team, and each team is allowed to lift their players to pluck the ball out of the air. 

A scrum is held after errors such as a forward pass or knock-on. Scrums are when the forward pack from each team attempt to push the other team off the ball after it is fed into the tunnel between the two packs.  


Photo courtesy of Honda Heat Rugby Football Club 

1 & 3 – Props: often two of the strongest players on the team, the prop’s main job is to ‘prop up’ the hooker during a scrum.   

2 – Hooker: the hooker is responsible for hooking the ball with their feet during a scrum, as well as usually being the player who throws the ball into a lineout.   

4 & 5 – Locks (aka second row): commonly known as the engine room of the forward pack, the locks are often the largest players on the field. In modern rugby it’s not unheard of for a team to have both locks over 2 metres tall. The locks provide power in the scrum and are often lifted during lineouts.  

6 & 7 – Flankers: the flankers pack down on the flanks of a scrum, hence their name. These players need to be incredibly fit as they need to make a lot of tackles and be quick to the breakdown – David Pocock is one of the best examples of a flanker in recent memory.  

8 – Number 8: this used to be a specialist position but is becoming more and more interchangeable with a flanker. Players who play as both flanker and number 8 can be referred to as backrowers. 

9 – Scrum half (aka halfback): usually the smallest players on the field, the scrum half is the link between the forward pack and the backline. You will spot them feeding the ball into the scrum and distributing the ball from the base of the ruck after a tackle. 

10 – Fly half (aka five-eighth or first-five-eighth): the playmaker of the team, a fly half’s job is to steer the backline and decide what play needs to be made. The fly half has to be able to kick during play and is often the player tasked with taking conversion and penalty goal attempts. 

11 & 14 – Wingers: standing outside the other players on the field near the sidelines are the wingers. Wingers are often fast or powerful ball runners whose main role is finishing off tries. They also usually set up deep inside their own half in defence to cover for kicks.  

12 – Inside centre (aka second-five-eighth): similar to the fly half but will usually be a bigger player in terms of size and power. 

13 – Outside centre (aka centre): similar to the inside centre, but unlike the 12 they are not usually tasked with kicking responsibilities. 

15 – Fullback: the fullback is the last line of defence for a team. They usually sit back in defence to cover kicks, and float around in attack to inject themselves wherever they spot a weakness or overlap.  

What to say to sound like you know your stuff 

When your team is slow to secure possession at the ruck: “Come on ref, they’re lying all over it”. 

When either team elects to take a penalty goal attempt: “I would’ve kicked for the corner here, seems like they’re really starting to build some pressure.” 

When a player is setting up to attempt a kick near either sideline: “He’s pretty good from this side of the field, should be no problem.” 

Any TMO (Television Match Official) check for foul play: “That’ll be a yellow with how it’s been ruled lately.” 

When a player from the other team is penalised for any reason: “He’s been doing it all day, ref!” 

When you notice the clock has passed the 55th minute: “We’ve got to bring on some fresh legs, we’re starting to look tired out there.” 

Where can I watch?   

Apart from getting out to the game, the best place to watch rugby is at the RUC. Book your table, grab the first round, and settle in with your mates to enjoy all the action on one of our huge screens. With a daily Happy Hour and $5 schooners of Capital Brewing’s Coast Ale on Friday from 4pm, you’ll want to come in nice and early to enjoy the game! 

Don’t forget to call ahead to secure your table. You can get in touch with us on (02) 6247 7838, or email bookings@theruc.com.au if you’re coming with a group of more than 3. 

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