The rugby World Cup kicked off on Friday 20 September, with the final taking place on Saturday 2 November in Yokohama. Teams from 20 countries have been competing for the Webb Ellis Cup, named for William Webb Ellis, the Rugby schoolboy who is credited with inventing the game when he picked up the ball during a game of football. For the uninitiated, the commentary on a rugby game – foot-up, hand-off, head-up, put-in, knock-on – can make it sound more like a dance routine than the bruising sport it really is. If you don’t know your forwards from your backs, or have no idea why a player might opt to go blind, this guide is for you.
In a game of rugby, each team has fifteen players; the eight forwards make up the pack or scrum (an abbreviated form of scrummage). Although a set-scrum is intended to be an orderly way of restarting play, it is often a good deal more chaotic, reflecting its roots in skirmish “an episode of irregular or unpremeditated fighting” between armies or fleets of ships. Scrums that are more informal are called mauls (from a medieval term for striking someone with a heavy weapon, originally Latin malleus “hammer”) or rucks (from a Scandinavian word for a heap or stack—related to rick “haystack”). The technical difference between the two is whether the ball is in the hand or on the ground—a distinction that can be difficult to apply when lying underneath a heap of bodies and being trampled on by studded boots.
The front row is made up of a hooker (so called because his job is to hook the ball out of the back of the scrum), supported by two props. Behind them are the second row (or locks), while the back row (originally used of a chorus line of dancers) consists of two flankers (from the term used for the outer edges of an army) and a number eight. The forwards’ job is to outshove the opponent’s pack so as to deliver the ball to the seven backs, or three-quarters: the scrum–half, fly-half, wingers, and full-back. These positions were originally termed half-backs or quarter-backs—the latter is now a key role in an American football team.
The aim of the game is to touch the ball down over the opponents’ goal-line, thereby scoring a try—so-called because it wins the right to try to kick a goal. A try was originally known as a touchdown, another rugby term that is better known for its use in American football (although ironically there is no requirement to touch the ball on the ground). Kicking a goal, or converting a try (once known quaintly as majorizing), is achieved by kicking the ball through the upright posts.
A distinctive feature of rugby is that the ball can only be passed backwards. As well as the forward pass, players should avoid the hospital pass—where the ball is offloaded to a team mate just as a burly opponent prepares to make a crunching tackle; the name derives from the likelihood of the recipient requiring hospital treatment. There are various types of tackle: some—like the ankle tap—sound quite gentlemanly, while others—the choke, crash, dump, smother, and spear tackles, decidedly more brutal. The late tackle (carried out after the ball has been passed) is really a euphemism for an attack on an opponent without the ball. Given the rather physical nature of the game, it is perhaps not surprising to find players getting injured, or what rugby players themselves refer to dismissively as getting a knock. A blood injury requires a player to leave the field in order to receive treatment (generally in the form of the magic sponge, a sponge soaked in cold water, which appears to cure all ailments) in the blood bin (not to be confused with the sin bin to which a player goes following a yellow card).
Instead of passing, a player may opt to kick the ball using one of several methods: the drop-kick (when the ball is kicked as it hits the ground), punt (kicked before hitting the ground, from a dialect word meaning ‘push forcefully’), place–kick, up-and-under (also known as the Garryowen after an Irish rugby club in Limerick), or grubber (which runs along the ground). Less orthodox is the hack (from an Old English word meaning “cut in pieces”)—an intentional kicking of an opponent’s shins instead of the ball.
The current holders are New Zealand, whose pre-match ritual is the haka, a ceremonial Maori war dance. There is no sight more guaranteed to make you glad that you are watching from the safety of your own living-room than 15 huge Kiwis performing this intimidating display.
Featured image: Rugby Pitch by Tomas Serer, public domain via Unsplash.