By DR. J. ZIMMERMAN
Rugby is the second-most popular spectator sport in the world, right behind soccer (based on match attendance and TV analysis). It also is the fastest growing sport in the United States, growing at a rate of 13 percent faster than lacrosse.
Rapidly expanding youth leagues, high school teams, college leagues and adult club divisions mixed with a new professional league shows the increasing popularity of rugby in the USA.
Since rugby is on such a rapid rise and the Summer Olympics (7s Rugby is played) and the fall 15s rugby season is quickly approaching, it is the perfect time to discuss how the 15s game of rugby union is played.
Here is your rugby 101. The main attraction to rugby is its physicality mixed with speed and skill. This is why most people can’t look away — despite not knowing the rules — when they pass by a rugby match while browsing the television channels.
Also, the fact that the games consist of 80 minutes of non-stop action with both teams defending and threatening to score at a moment’s notice makes rugby extremely exciting.
The main object of the game is to take an oval ball (larger than a football) and run the ball across a goal line. The ball progresses down the field by players tossing it backwards. Unlike American football, there is no forward passing.
Once the player crosses the goal line, the score does not count unless the ball is touched down to the playing field with downward pressure. This is where American football got the term “touchdown.”
This is one of the reasons why you see rugby players diving over the goal line with the ball, trying to press the ball to the ground.
Incidentally, when a player crosses the goal line, touching the ball down to the ground, the score is called a “try.” A try is worth 5 points.
Here is where it gets interesting. The point where the ball is touched down over the try line is where the kicker lines up to kick the extra points conversion. The kicker has to move back about 25 yards from the try line and kick from the point of the touched down ball. If the player scores in the corner, the kick comes from that angle 25 yards back. The kick is worth 2 points, which makes the conversion very important, and that is why the players will do their best to score a try and touch the ball down in the center of the goal posts.
This takes some of the pressure off of the kicker. And touching down in the center of the field is not an easy feat to accomplish since most of the time you are fighting to get across the line without being tackled.
Players will always take the 5 points where they can get them unless there is a chance of moving closer to the goal posts without losing the ball before being able to touch the ball down to the ground.
Since we are talking about scoring, if one of the teams commit a major rule violation, the other team will be awarded a penalty. The team awarded the penalty has three choices they can make.
If they are close to the goal posts, they can kick a “field goal” for 3 points. If they are even closer and feeling adventurous, they can quickly grab the ball and go for a run toward the goal to score a try, or, if they are far away in the other team’s territory, they can kick the ball down field out of bounds and receive the ball in their opponent’s territory.
Also, at any time during the match if a player has an opportunity, they can drop-kick the ball through the posts for three extra points. Any player can attempt this if they have a chance. It is difficult to do and is usually used as a last resort when a team is down by two points and there is very little time left in the game.
Speaking of time, rugby matches are 80 minutes long. They are divided into two 40-minute halves with a 5- to 10-minute halftime. Substitutions are allowed (eight per team), but once a player leaves the field, they cannot come back into the game.
Subs are used for injuries or for fresh legs near the end of the game to give the team a boost. These players are called game finishers and are just as talented and important to the team as the starters.
As far as the rules go, (contrary to popular opinion there are rules!), they are not complicated.
First we have the minor rules. The ball cannot go forward, meaning no forward passes or dropping balls forward. Once a player is tackled they have to release the ball so that everyone has a fair shot at taking it.
If any of these minor rules are broken, the other team is awarded the ball via a scrum. A scrum is one of the unique aspects of rugby. It is like a faceoff in hockey, but instead of involving two players it involves two sides of eight players. The team that is awarded the scrum gets to “put-in” the ball, or roll it into the scrum with the plan being that their team of eight will push over the ball and have the ball come out on their side of the field for their team to recover and play.
The problem is that the opposing team’s scrum is not supposed to cooperate. Their objective is to push back — really hard — and try to win the ball for their team. Scrums are fun to watch and an integral part of the game.
If a team commits a major rule violation, the opposite team is awarded a penalty (we talked about these). Penalties are major and can vary from illegal tackles to foul play to illegally blocking an obvious try. There is also an off-sides rule and an obstructions rule.
Some penalties result in a yellow card. The offending player is placed in the rugby “sin bin” and the offending team will play the match with one less player for 10 minutes.
A red card means you have done something so bad that you are out for the game and cannot come back.
Again, your team would be a player short for the duration of the match.
Lastly, one more aspect of rugby needs to be explained. If a ball is kicked or knocked out of bounds, the game needs to be restarted. This is accomplished with a line-out.
Five to eight players from both teams line up next to each other near the sidelines. The team that didn’t knock the ball out of bounds gets to throw the ball into the game.
Just like a jump-ball in basketball, either team can recover the ball.
That’s it. Rugby 101 in a nutshell.
A very simple game that is extremely fun and exciting. Every player on the field plays offense and defense. Every player on the field gets to run the ball, every player on the field has an opportunity to score. It is awesome! I hope you enjoy your next match on television or live at the Jersey Shore Sharks field in Galloway.
Dr. J. Zimmerman is the president of the Jersey Shore Rugby Club Board of Directors. He is the men’s club head coach and director of youth rugby. Dr. J. is also the team chiropractor. For more information on Jersey Shore Sharks Rugby or if you are interested in playing, visit www.JerseyShoreRugby.com or on Facebook at Jersey Shore Rugby Club or call 609-652-6363, email: Jerseyshoresharks@gmail.com.