What you need to know to enjoy watching rugby

Rugby Union can be difficult for new viewers to understand. You’ll often hear first-time spectators saying things like; “it’s really fast… and it looks like it must be fun to play… but I can’t quite follow what’s happening and why!”

Today’s blog was penned by an amateur rugby player who picked up the game in his early 30s. Braden is a huge Baseball fan who came to rugby for the social side of the sport. Here are his thoughts on what you need to know to enjoy watching rugby.

If you don’t have a knowledgeable and patient guide, your first time watching rugby can be a confused and halted experience. Rugby does not lend itself easily to being explained on the fly. 

With so much happening and so few breaks, there’s very little time for a novice to ask questions and receive answers. At the same time, very few guides are in a position to speak intelligently about on-field decisions. Why is this?

Other Sports

In Soccer, Tennis, Basketball and any number of other sports, refereeing decisions are relatively easy to understand for a casual viewer. They are simply the enforcement of rules by the officiating team. Rugby doesn’t have Rules. Rugby has Laws. On the face of it, this might seem like a semantic difference. But this difference is critical to understanding the sport. Decisions made on the rugby field are made more in the spirit of a Law than to the letter of the Law. A rugby referee has a license to interpret the Law as he/she sees fit.

Think about it like this; a Rugby referee is like a Judge assessing if evidence should be presented in a case. A Football or Soccer referee is like the jury deciding Guilty or Not Guilty. Compare this to Tennis for example. The ball is either in or its out. There’s no gray area. In rugby, a player might leave their feet at the ruck for a split second, but if they’re trying to act in the spirit of the Law by maintaining their feet, the referee may choose not to penalize them. One of our Pro Rugby refereeing friends Scot Green explains it as “making a positive play for the ball.”




‘Being positive’ might work well as a guide for players, but it does little to help the casual fan. A person watching rugby for the first time might potentially see the exact same action called in two completely different ways depending on the interpretation of the player’s intent by the referee. Or depending on the particular referee during that particular game. That doesn’t lend itself to easy watching. And its unbelievably difficult for a guide to explain. This means that unfortunately for Rugby, the game’s “barrier to entry” is higher than most sports.

Fortunately, there are just a few key concepts that can make your viewing experience more fluid. If you need a refresher on the game’s basic scoring and gameplay principles, try the Wikipedia article or watch this excellent explainer video by Ninh Ly.

For viewers who are more used to football checkout our analysis of Rugby Vs Football. There’s also a bunch of full rugby games on our YouTube channel that include in-game analysis and commentary. If you’ve never watched rugby before, this might also be a good place to start. 

When you’re ready to give watching rugby a real shot, here’s what you need to know to enjoy watching rugby:

  1. The ball stays live after a player is tackled – Instead of lining up another set formation like after a player is tackled in gridiron football, Rugby re-starts on the fly. The tackled player must play the ball immediately by either placing it on the deck or passing it to a teammate – always backward.
  2. When that ball is released, opposing players can try to pick it up, provided they’re on their feet and haven’t come from the side or behind.
  3. The tackled players teammates will stand “over the ball” to protect it. The shoving match that ensues is called a ruck. Think of a ruck like the line of scrimmage in football. It’s where the play re-starts and controlling it is critical.
  4. Territory is everything. Teams prefer to play in their opponent’s half without the ball, than in their own half with the ball. Turnovers happen on the fly in rugby, and play is continuous, so it’s better to be near the opponent’s goal line than your own, no matter who has the ball. So, teams backed up against their own goal line will usually kick, and…
  5. Only players behind the kicker when the ball is kicked can be the first to touch it after the kick. So: no long boots to waiting players. When pinned in our own zone, the move is to boot it long and chase it hard, putting pressure on teams and forcing them to make a mistake.
  6. Don’t get caught up in the “why” of penalties, just accept them. There are Laws governing how players are allowed to approach and contest the breakdown (ruck). The application of those Laws varies from ref to ref, and nobody is ever happy with it. It all happens very quickly and is hard to spot anyhow. Most of the time, the penalized team has to get back ten yards, and the side benefiting from the penalty can play the ball off of the “mark” that the referee has made with his boot. Dwelling on the details isn’t a good move. Not for novice or veteran observers, and not for players; backchatting the ref can earn a yellow card and 10 minutes on the sideline.


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