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?
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: