With its passes, tries, penalties, and knock-ons, rugby has some very specific rules that can sometimes be hard to understand. We look at them in detail for you. 

At professional level there are three forms of rugby: union, league and sevens. 

The most popular version globally is union, which is what we're going to talk about here. The ball is oval-shaped and cannot be passed forwards. That is the basic principle of the game.

But we're going to give you more details. 



The first thing you need to know before you start watching or playing rugby is how long a match lasts. Playing time is 80 minutes, divided into two halves of 40 minutes each, with half-time lasting ten minutes. Extra time, should it be necessary in a knockout match, comprises two halves of ten minutes each. 

Matches begin with a kick-off and are restarted after points are scored by a restart kick. The team that has just scored receives the ball and the kick must travel at least 10 metres. If it does not, the receiving team is awarded a scrum on the centre spot. When a defending player touches the ball down in their own in-goal area - the ball having been kicked or played there by an attacking player - the defending team restarts play with a 22-metre drop-out. But if a defending player grounds the ball after carrying it into their own in-goal area, the attacking team is awarded a five-metre scrum.





A knock-on is when a player unintentionally knocks the ball forward and is unable to retrieve it before it hits the ground. If a pass goes forward it is called a "forward pass". Passes should always go to a team-mate level with or behind the player making the pass. This is a rule peculiar to rugby. In the event of a knock-on, the team in possession loses the ball and the opposing team restarts play with a scrum. Scrums are contested by the eight forwards in each team. The two packs of eight contest possession by pushing each other.


When a team crosses the try line and touches the ball down in the in-goal area they score a try and are awarded five points. Two points can be added if the kicker then kicks the ball between the posts. This is called a conversion. They must kick the ball from a point in line with the point where the try was scored.

Another way of scoring points is a drop goal. A drop-goal involves bouncing the ball on the ground and then attempting to kick it between the posts. If successful, the drop scores three points. 

Points can also be scored from penalties. Penalties are awarded for serious infringements. The team awarded the penalty has various options: kicking the ball into touch, taking a tap penalty (tapping the ball with one foot and then passing it to a team-mate), taking a scrum or kicking for goal.

Every time a team scores points, play resumes with the opposing team taking a restart kick from the halfway line. The scoring team always receives the ball from a restart. 



Infringements are part of the game. With both minor and serious infringements, it is sometimes difficult to understand why the referee has blown their whistle and what decision they have taken. Referees indicate their decisions by making different signals. 

The referee may decide initially to play an advantage. Advantage can be played after a minor infringement (e.g. a knock-on) or when an infringement would normally result in a penalty (e.g. offside).Other common infringements in rugby are the forward pass and knock-on. These result in the referee awarding a scrum to the team not in possession. A scrum can also be awarded when the ball becomes unplayable in a ruck or maul. It can sometimes be the case that neither side is at fault for this, such as when the ball is stuck at the bottom of a maul and there is little prospect of it emerging. The referee then awards a scrum to the team in possession of the ball at the time the ruck or maul was formed.

The referee may decide to award a penalty against the team causing the infringement. The team awarded the penalty can decide to kick for goal, take a tap penalty or call a scrum. A penalty is awarded when one of the fundamental rules of rugby is infringed: failure to release the player or the ball after a tackle, a player failing to roll away from a ruck after going to ground, or entering a ruck or maul from the side. If players fail to observe these laws it can slow the game down and can result in the referee awarding a penalty against them. 



There are two types of phase of play in rugby: static and dynamic, from which all play stems. The main static plays are the scrum and lineout, whereas the ruck and maul are both phases of dynamic playThese phases are specific to rugby. Drop-outs, kick-offs and restart kicks are also static plays.

Lineouts are awarded when the ball is kicked or carried into touch. The ball is awarded to the side not in possession at the time the ball went into touch, unless the ball was kicked into touch from a penalty. Scrums are awarded following a minor infringement or a break in play. Scrums are contested by the two packs of forwards, with 16 players taking part in them. 

Rucks are commonly formed after a tackle. A ruck is the area on the ground where players contest possession for the ball by remaining on their feet and in physical contact with each other. 

The ruck is one of the most keenly contested phases of play in rugby and it is formed with a minimum of three players. A ruck is also known as the breakdown.  

Finally, the maul is a technique by which a group of players stay on their feet and bind together in an effort to gain ground or score a try by forcing the ball over the try line. Unlike rucks, mauls occur spontaneously and the ball does not touch the ground.



You've no doubt seen some of the hard-hitting tackles that are part and parcel of the game of rugby.But why do players do it, you ask? Tackling is an action specific to rugby. Tackles are made on players who are running with the ball in their possession. There is an art to tackling, however. Tackles must be made below the shoulders of the player on the ball and the tackler must wrap their arms around them to bring them down. Rucks are usually formed after a tackle. 



Rugby union matches are officiated by a team of match officials. The referee is in the thick of the action and signals the infringements that occur during the course of the game and also indicates when tries are scored etc.The referee is aided in their duties by two assistant referees, formerly known as touch judges. The assistant referees signal when the ball goes into touch and can also flag if they spot any infringements.They are there to help the referee. At professional level, a television match official is also on hand. Their assistance is requested when the referee needs to review a possible infringement or check if the ball has been grounded in the in-goal area. 


The referee can also issue cards of various colours. These are as follows:

Yellow card
These are shown to indicate that a player has been cautioned and temporarily suspended from the game. The player in question must leave the field of play for ten minutes and cannot be replaced during that time. Players can be shown a yellow card by the referee for serious infringements or for indiscipline and misconduct, as explained in the laws of the game. In such cases the referee calls the player and their captain over, explains the reason why the card is being shown and then shows the card to the player. The player must leave the field of play immediately and wait for ten minutes on the touchline before rejoining the game.  

Red card
The red card is the heaviest sanction a referee can impose on a player. A player shown a red card will take no further part in the match. In France they may be banned for subsequent matches if, in the days after the match, the national refereeing committee decides such action should be taken after examining the infringement or the player's behaviour. The red card may be shown for serious infringements and/or if the player's conduct or actions are deemed by the referee to be unacceptable or intentionally dangerous. A player may also be sent off if they have already received a yellow card and commit another cautionable offence.

Blue card
With a view to protecting the health of players, the French Rugby Federation (FFR) introduced the blue card in the 2017-18 season. Blue cards are issued by the referee to players they suspect of being concussed. The player in question is required to rest for a period of between 10 days to several months before being able to play again, depending on the player's concussion history. The card was introduced to enhance player safety. Like players with injuries, players receiving a blue card can be replaced. Referees are trained to detect signs of concussion by the FFR's medical committee.


You now know everything you need to know! You're more than ready to watch rugby union on TV or pitchside or, better still, play the game. And if we've forgotten a rule that you think is essential, tell us about it in the comments section.