RUGBY: REFEREE SIGNALS EXPLAINED

Seen a referee officiate at a rugby match but confused about their signals? They're not easy to understand. We give you all the details. 

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Rugby referees make a lot of different signals with their arms. Each signal means something different, but what exactly? We make things clearer for you by explaining them all.

1. THE KNOCK-ON OR FORWARD PASS

The referee makes different signals for these two infringements. When indicating a forward pass they make a hand gesture as if passing an imaginary ball forward (image 1). When indicating a knock-on, the referee holds an arm outstretched with open hand above their head and moves it backwards and forwards (image 2)

But when does the referee blow their whistle for one or the other? A forward pass is when a player passes to a team-mate but the ball goes forwards, which is not allowed in rugby. A knock-on is a handling error, with the ball being accidentally knocked forward rather than being passed forward. In both cases the referee blows their whistle and awards a scrum to the non-offending team. 

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2. ADVANTAGE

When signalling an advantage, the referee holds an arm outstretched, waist high, towards the non-offending team (image 3). The referee signals advantage when an infringement has occurred (a knock-on or a penalty) but allows play to continue. They do so in the belief that the non-offending team can take advantage of the situation. If after a certain period of time, the non-offending team is unable to take advantage, the referee blows their whistle and takes play back to the point of the original infringement.

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3. RUCK: HANDLING THE BALL IN THE RUCK

A ruck is a phase of play in which one or more players contest possession of the ball while on their feet, with the ball on the ground after the ball-carrier has been tackled. Rucks generally involve the player who has been tackled, the tackler and another player from the attacking team. As soon as the ruck is formed, players on the ground cannot play the ball.To win possession, defending players must drive over the ball while keeping their feet on the ground. This action is known as a counter-ruck and allows the defending player's team-mates to then join the ruck and claim the ball. If a player goes off their feet and then handles the ball, however, the referee will award a penalty against them. 

The referee indicates the infringement by placing a hand at ground level and making a sweeping action (image 4)

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4. TACKLING: TACKLER NOT RELEASING THE TACKLED PLAYER OR TACKLED PLAYER NOT RELEASING THE BALL

When making a tackle, the tackler must release the ball-carrier immediately, while the ball-carrier must release the ball. The referee blows for a penalty if they do not. 

If the tackler does not release the tackled player, the referee indicates a penalty by bringing their arms together as if grasping a player and then opening them as if releasing (image 5). If the tackled player does not release the ball immediately, the referee indicates a penalty by bringing their hands close to their chest as if holding an imaginary ball (image 6)

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5. MAUL OR RUCK: JOINING A RUCK FROM THE SIDE

One of the most important rules in rugby involves entry into the ruck or maul: players must join alongside or behind the hindmost player but not in front. If they do, they will be deemed to be offside. The infringement results in a penalty being awarded to the opposing team. 

The referee indicates the infringement by extending an arm horizontally and moving it sideways(image 7).

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6. MAUL OR RUCK: UNPLAYABLE BALL

It may be the case that the ball becomes unplayable during a maul or ruck without either side necessarily being responsible (e.g. the ball is stuck on the ground beneath the players). In response, the referee may decide to award a scrum to the team in possession of the ball when the ruck or maul was formed. 

In indicating an unplayable ball at a maul, the referee keeps one arm by their side and folds the other across their chest (image 8), while at a ruck, the referee holds one arm out and moves it backwards and forwards (image 9).

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We've looked at all the most common situations where the referee blows their whistle in rugby. So the next time you watch a game, you'll know what their signals mean. Enjoy the match!

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