Definition of Rugby

(From Collier's Encyclopedia, Edition 1997)

RUGBY, a type of football game, taking its name from the English public preparatory school. Derived from soccer or association football, Rugby in turn was the forerunner of American football. Kicking and dribbling with the foot are a part of Rugby; however, continuous passing of the ball is its most characteristic feature. The game enjoys its greatest popularity in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and France. The amateur game, the main concern of this article, is played with 15 men on each team and is called "Rugby Union." The professional game is called "Rugby League," and although it resembles the amateur game in many respects, there are differences in the laws, or rules, and only 13 players on a team. The object of the game is for each side to attempt to ground the ball beyond their opponent's goal line and score the greater number of points within two 40-minute periods of play.

Playing Conditions and Scoring.

Rugby is played with an oval-shaped, leather-covered, inflated ball, 11 to 12 inches (28-30 cm) long, 23 to 24 inches (58-62 cm) in circumference, and weighing 14 to 15 ounces (400-440 gm). A Rugby ball is fatter, that is, more rounded and less pointed, than an American football. Although body contact is an important feature of Rugby, no protective equipment or padding is worn. The players wear jerseys, shorts, and boots with leather studs on the bottom.

A Rugby match, or game, is played on a field that extends no more than 110 yards (100 m) in length from goal line to goal line. A goal post stands in the center of each goal line. Beyond the goal line at each end is the "in goal" area (the equivalent of the end zone), no more than 24 yards (22 m) deep. The playing area is bounded by "touch" lines on each side. The field is no more than 75.5 yards (69 m) wide, from touch line to touch line. It is bisected by a "halfway" line. In Rugby (unlike American football) terminology, each team's ten yard line is ten yards from the halfway line.

Rugby matches are made up of two 40-minute periods of play, broken by a period of not more than five minutes at half-time (after which the teams change sides) and by not more than a two-minute period for each permitted delay in the match.

Fifteen men participate on each team at the start of a match; there are eight forwards and seven backs (two halfbacks, four three-quarter backs, and a full back). The forwards are the equivalent of linesmen in American football. Substitutions are not permitted, and if a player leaves the match because of disability or by order of the referee for a rule infraction, his team must play with one fewer player.

A referee and two "touch" judges officiate at Rugby matches. The referee is the sole judge in applying the laws of Rugby and is the sole timekeeper. No player may leave or return to the playing field without his permission. The touch judges follow the play from the touch zones and signal with a flag when the ball or a player crosses the touch line on either side of the playing field.

Scoring in Rugby may be by grounding the ball in the opponent's "in goal" area (known as a "try," 4 points in Rugby Union, 3 points in Rugby League), the equivalent of a touchdown in American football; by place-kicking a goal after a try (2 points); by making a "free" or penalty kick for a goal (3 points in Rugby Union, 2 points in Rugby League); and by drop-kicking the ball for a goal during the play (3 points).

The Rugby ball is more easily drop-kicked than the American football, and the scoring system encourages this tactic. Attempts at place-kicking a goal after a try has been scored are made with the defending team lined up behind their goal line--the kicking team must be behind the ball --until the kicker starts his run up to the ball, when the defending team may try to block the attempt at a goal.

Playing Procedure.

A match begins with a kickoff from the center of the halfway line. The ball must be kicked beyond the opponent's ten-yard line, after which any player who is "onside" (not ahead of the ball in the direction it is advancing) may kick or dribble the ball with his feet, pass the ball, run with it, or, except for certain conditions, tackle an opponent who is carrying the ball. The forward pass is illegal in Rugby at all times, a condition which follows from another law. No member of the ball carrier 's team may be ahead of the ball carrier. If he cannot elude a tackler, the ball carrier will usually try to pass the ball laterally (to the side) or backward. In Rugby a pass is usually made underhanded with both hands. After a man has been tackled, he immediately releases the ball, and it can then be picked up or kicked by a player of either team.

At no time during play may players charge each other except with their shoulders. Also, a player who is not running with the ball must not charge or obstruct an opponent who is not holding the ball. A penalty is incurred for willful tripping, striking, or holding (generally a penalty kick for the opposing team). The referee awards a penalty kick at the point where the infringement has occurred.

The action in Rugby is more continuous than in American football. Rugby has no scrimmage and no series of downs. Play is uninterrupted except when scores, penalties, or out-of-bounds ("in touch") plays occur. After a score, play is restarted with a kickoff from the center of the halfway line. The method of starting play after it has been stopped for many minor penalties is a "scrummage." In a "set" or "tight" scrummage, a player from the team awarded the scrummage rolls the ball into a tunnel formed by the opposing sets of eight forwards binding together with arms round each others' waists in three rows each and bending forward so that the shoulders of the front row (three men each side) of each team meet. Each "pack" of forwards then pushes against their opponents and attempts to "heel" or kick the ball to their backs, all of whom remain behind the scrummage line until the ball emerges. (A "loose" scrummage is formed spontaneously when one or more players from each side close round the ball if it is held or trapped briefly after a tackle or "line-out.") The method of starting play after the ball goes out-of-bounds is a "line-out." In a line-out both packs of forwards line up next to each other at a 90 angle or straight out from the side (touch) line at the point where the ball went out-of-bounds and jump for the ball which is thrown down the middle over their heads.


Rugby developed through an infraction of the rules by a Rugby School boy, William Webb Ellis, during a soccer (or association football, as it is known outside the United States) match in 1823. The ball-carrying play by Ellis spread to a number of other English public schools, and in 1839 students at Cambridge University gave it a trial during an intramural game, which they called "Rugby's game." In 1848 the first code of the game was formulated and Rugby soon acquired wide recognition. By the 1860's two distinct types of football had developed--handling and nonhandling. In 1863 supporters of the nonhandling game formed the Football Association (association football or soccer). In 1871, 21 amateur clubs established the Rugby Football Union and drew up the original laws of the game.

Toward the end of the 19th century many Rugby players were taking pay for their efforts, although the practice was not generally accepted. The Northern Rugby Union, a professional organization, was formed in 1895 by a group of clubs that wanted to recompense their players for time taken from their jobs while fulfilling playing engagements. This organization was renamed the Rugby Football League in 1922.

The Rugby (amateur) code is followed throughout most countries in the world where Rugby is played. Introduced in the United States about 1875, Rugby was the precursor of American football. Rugby has had its longest popularity in the San Francisco Bay region. It has never become immensely popular in the United States.

H. Archie Richardson.

(From Collier's Encyclopedia, Edition 1997)

RUGBY SCHOOL, one of the first public schools in England, located at the village of Rugby about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of London. It was founded and endowed by the will of Laurence Sheriff of Rugby, who died in September 1567. Originally local in character, Rugby became one of the most famous schools in England. Its reputation grew during the headmastership of Thomas Arnold from 1828 to 1841, when the school achieved scholastic distinction. The first beginnings of the game that became known as Rugby football are traced to a game played by a school team in 1823. In 1857 a former Rugby student, Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) published the famous novel Tom Brown's School Days.

Thomas Robson Hay.