17 November 2014

My friend, Mary, has been telling me that she enjoys watching rugby (union that is, rugby league is a whole different ball game) on television but has little idea of what is going on. Here then, are a few helpful hints.

There are two teams of fifteen players each, one referee and two touch judges who run up and down the lines at the side of the pitch and wave a flag when the ball is kicked over a line; this is known as “being kicked into touch”. There is also the crowd of varying size depending on whether the match is an international at Twickenham or one between two obscure provincial clubs. The function, however, remains the same, i.e. to shout advice and encouragement to the players and question the parentage of the referee.

If you attend a rugby match, do not, on any account, stand directly behind the goal, as you risk being mown down by a knot of muscular young men. The aim of the game is to score a “try” by exerting downward pressure on the ball behind the goal line. This is often done with balletic grace and gives the team five points; another player then attempts to kick the ball over the bar for two more points – “a converted try”. Johnny Wilkinson was well known for converting tries when he played for Newcastle Falcons. In this way, the score sheet can build up quite quickly in a way that does not happen in football. Sometimes a player takes a direct kick at goal; this is a “drop goal” and is worth three points. One important fact to remember is that that the ball may be carried forwards but may only be passed backwards. Players who forget this give penalties to the other side. Serious breaches of the laws may result in a trip to the “sin bin” for a few minutes – the grown-up version of the naughty step.

Sometimes, players form themselves into a heap to resolve whose turn it is to play the ball. This means that a rugby team is very muddy by the end of the match, except for the full-back who does not get involved in such things. A more organised way of settling disputes is called a “scrum”. Only the forwards, numbers one to eight, take part in the scrum and the participants are big – really big. The players lock themselves together and push in an attempt to to gain possession of the ball which has been thrown into the space between the teams by a number nine or scrum half. In cold weather, steam can be seen rising from the scrum, a combination of body heat and passion for the game. The front row, the props and hooker, are often very adept at concealing from the referee what is happening to the ball once it enters the scrum. If the ball has been kicked into touch, a “line out” will take place at the spot where the ball went over the line. A nomber of players line up facing one of the hookers (number two) who calls out an obscure code and then throws the ball at the lines. One member from each side is lifted into the air (again like ballet but less graceful) in an attempt to take possession of the ball.

A rugby match lasts 80 minutes and if there is, for example, an injury the clock is stopped so there is no extra time added on. However, the match does not end until the ball is out of play – over the try line or the touch line. In theory the match could go on for hours, but by that time, the players are thinking of a hot shower and a cool pint of beer so they tend not to hang around.

Well, Mary, I hope this helps you and other ladies who have been puzzled by the goings-on on the rugby pitch. It’s a great game, a wonderful spectator sport.