We all know that rugby is the most exciting, engaging sport around, but it’s not exactly the easiest one to understand. For newbies and long-time rugby fans some of the game’s history, rules and terminology can be a bit confusing.
The many veteran players there may be bits of rugby terminology that you’ve been using for years but you’ve never really understood what they actually mean, or why they are the way they are. Never fear, we’re here to fill in the blanks, and provide you with a guide to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about rugby, but were afraid to ask…
Okay, big one first – why the hell is rugby called rugby anyway?!
Good start! The rules for the sport that we now call rugby union (there’s also rugby league, but we won’t get into that here!) were first written down at the Rugby School – a private school in the small town of Rugby in Warwickshire, England.
‘Rugby football’ as it was known at the time was one of many different interpretations of soccer played in schools in Britain at the time, and the apocryphal tale is that the game was invented when a pupil at the school, William Webb Ellis, picked the ball up with his hands and began running while playing soccer rather than kicking it back as was the custom of the time.
There’s some doubt as to quite how true this story really is, but the legend has persisted, and the Rugby World Cup trophy is named the Webb Ellis Cup in his honour.
And a try, that’s a funny name – where does that come from?
Well, in the early form of the game, dotting the ball down over the tryline didn’t actually score any points like it does today – instead it merely allowed the attacking team to try a kick at goal. If the kick was successful, it converted the try into a goal, for which points were awarded. Those rules are long gone of course, (the practice of awarding points for tries as well as conversions was actually pioneered in Canada) but the terminology remains today.
I hear people talking about the ’22’ I know what it is, but why is it called that?
When commentators and players talk about the ’22’ they’re talking about the area between a team’s tryline and the first solid white line marked on the pitch – which is 22 metres away from the tryline. Teams place a premium on attack and defence in this area, and if a ball is kicked out the back of the goal or a team grounds the ball over their own tryline, a ’22 drop-out’ is taken from the 22-metre line. There’s also the ’10 metre line’ which is a dotted line 10 metres away from the halfway line. As for ‘why’ the 22 is 22 metres away from the tryline… er… don’t ask!
Why do positions seem to have loads of different names?
A lot of this has to do with matters of geography and time. For example, the modern position of fly-half is commonly referred to as a first five-eighth, or ‘first five’, in the Southern Hemisphere (particularly New Zealand). In the Northern Hemisphere however, it’s common for the fly-half to be referred to as the outside-half.
Similarly, there are common names for position groups – so for the forwards this relates to how they line up for the scrum. The props and hooker are commonly called the ‘front row’, the two lock forwards are the ‘second row’, the the flankers and number eight are commonly referred to as the back row, or occasionally the loose forwards (or loosies).
The scrum-half and fly-halves are the half-backs, the centres are also known as the midfield, and the full-back and wingers are the back three, or the outside backs.
Phew! Simply put there are LOADS of different terms for the various positions and position groups, so when in doubt, just look at the numbers on the back – they’ll never change!
This whole ‘drop kick’ thing – isn’t that a bit of a misnomer? Are you dropping it or kicking it?!
Well, no, it literally does exactly what it says on the tin! Unlike a drop kick of the kind you might see in soccer or football, a drop kick in rugby is when then ball is literally dropped, point first, and then struck by the kicker at the moment it touches the ground.
This is a tricky technique to master, but one that’s essential for fly-halves and other backs to learn – not only is it the type of kick that must used on the kick off (and 22 drop outs) it can also earn points. If a player kicks a drop kick between the posts during open play, a team is awarded three points for a ‘drop goal’. A drop goal is only awarded if the player has attempted a drop kick, as opposed to a punt or spiral, and so it’s a valuable tool to have in your armoury!
People always talk about tightheads and looseheads… er? What’s the difference?
Well, these are the names for the two props on the team, and in simple terms, the difference relates to which side of the scrum they play on – in reality however, the two positions require different techniques to play, and it’s rare for props to be comfortable playing both sides.
The tighthead prop takes the right hand position in the front row, and usually wears the number 3 jersey. The position is called the tighthead because at the scrum they will have opposition players (the hooker and loosehead) binding on both his left and right sides.
The loosehead plays on the left side of the scrum, and only has a player bound on his right – looseheads wear the number 1 jersey. The differences in the jobs of the two props are too detailed to explain here, but looseheads have more freedom to move and so will often be taller and more athletic, while tightheads will be stockier and more compact, as they have to anchor the scrum in a very small space.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about rucks and the breakdown? Aren’t they the same thing?
Well, no – one of these actually happens after the other. A ruck is called by the referee after a tackle has been made, the ball is on the ground and two (or more) opposing players are in contact over the ball, attempting to drive the opposition off the ball and win possession.
A breakdown is what happens after the tackle but before the ruck – it’s a brief period of open play where players can compete for the ball. The competition must stop as soon as the ref adjudges that a ruck has been formed, at pains of being penalized.
And jackaling, what’s that?
Jackaling is a relatively recent term for a defending team winning the ball at the breakdown by getting in over the tackled opposition player before support can arrive and either ripping the ball free, or causing the player to hold onto the ball, winning a penalty. Modern openside flankers such as David Pocock and Sam Warburton are regarded as some of the best ever at this hugely effective and important breakdown skill.
Okay, finally can you tell me who this Gary Owen character is?
Ha! Well, actually it’s neither Gary or Owen, a garryowen is the name of a type of open-play kick commonly used in rugby. A garryowen is a very high up and under kick used by attacking teams to get behind the defensive line while giving the chasing team time to arrive under and compete for the high ball in the hope of retaining possession or forcing their opponent to make a mistake. It’s name comes from Irish club Garryowen, which popularised this kicking tactic during the 1920’s.
What are rugby terms that you were not sure of when you started playing or that novice fans keep asking you what they mean?