What is rugby?

By Nigel Hammersby

Although rugby has a popular following in many of the world’s anglophone nations, few Americans know much about the sport. In fact, rugby erroneously ranked just below cheddar in a recent survey of America’s most-preferred British cheese.

So what is rugby, exactly?

“Rugby is a beastly sport played by gentlemen,” is the old saying, but the truth is that rugby is as savage as competitive ballroom dancing. It’s a sport for delicate men who are graceful and stylish, but who lack strength. Because of the “schoolboy” look of the jerseys, most men who play rugby are foppish social climbers who dislike soccer because of its popularity among poor people in developing nations.

An illustration of William Webb-Ellis, said to be the inventor of rugby. Here one of his schoolmates is attempting to hump his leg. Photo courtesy of the Lordprice Collection.

An illustration of William Webb-Ellis, said to be the inventor of rugby, as he runs with the ball. Here one of his schoolmates is attempting to hump his leg. Photo courtesy of the Lordprice Collection.

Rugby was invented in 1823 by William Webb-Ellis, a sugar-lipped English lad who was playing soccer with his school chums one day. He decided he no longer wished his boots to get scuffed, so instead of kicking the ball, he picked it up and pranced to one side of the field. The other boys, excited by this twist of the game, quickly set upon Ellis and began humping his legs. Thus the sport of rugby was born.

Basic rules

The rules are not easy to learn, which is why some observers have likened rugby to a mix of backgammon, mud wrestling and parliamentary debate.

You need two teams of fifteen players, and the more coiffured the players’ hair, the better. The goal of rugby is to get a prostate-shaped ball to one end of the field, which we Brits call “the pitch.” Achieving this can be accomplished by frolicking there whilst cradling the ball, thereby getting five points, or kicking the ball through the prongs of a giant fork, thereby getting three points. A common practice whilst in possession of the ball is to chant nursery rhymes, just to show how dainty you really are.

At the beginning of a match, the captains of each team join the referee for a coin toss. Because the referee tosses the coin, he is commonly referred to as the “tosser.” The captain who wins the toss decides which end he would like to take it in.

In modern rugby, leg-humping still plays an important role.

In modern rugby, leg-humping still plays an important role.

You may run with the ball, pass it sideways or backwards, or kick it in any direction. At some point you’ll be faced by players from the other team who will attempt to hump your legs to stop your forward movement. Here you can either kick the ball over their heads while saying “oh my goodness — a flock of merry men” or you can pass the ball to a teammate who is then obliged to say “cheers, sister” or the whole team can be penalized and have to wear feathered boas for the remainder of the match.

The ruck

If you are carrying the ball and you don’t manage to evade the other team, they may grope and tickle you until you fall down in a fit of giggles, at which point you must immediately release the ball. Players from both teams will throw themselves around it, forming what’s called a ruck, also known as a “manwich.” This creates a line of scrimmage — like in American football — that may not be crossed by players from opposing teams. Somehow one team usually gets possession of the ball, but this process is a mystery to all those who didn’t go to rugby school. If a ruck does not yield possession after five seconds, the referee flaps his arms effetely, calls out “simmer down, boys,” and orders a scrummage.

The scrummage

A scrummage (often shortened to “scrum”) can also result when a rule has been broken or when the referee would like to admire the players and their thigh muscles. Contrary to popular belief that scrummaging is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the sport, many players don’t actually like the referee poking at their chiseled quadriceps.

To form a scrummage, eight players from each team bind their arms and shoulders and sashay toward the other team. A well-formed scrummage resembles a bunch of battle-scarred men in a support group hugging one another. Because players in the front of the scrummage are allowed to grasp opposing players’ jerseys, they are usually made of plastic and coated in vaseline in order to be slippery.

The first team to giggle at the silliness of the arrangement loses and the other team gets possession of the ball.

The line-out

Perhaps the second-most recognizable aspect of rugby after the scrummage is the line-out, which occurs when the ball has gone out of bounds.

A line-out is formed by lines of players from the two teams. They face each other near the spot where the ball was last in play. Similar to a soccer throw-in, one player must toss the ball between the two lines, making sure to not favor his own team. The smallest and flashiest dresser of the bunch is propelled by his teammates up into the air where he’ll hiss and claw for the ball, much like an angry cat. If he manages to get the ball without breaking the skin of the other player’s arms, he can choose to kick, pass or run with the ball, or he can sit on it and say “olly olly oxen free,” requiring the other team’s players to quack like ducks. The line-out is then repeated.

Long matches with few breaks

The only pauses in a rugby match are when the ball goes out of bounds, a rule is broken, or a player begins to weep, at which point the referee will call out “my lady” and produce a yellow handkerchief that functions as a penalty card. If a player weeps more than two times during a match, the referee throws a pair of red knickers at him and sends the offender to the “sin bin” where he’ll meet with an official league psychologist to talk about his sad childhood during which his parents sent him to school dressed as a nun.

A match is comprised of two periods, each forty minutes long. During the ten-minute break, players usually have a cup of tea catch up on league gossip.

If no team has more points at the end of a match, a draw is declared and all players must join each other in a socialist song-and-dance routine. If a match is deemed important, meaning more than fifty people are in attendance — which is rare — additional time may be added until one side has more points.


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