Forwards of the Wabash rugby team bind and attempt to hook the ball back in a scrum against DePauw on November 16, 2022, at Little Giant Stadium. Photo by Jake Paige ’23.

The Wabash rugby team plays its first and only home tournament of the year on Saturday, March 25, at Little Giant Stadium. With Cedarville University, Purdue University, Indianapolis University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and DePauw all in attendance, the event promises to put on display some of the finest rugby talent in the Midwest.

But, I hear you asking, what on earth are the rules of rugby? Isn’t it just wonky football? Well, in a way, yes—though it might be fairer to say that football is a skewed version of rugby.

So, let me lay out some of the basic rugby rules for you. And although this guide is far from a comprehensive list of rules, it should give you all you need to know to cheer the Little Giants on to victory.

What is the objective?

The objective in a game of rugby, like most ball sports, is simple: score more points than your opponent. Broadly speaking, there are three ways a team can score points:

(1) Try. The equivalent of a touchdown in football, a “try” is worth five points. However, unlike in football, the ball must be touched to the ground in the “tryzone” (endzone) for points to be awarded.

(2) Conversion. Equivalent of a PAT in football, a conversion is worth two points and comes after a try. A conversion can be taken as close to the goalposts as a kicker desires. However, it must also be kicked in line with where the try was scored.

(3) Penalty kick. Worth three points and awarded when an opponent commits a foul.

How many players are on each team?

In worldwide rugby, there are two prevailing forms: rugby union and rugby league. However, in the United States, only rugby union is played.

Rugby union, which follows the points system described above, is further broken down into two main forms: 15s and 7s. If it wasn’t obvious, the names correspond to how many players are on each team. While 15s is the traditional form of the sport, 7s is more accessible and more widely played in America.

How does gameplay work?

The basic mechanics are very simple. A 7s match is 14 minutes long, broken into two seven-minute halves. The ball can be moved up the field by running, passing or kicking it. There is, however, one very important caveat—the ball can only be passed backward.

Wait, you can only pass backward!??

Stay with me. Yes, you read that right—in rugby, you can only pass backward. A forward pass is a foul that results in a turnover of pos- session and a “scrum” (more on scrums later). Therefore, there really is merit to the statement that in order to go forward you must first go backward.

What are the positions?

Given that Wabash plays 7s, let‘s stick with the 7-a- side form of the game for now. In 7s, the players are roughly broken into two groups: forwards and backs. You can sort of think of for- wards as defensive players and backs as offensive players, but in reality both sets of players play both offense and defense.

Projected starting lineup for the Wabash rugby team ahead of their home tournament on Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Little Giant Stadium. Graphic by Arman Luthra ’26.

A rugby 7s team will typically have three forwards and four backs. The forwards participate in the scrum and consist of two props (one on either end of the scrum) and a hooker (no, not that kind of hooker). Think of forwards like offensive linemen, and especially think of the hooker like the center who hikes the ball back toward the quarterback.

The backs are the fun positions. The main attraction is, of course, the scrum half, who you can think of as the quarterback of a rugby operation. It is the job of the scrum half to put the ball into the scrum, collect the ball at the back of the scrum and act as a playmaker in possession. But the scrum half also has a defensive role, acting almost like a safety when the opposition has the ball. It is by far the most varied position in rugby.

There are three other backs alongside the scrum half. First there is the fly half, who is the side’s main playmaker and often doubles up as the team’s kicker. Next is the center, who passes the ball out to the wing and is usually the largest of the attacking players. Last is the winger, who stays out wide and scores most of a team’s tries. The wingers are the wide receivers of the rugby world who double up as corners on defense.

Why does play never stop?

It is important to note that, unlike in football, play does not stop when a tackle is made. Instead, when a player is tackled to the ground, they must release the ball. When this happens, the attacking team forms what is known as a “ruck.” In the ruck, teammates of the tackled player step over the ball and push away defenders who are trying to pick up the ball. Eventually, somebody else picks up the ball, and play resumes.

What does the scrum do?

The referee can award a scrum when a team commits a foul. In the scrum, the forwards of one team bind together with the forwards of the other team and push. The ball is then rolled into the middle of the scrum where the hookers use their feet to try and move the ball back toward their scrum half. However, in modern rugby, the scrum has become almost useless as teams are allowed to roll the ball almost directly to the feet of their own hooker.

What can a team be penalized for?

I have already mentioned one of the most common fouls: the forward pass. But there are countless other things outlawed in the rules of rugby. They include, but are certainly not limited to:

(1) Knock-on. A slightly strange foul, but a knock-on occurs when a player loses possession of the ball and it drops in front of him. Think of it almost like a fumble. A knock-on results in a scrum.

(2) High tackle. Tackling above the shoulder is strictly forbidden and usually results in a two-minute trip to the “sin bin” (i.e., the player is ejected for two minutes and the team is forced to play with six men during that time).

(3) Not releasing. When a player is tackled, they must release the ball. Failure to do so results in a penalty call.

(4) Tackling in the air. Defenders cannot tackle an opponent who is jumping for the ball.