The beginner's guide to rugby

Can't tell your rucks from your mauls? Think hookers belong in a red-light district? Fear not: Brian Viner offers a crash course in the rules and rituals of the oval ball game.
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The Independent Online

Tonight's big game – for bluffers

There are two codes of rugby: rugby union and rugby league. Supporters of the latter, in which teams comprise 13 rather than 15 players, are mostly ruddy-nosed northerners who consider rugby union a game for effete ex-public schoolboys such as Lawrence Dallaglio. These people will be watching tonight's game grudgingly, if at all. It still irks them that Jason Robinson, England's marvellous full-back who is tonight playing his valedictory game of professional rugby, was persuaded seven years ago to move from league to union. That's not what working-class lads from Leeds are for, they believe (although they are secretly quite proud).

The England fans

Of the large contingent supporting England in the Stade de France this evening, a fair old number will be middle-aged men wearing Barbour jackets and brown brogues, with wives called Lucy at home in Berkshire. This is a lazy and yet irresistible generalisation, and like many generalisations, pretty much true. The "rugger bugger", as the average rugby union enthusiast is styled, is a hearty, pink-cheeked type of fellow who enjoys drinking vast quantities of beer of a weekend. He is greatly enamoured of the English fans' anthem "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". It is ironic as the anthem is a negro spiritual – some of those who sing it the loudest are not known for being paragons of social and racial enlightenment. The journalist Philip Toynbee once remarked that a bomb under the West Stand at Twickenham, the England team's home ground, would set back the cause of British Facism by 50 years.

The Springbok fans

If in England rugby union is a game followed by those who dress to the right, politically speaking, in South Africa that is doubly, or even trebly, the case. The symbolism of Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok shirt at the World Cup final in 1995 was strikingly poignant, because rugby in South Africa had long been the sport which embodied white supremacy. This guide levels no such accusation at the current breed of South Africa fans, but it is nonetheless true that most of them are Afrikaaner farmers; indeed the very language of South African rugby is Afrikaans. A prop is a stut, a hooker is a haker, a number eight is an agtsteman, a scrum-half is a skrumskakel, and so on.

The legacy of 2003

In Australia four years ago, England won the World Cup in extra time, thanks to a drop-goal by Jonny Wilkinson. At the time, they were unequivocally the best team in the world, yet they have rather imploded in the years since and were considered 50-1 outsiders (remarkably long odds for a team still officially world champions) going into this World Cup. If anything, those odds seemed too short when England were destroyed 36-0 by South Africa in the pool stages just a few weeks ago. They bounced back from that humiliation, beating the much-fancied Australians in the quarter-finals and their French hosts in the semis. This counts as one of the most extraordinary comebacks in sporting history, irrespective of what happens tonight. So, come on England!

The line-out

This is rugby union's equivalent of football's throw-in, and is awarded when a player kicks or accidentally carries the ball into touch (off the pitch). The opposing team's hooker then gets to throw the ball back into play, with the seven remaining forwards lined up waiting to catch it, and the opposing forwards trying to intervene. Thus unfolds one of the game's more curious spectacles. The players in a line-out used to jump under their own steam but the laws were changed a few years ago, allowing them to lift each other in a choreographed, almost balletic routine, In fact, a line-out might be one of the most beautiful things you will ever see performed by enormous men with broken noses and cauliflower ears. Before he throws the ball in, you will usually hear the hooker calling a number, which is a coded message to the man intended to catch it. In 1974, on a British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, the Lions' captain Willie John McBride introduced the call "99", which was a coded message for every forward to thump his opposite number. This leads us neatly on to ...

The ball

A rugby ball is oval, and therefore far less predictable than a football in how it bounces (not that predictable bounces help the England soccer team much). Its shape, however, allows it to torpedo quickly through the air when passed or kicked properly. The ball may only travel forward by being carried or kicked. When being handled, it must travel backwards from the player passing it. Forward passes are penalised (except when the referee isn't looking, as in the recent France v New Zealand quarter-final). The match balls have been a subject of controversy in this World Cup. It appears they have been over-inflated, making them harder to kick straight. Jonny Wilkinson has suffered badly from this problem. But last Saturday, he still managed to kick England into the final.

The posts

Arranged in a H-shape, the posts are the target for penalty goals and drop-goals, both of which are worth three points, and for conversions, worth two. The ball must fly between the vertical posts and over the horizontal. Drop-goals are scored from open play, penalties after the referee has spotted an infringement, which isn't always easy with all those big beefy men on top of each other. Conversion attempts take place after tries have been scored. The try, worth five points, is the ultimate objective in rugby, awarded after the ball has been grounded by hand anywhere behind the opposition's goal-line. However, it is quite possible to win a game of rugby without scoring a try, even when conceding one, or more. Hence the importance of the respective team kickers, Jonny and Percy. Jonny we know about; Percy we'll come to next.

The backs

These are the pretty boys of rugby, whose noses and ears do not look like assorted organic vegetables. There are seven of them, ranging from No 9, the scrum-half, to No 15, the full-back. The full-back for South Africa, known as the Springboks, is Percy Montgomery, who is nearly as pretty as Jonny Wilkinson but looks as if he considers himself even prettier. He is very good. So is Bryan Habana, the alarmingly fast South African winger, who came close to beating a cheetah in a race over 100m – and the cheetah wasn't carrying a rugby ball, either. The job of the backs is to run, pass and kick their way towards the opposition goal-line but their role is also defensive, preventing the other set of backs from doing the same.

The scrum

This is a carefully orchestrated group heave in 3-4-1 formation, which takes place after minor infringements. At each scrum, a scrum-half puts the ball in, allowing him to favour his own forwards. Between the props – Vickery and Sheridan in England's case – is a hooker, so-called because his job is to hook the ball back with his boot and if, at the same time, contact can be made between his knee and his opposite number's chin, then so much the better. The scrum is no place for the faint-hearted. Nor is it a place for those easily provoked. England's hooker is Mark Regan, a garrulous West Countryman who likes to wind up the opposition. The South African captain, John Smit, said after England's tour to South Africa this summer that Regan had talked to him more in two games than his wife had in 10 years.

The forwards

The pack is the engine-room of the team. It has eight members and, like all engine rooms, isn't very nice to look at and often smells of grease. It is the job of these hulking brutes to win the ball for their backs, which they can do by scrummaging and also by rucking and mauling (see below). England's most formidable forward by far is Andrew Sheridan, who is 6ft 5in tall, weighs almost 19st and is a near-Olympic-standard weightlifter. Sheridan shares an alma mater – the rugby-playing public school Dulwich College – with PG Wodehouse. Almost as formidable is England's captain, the huge Cornishman Phil Vickery, who has a 50in chest and an oriental tattoo, which sweetly translates as "I'll fight you to the death".

The rucks and mauls

These are the episodes in rugby which most resemble a scrap in the playground of a tough inner-city comprehensive, which is ironic given how few international rugby players come from tough inner-city comprehensives. In the ruck, the ball is on the ground, and must not be handled. In a maul, the ball is off the ground, and all the players must try to stay on their feet. Players steaming in to join a ruck or maul must do so from the back – if they go in from the side they will be penalised. In the thick of these pile-ins, however, there are sometimes small lapses in decorum. It is not unknown for eyes to be gouged with stubby fingers, or even for body parts to be bitten off.

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