1. The origins of the game
Ball games have been played around the world for centuries but the ‘football’
codes with which we re familiar today were first formalised in England and spread across
the globe by the colonisers and entrepreneurs of the British Empire during the 19th
The drive to write down a set of rules for the various kicking and handling games that
were played across the country came from the private schools.
The pupils of Winchester, Harrow and Rugby all had their own distinct set of local
rules and confusion reigned when the schools came to play each other.
They were loosely divided between those favouring the handling style and those
preferring the kicking game.
Leading the way among the handling enthusiasts was Rugby School in central England.
Legend has it that it that in 1823 a pupil named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball
and ran with it "showing a fine disregard for the rules of football" a later
This is widely regarded as the moment that rugby union was born although the accuracy
of the story is disputed.
What is certain is the old boys of Rugby were enthusiastic in their spreading of
Rugby’s version of the handling code rules - although they bare only passing
resemblance to the Laws of today’s game.
To the end confusion over what style of game schools would play when they met, a
meeting was called in 1863 to thrash out a unified code.
But there the two factions could not see eye-to-eye and rugby union and association
football (soccer) were born.
Although the first style of rugby played in South Africa at Bishops School in Cape Town
conformed to the rules of Winchester School (the headmaster was a former pupil of the
English School) by the time the first governing body of the sport - England’s Rugby
Football Union (RFU) - was founded in 1871, Rugby’s rules held sway.
That same year the first international match was played between England and Scotland.
Wales and Ireland followed onto the international calendar shortly afterwards and by the
end of the century South Africa, New Zealand and two Australian states were also part of
the international community.
Since that time the game has evolved slowly.
The game’s international governing body, the International Rugby Football Union
(today the International Rugby Board) was founded in 1886 although England declined to
take part in a dispute over the number of representatives they would be permitted to
It was agreed that games would be played according to the rules of the Rugby Football
Union but it was not until 1930 that the way the game was played was standardised across
The first match in South Africa took place between the "Officers of the Army"
and the "Gentlemen of the Civil Service" at Green Point in Cape Town in 1862 and
ended as a 0-0 draw.
The game spread with British colonisers through the Eastern Cape, Natal and along the
gold and diamond routes to Kimberley and Johannesburg.
The first union to be formed in South Africa was Western Province, which came into
being in 1883; Griqualand West followed in 1886 and Eastern Province in 1888.
South Africa played its first international in 1891 against a touring side from Britain
although it was not until the side toured Britain in 1906 that they became known as the
The sport quickly gripped the imagination of many South Africans and the country’s
success fuelled the enthusiasm.
South Africa won their third series in 1903 and it was not until the 1955 tour of New
Zealand that they were to be defeated in a series as they established themselves as
arguably the world’s leading rugby nation.
Their most dangerous rival was invariably New Zealand whom they met for the first time
in 1921 to establish what is regarded as rugby’s most bitter rivalry.
The game remained strictly amateur until 1995 when the inevitable decision to
allow players to be paid was made. Up until then anyone caught taking money for playing
the game was banned for life.
In the six years since that decision the game has changed more rapidly than in the
previous century and a half.
New competitions such as the Vodacom Super 12, Vodacom Tri-Nations and the Heineken
Championship in Europe have hugely increased the game’s revenues and spectator
2. The players and their positions
Rugby players are divided into two basic categories with different basic
responsibilities although there are no hard and fast rules about who may score or who may
There are the eight 'forwards' (who wear numbers one to eight) whose primary job is to
wrestle the ball off the opposition or make sure their side keeps hold of it until they
score some points.
They are the biggest and strongest players in the team and are often referred to as
"the pack" because they hunt together for their prey - the ball.
The second group is the seven backs (who wear numbers nine to 15) who are normally the
quicker and more elusive players who main role is to try and score the points from the
ball that has been secured by the forwards. There are exceptions however - Jonah Lomu is a
back but he is bigger and stronger than many forwards which, allied to his speed, make him
a devastating prospect.
Note: In today's professional rugby the difference between backs and forwards is
diminishing and all are now expected to be able to run, pass and tackle although the basic
All 15 players in a team have specific and specialised roles.
Full-back (No. 15): He is the last line of defence and very roughly equates to the
goalkeeper in soccer although he has to defend the try-line that is usually 70 metres
wide! He is expected to tackle any players who break through the defenders in front of him
and particularly to deal with the high kicks that the opposition are likely to aim at him.
An equally important role is as an attacker. Fullbacks such as Percy Montgomery and
Thinus Delport have the freedom to roam into the attack at any point in an attack and are
frequently dangerous try-scorers.
The wings (No. 14 and No. 11): They are primarily the main attacking weapons of any
side and are usually the top try-scorers in any team although most of the hard work is
done for them in the attack by others. They are the fastest and most elusive players in
any team (such as Breyton Paulse and Stefan Terblanche) and are also expected to support
their fullback in his defensive duties.
The Centres (No. 13 and No. 12): They are usually fast and strong players who make the
try-scoring chances for the wings with fast running and clever handling. They are also
expected to be excellent tacklers and defenders as the opposition will aim their attacks
to try and pierce a gap in the opposition centres. Top South African centers include Deon
Kayser and Robbie Fleck.
The flyhalf (No. 10 - also known as a stand-off or first five-eighth). He is the
general of the backline and frequently of the whole team. He is like a point guard in
basketball, the midfield general in soccer or the quarterback in American football. He has
a pivotal role with the responsibility of deciding whether the backs should run with the
ball or whether he should kick to gain the best advantage for his side. He is usually the
best kicker in the side with the responsibility for kicking penalties, conversions and
drop goals - the three other scoring methods to the try. Nowadays he also has to be a
solid tackler as his area of the field is the one most sides choose to attack first. Naas
Botha was one of South Africa’s best known flyhalves.
The scrum-half (No. 9): He is the link between backs and forwards. He is usually one of
the smallest men on the field and he follows the forwards around collecting the ball from
them before passing to the flyhalf or deciding to run or kick himself. He is expected to
have a very fast and accurate pass and has to be a very good ball handler. They are often
known for their terrier-like qualities as they usually 'sweep' in defence to make
important tackles and collect balls that have been kicked through. Joost van der
Westhuizen is a scrum-half.
Number eight or eighthman (No. 8) One of three loose forwards who are the faster and
marginally lighter of the forwards and is expected to be always close to the ball, winning
it for the rest of their side. The eighthman stands back a little from the action to
assess where danger may lurk and is expected to be in position to snuff it out. He also
has an important role on attack as he often drives the ball forward to set up play for the
rest of his side. Springbok captain Andre Vos is a number eight.
Flankers or wing forwards (No. 6 & 7). They are part of a mini-unit with the
eighthman although have more direct responsibility for securing the ball for their side.
These two players are likely to make more tackles in a game than anyone else and stay
closer to the ball than any other players in the match bar the scrumhalf. On attack, their
speed and strength is often used as auxiliary centers, a quality that is well demonstrated
by a player like Springbok Rassie Erasmus.
The Locks or second rows (No. 5 & No. 4): They are the biggest and tallest men in
the team whose major jobs come in winning possession at line-outs and kick-offs. Each game
of rugby has in excess of 20 lineouts and restarts and this is where these tall men are
expected to leap high and catch the ball above their heads - almost four metres off the
ground. Their secondary role is to fiercely contest for possession with the opposition by
ripping it from their grasp or shoving them away from it when the ball is lying on the
ground. Mark Andrews is a lock.
Props (No. 3 & No. 1): They are usually the heaviest and sturdiest players and
their first job is at the scrum where they combine with the hooker in a 'front row' of
three. With the support of the five other forwards pushing from behind they attempt to
push the other team backwards at the scrum to secure their own possession when the
scrumhalf puts it in or to disrupt the opposition so much that they find it difficult to
attack from the scrummage. Like the locks they also battle with the opposition for the
ball when it is in general play. Ollie le Roux is one of the top props in South Africa.
Hooker (No. 2): His is a very specialised position with two primary roles. The first is
at the scrum where he has to 'hook' back the ball after it has been put in by the
scrumhalf. The second is at the lineout where his job is to throw the ball in so that his
tall locks can win it and keep possession for his side. Away from these primary tasks the
hooker is also frequently involved in attacking the opposition with ball in hand. The
Springboks hooker is John Smit.
3. Why rugby is unique
Rugby union is a popular sport played by men - and increasingly by women - of every
race and creed, from age five to 90, in more than 100 countries worldwide. In a few of
those countries - New Zealand, Western Samoa, Tonga, Wales for instance - it is the
national sport. Some say a religion.
It is a major sport in South Africa but in the other main rugby playing countries such
as Australia, England, France, Ireland and Scotland it may only be the third, fourth or
even fifth most popular sport.
Rugby union is a different sport to rugby league. 'League' has been a professional
sport for which the players were paid for playing since 1895. It is only seriously played
in Australia and the north of England.
Rugby union was a strictly amateur sport until 1995 when the game's rulers decided that
it was time that players should be paid for the sacrifices they had to make and in light
of the enormous sums of money their efforts were generating for rugby.
The principle of amateur rugby had been jealously guarded and up until 1995 contact
between the two branches of rugby were banned. Since that date several players have played
for their countries at both Rugby Union and Rugby League.
Why rugby is different
Rugby is a unique sport for many reasons not least because it is a game that can be
played by all shapes and sizes of people.
The light and fast man (such as 79kg Breyton Paulse) or the big and slow man (such as
the 120kg Willie Meyer) both play in the same Springbok team, doing their very different
but equally important jobs.
In the same way there is a special place in the game for the very tall (the tallest
South African international of all time was 2,05m) while the very small (the shortest was
only 1,60m) can also thrive because of rugby's unique demands.
Rugby is also unique because of its very large number of rules - called Laws in rugby -
that at first sight make it look a very complicated and confusing game.
It is also different because there are four different ways of scoring points - all with
differing values - that require teams to think carefully about their tactics at different
stages of the game.
Rugby is different because it has more players on the field at any one time than any
other major sport with 30 players engaged in trying to secure possession of the ball for
the full 80 minutes of each game.
It has phases of the game such as the scrummage and the lineout that make it unlike any
other sport and require a variety of physiques unlike any other sport.
And rugby has specific Laws on how the ball may be moved and how players may be stopped
that make it quite different from any of the other 'football' and handling sports with the
exception of rugby league.
How it works
The object of the game is to score as many points as possible by carrying, passing,
kicking and grounding the ball in the scoring zone at the opposition end of the field
(called the in-goal area) or by kicking the ball between the posts and over the cross bar.
Any player on either side may handle the ball (unlike in soccer) or kick the ball
(unlike in basketball).
But there are several rules that make rugby very different to both soccer and
Firstly, the ball may not be passed forward using the hands (although it may be kicked
forward) - this is called a forward pass.
Secondly, players may not have the ball kicked to them if they are in front of the
kicker at the time of kicking - this is just like offside in soccer.
Thirdly, only the player with the ball may be tackled unlike in American Football for
Fourthly, players may be tackled around the legs (unlike in Aussie Rules football for
example) and they may also be raked with the studs if they are lying on the ground and
stopping the ball from becoming available to the attacking side.
And finally, the slightest errors are punished severely in rugby. If a player
accidentally knocks the ball forward with his hands or makes a forward pass and goes
offside then the ball is given to the opposition. Imagine if every dropped ball or
mis-control by a soccer player resulted in possession going to the opposition.