Rugby, A Beginner's Guide

September 19, 2017

With the new season just about underway, you may be a relative newcomer to rugby, or are even thinking of starting to play for the first time.

If so, then the laws of the game and various names and terms are undoubtedly confusing, and you probably feel a little self-conscious about asking a more established player what the hell is going on? After all, the average rugby player has a reputation for being a little, shall we say, hard?

Here, then, is E4R’s indispensable – and light-hearted – glossary to some of the key terms and positions used in the sport, which will give you enough of a grounding to at least sound semi-convincing when you make that nervous first trip to the training ground.

Rugby: A giant, bruising brawl from which a non-ball-shaped ball pops up occasionally. The objective of the game is to move the ball forwards by throwing it backwards (of course), while aggressively trying to throw other players on the floor and rip the ball from their hands. Weirdly, it's also one of the most enjoyable things you can wish to do, despite the utter, irrational pointlessness of it. This, in turn, makes it the best sport in the world. If it were not played in controlled conditions, rugby would be considered a public disorder offence.

Try: A try is the most common way of scoring points at grassroots level rugby, and is scored by getting the ball across your opposition’s try line. Nobody knows why it’s called a try, because by its very nature it’s actually a successful attempt.

Conversion: Converting a try is more often than not (but not always) the duty of the fly half. Put simply, a conversion involves kicking the ball over the cross bar between the two uprights, from an area of the pitch vaguely in line with where the preceding try was scored. However, fly halves like to make the procedure look complicated by doing weird things with their hands, facial expressions and body positions. At grassroots level, this process is frequently copied from the professionals, but culminates in the ball skidding off at a random trajectory, woefully short of the crossbar.


These are the eight people at the front of the team, who form the scrum. A forward will tell you that they are also the players who do all the hard work in order for the backs to take all the glory. Backs roll their eyes whenever a forward says this, however, it's a fact that is unequivocally true. Forwards are often the biggest and ugliest players in the team, not helped by the fact they're frequently mildly disfigured or have body parts missing. They are often far nicer people than their looks suggest. The forward positions are:

Prop: There is one prop either side of the front row, the tight head on the right and the loose head on the left. The tight head is so called because he is between two others in the scrum, while the loose head is so called because he’s usually played that many games of rugby that his entire head is about to fall off. Props, as their name suggests, prop up the scrum, and also the bar in the clubhouse.

Hooker: The man in the middle has never, ever heard any jokes about being a sex worker. If you crack one, he’s bound to find it hilarious. Usually too short to be a prop and too fat to play anywhere else, his job is to be squashed mercilessly from all sides while trying to hook the ball back from the scrum.

Lock: Also known simply as the second row, the locks are effectively the engine room of the scrum. They also have the unenviable task of putting their heads between the thighs of the front row players whilst reaching around the props’ undercarriages. Props are normally very respectful towards them in order to preserve their family jewels.

Flanker: Flankers are often forwards who fancy themselves as backs. Or simply forwards who fancy themselves. They’re crucially important players and are often first to the breakdown. Much like the hooker has never heard any references to ladies of the night, flankers have never heard any jokes about what their position rhymes with.

Number 8: The most imaginative name for a rugby position, it’s hardly surprising to find that the middle player in the back row wears a number 8 on his shirt. Except at grassroots level, where he’s likely to be wearing something random like 16, as it was all that was left in the kit bag.


Backs, unlike forwards, are often athletic, toned and handsome. They frequently have annoyingly perfect hair, brightly coloured boots and loads of stash (rugby stuff, basically). They tell everyone they score the most points in the team, whether this is true or not. If you watch a grassroots game, don’t be fooled if you see a stocky, grizzly, red-faced back. This is a forward playing out of position; a frequent occurrence at the lower levels of the game.

Scrum half: With scrum halves, the rule is thus: The smaller they are, the noisier and cockier they are. The scrummy is one of the lynchpins of any rugby team and has a critically important job to do, as he whips the ball away from most breakdown situations. He is usually very small and very irritating, but unfeasibly talented.

Fly half: Ever since women discovered Jonny Wilkinson, the fly half is frequently the most vain and prettiest member of the team (see also: Owen Farrell). His kit bag is usually full of hair product. His gorgeous, chiselled good looks are often offset by the fact that he’s the most boring person in the team, often by a country mile.

Wingers: Good wingers can score beautiful tries, as they gallop down the outside of the pitch like a scalded pony. They are a joy to watch. Bad wingers are people who want to play rugby but are too scared to deal with the contact, as at grassroots level the wing is often a safe place to hide.

Centres: Even forwards like the centres. They’re usually tough as well as quick, and can score metres worth of territory by running the ball into contact. If you like a bit of rough and tumble, it’s a very fun place to play.

Full back: Pity the poor fullback. For much of the game, he’s a spectator, especially at the lowest levels of the sport. But when he is needed, he’s usually the last man standing, and is probably about to get steamrollered by the approaching pack. This is why full backs are often tremendously quick runners. It’s their only hope of escape…

Referee: Rugby referees are not like football referees. Instead, they’re like terrifying schoolmasters. You must call them ‘Sir’ at every occasion (even female refs), and only the captain should engage in discussion around their decisions. Despite this, rugby players have a huge amount of respect for the ref. Their job isn’t an easy one, and the discipline of the game means they get listened to.

Breakdown: A break in open play. There are various types of breakdown, and means of restarting the game. This is also a nervous condition faced by the captain when frantically calling round players on a Friday evening to try and turn up at an away game with a full team.

Scrum: Forwards live for a scrum, especially the three that make up the front row. Indeed, front row players often like their opposing side’s front row more than some of their own players, as the front row union is a secret society all of its own (besides, no other bugger on the pitch will ever know what their necks feel like by Sunday evening, when the rot truly sets in).

The scrum looks to an outsider like a 16-man group hug. This is because it is, albeit one in which sixteen invariably very strong men try and push each other backwards over the ball. Occasionally, the scrum will continue long after the ball has been distributed wide by the scrummy. This is because the front row are enjoying themselves too much.

Line out: When the ball goes into touch, play is restarted by awarding a line out to the team that didn’t carry or kick the ball into touch (except when from a penalty kick, where it can be used to gain territory). One player – usually the hooker, unless he has terrible throws – chucks the ball in while the rest of the forwards lift one or two of their number in the air to try and catch the ball. Players who are being lifted usually wear tight undershorts, as being lifted results in an instant wedgie and very little in the way of dignity or decency.

Ruck: When a player is tackled, a ruck is formed when players from both sides try to push each other over the tackle area as they fight for the ball. Rucks are a referee’s nightmare, and occasionally punches are thrown, elbows are whacked into ribs and players effectively tear each other away from the tackle area like Neanderthals. This is tremendous fun. Especially if you are big.

Maul: A maul is a ruck. But standing up. Forwards in particular love a maul, where they try to retain possession as their team mates pile in and drive them forwards towards the try line. Just watch the gleeful expression on any forward’s face as he takes a run-up before smashing into the back of a maul. It’s as beautiful as a baby’s first smile.

Tunnel: A formation of players at the end of the game, as they stand in uniform lines and applaud their opposing team off the pitch, usually with a fair amount of back slapping, handshakes and the occasional man hug (usually among front rowers). This is not the normal procedure for people who have just spent 80 minutes duffing each other up, but it’s a rather splendid way to show each other respect and celebrate the sheer, unbridled pleasure that playing rugby can bring, no matter what your age or ability.

There are, of course, several other terms in the rugby glossary, but with these few you should at least be able to vaguely fit in when you turn up at the clubhouse. If not, grab a bar stool, order a beer and you’ll be instantly welcome regardless.

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