What is the language of rugby?
While watching a game of rugby, you are likely to hear all kinds of bewildering jargon, some of which – foot-up, hand-off, head-up, put-in, knock-on – makes rugby sound more like a choreographed dance routine than the bruising sport it really is. So, if you’re puzzled as to why a throw-in requires a line-out, or why a player might opt to go blind, this guide is here to help.
Why is it called ‘rugby’?
Originally known as rugby-football, to distinguish it from its ancestor association football, the game of rugby is named after Rugby School (in the Warwickshire town of Rugby) where the sport was invented in the 19th century. The abbreviated form rugger was also coined at the school, by adding the -er suffix common to much public school and Oxbridge slang (like footer or soccer for football, or brekker for breakfast). At Oxford University students still compete for a trophy or cup in intercollegiate cuppers sporting tournaments.
The positions in rugby
Each team has 15 players divided into forwards and backs. The forwards make up the pack or scrum (an abbreviated form of scrummage). Although a set-scrum is officially described as an ‘orderly formation of players used to restart play’, it is often a good deal more chaotic, reflecting its roots as a variant form of the noun skirmish, ‘an episode of irregular or unpremeditated fighting’ between armies or fleets of ships. More informal scrums created during open play are termed mauls (from a medieval term for striking someone with a heavy weapon, originally Latin malleus ‘hammer’), or rucks (from a Scandinavian term for a heap of hay). The technical difference between the two is whether the ball is in the hand or on the ground – a distinction that can be difficult to apply when lying underneath a heap of bodies and being trampled on by studded boots.
The front row is made up of a hooker (so-called because his job is to hook the ball out of the back of the scrum), supported by two props. Behind them are the second-row (or locks) while the back row (originally used of a chorus line of dancers) consists of two flankers (from the term used for the outer edges of an army) and a number eight. The forwards’ job is to outshove the opponent’s pack so as to deliver the ball to the backs, or three-quarters: the scrum–half, fly-half, wingers, and full-back. These positions were originally termed half-backs or quarter-backs – the latter is now a key role in an American Football team.
Goals, kicks, passes, and more
The aim of the game is to touch the ball down over the opponents’ goal-line thereby scoring a try – so-called because it wins the right to try to kick a goal. A try was originally known as a touchdown, another rugby term that is better known for its use in American Football (although ironically there is no requirement to touch the ball on the ground in this game). Kicking a goal, or converting a try (once known quaintly as majorizing) is achieved by kicking the ball through the upright posts.
A distinctive feature of rugby is that the ball can only be passed backwards. As well as the forward-pass, players should avoid the hospital-pass – where the ball is offloaded to a team mate just as a burly opponent prepares to make a crunching tackle. The name derives from the likelihood of the recipient requiring hospital treatment. There are various types of tackle: some – like the ankle tap – sound quite gentlemanly, while others – the choke, crash, dump, smother, and spear tackles, decidedly more brutal. The late tackle (carried out after the ball has been passed) is really a euphemism for an attack on an opponent for no good reason. Given the rather physical nature of the game, it is perhaps not surprising to find players getting injured, or what rugby players themselves refer to dismissively as getting a knock. A blood injury requires a player to leave the field in order to receive treatment (generally in the form of the magic sponge, a sponge soaked in cold water which appears to cure all ailments) in the blood bin (not to be confused with the sin bin where a player goes following a yellow card).
Instead of passing, a player may opt to kick the ball using one of several methods: the drop-kick (when the ball is kicked as it hits the ground), punt (kicked before hitting the ground, from a dialect word meaning ‘push forcefully’), place–kick, up-and-under (also known as the Garryowen after an Irish rugby club in Limerick), grub-kick, or grubber (which runs along the ground). Less orthodox is the hack (from an Old English word meaning ‘cut in pieces’) – an intentional kicking of an opponent’s shins instead of the ball. This should not be confused with the haka, a ceremonial Maori war dance that is performed by the New Zealand All Blacks before every match. If my description of the game has not already put you off, there is no sight more guaranteed to make you glad that you are watching from the safety of your own living-room than that of 15 huge Kiwis performing this intimidating display.