Rugby football originated at the English school of Rugby in the 19th century. There are two main varieties: rugby union and rugby league. The two varieties have different rules and different numbers of players; rugby union has 15 players a side (with a 7-a-side variant), and rugby league has 13 players a side (with 7-a-side and 9-a-side variants).
According to legend, a boy named William Webb Ellis at the Rugby School decided to pick the ball up and run with it during a football match in 1823, thus creating the rugby-style of football, though most historians doubt the authenticity of the story and consider it to be an origin myth. In any case, by 1870, the sport would gain enough popularity to lead the various clubs and schools to form the Rugby Football Union (RFU) (hence the name rugby union) to serve as the governing body and standardise the set of rules for the sport. The RFU required all players to be amateurs, which meant that for the most part, only the aristocracy could afford the time and money to play the sport. Eventually, in 1895, a group of mainly working class players and clubs from the industrial north broke off to form the Northern Rugby Football League (later to be renamed the Rugby Football League (RFL), hence the name rugby league), which would consist entirely of professional clubs and players. Due to the fact that much of the aristocracy was based in or near London in the south, the majority of RFU teams were concentrated in the south of England, while the majority of RFL teams were concentrated in the industrial north of England. Although the RFU has long since dropped its requirements on amateurism, and northern England has since lost much of its industrial prowess, to this day, the majority of rugby league teams continue to be based in the north of England, and the majority of rugby union teams continue to be based in the south.
These sports are mostly played and popular in countries that have been under strong British influence, but some other countries (notably France, Argentina and Italy) have also taken to one or both of them. While the sports are growing and there are leagues in many non-traditional rugby nations, the best players, national sides and leagues are still found in the countries discussed below.
Keen fans travel the world to watch Test matches (two national teams playing each other). Very keen fans travel even just to visit famous rugby stadiums when no games are being played.
In the 15-a-side version of rugby union, the New Zealand All Blacks have been the dominant national team for more than 100 years. Since 1987, England, the South African Springboks and Australian Wallabies have increasingly challenged their supremacy. The worldwide governing body for rugby union is World Rugby (WR), known as the International Rugby Board (IRB) between 1998 and November 2014.
It is customary for the national teams of New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to issue a challenge to the opposing team by performing a traditional tribal war dance at the beginning of every match. This war dance is known as the haka in New Zealand, the cibi in Fiji, the sipi tau in Tonga and the siva tau in Samoa.
The goal of rugby union is to advance the ball towards the in-goal area to score a try. Players may run with or kick the ball in any direction, but may only pass the ball backwards or horizontally. A game of rugby union consists of two 40-minute halves, with teams switching ends at halftime.
Rugby union is generally played with 15 players per side. Eight players are forwards and are numbered 1 to 8, while the remaining seven players are backs and are numbered 9 to 15. Each team has up to eight substitutes, numbered 16 to 23.
A try is scored when a player places the ball on the ground in the in-goal area, and is worth five points. Unlike in American football, the ball must be placed on the ground in order for a try to be scored (dropping the ball does not count). The team that scored the try may then attempt to drop kick (whereby the ball is dropped and immediately kicked on hitting the ground) or place kick (whereby the ball is placed on the ground and kicked) the ball through the goal posts for a conversion, which is worth an additional two points. The conversion is taken in line with where the try was scored, so it is advantageous to score a try "under the posts" to give the kicker a better chance of converting. Alternatively, players may drop kick the ball through the goal posts during open play, which is known as a drop goal, which is worth 3 points. Finally, players may also drop kick or place kick the ball through the goal posts from a penalty, which is known as a penalty goal and also worth 3 points. As place kicks are much easier to execute than drop kicks, the vast majority of players opt for the place kick when attempting conversions or penalty goals.
There are several set plays. A lineout is awarded if the ball goes over the sidelines ("into touch"). A scrum is awarded for a minor infringement such as a forward pass or an unplayable ball. A penalty is awarded for major or deliberate infringements such as deliberately collapsing a scrum or being offside. For cases of player misconduct such as a dangerous tackle, the referee can send a player off for 10 minutes by showing them a yellow card, or the rest of the game by showing them a red card; if a player is sent off, the team must play with one less player until the suspension ends.
The game is officiated by a referee, assisted by two assistant referees or touch judges. Televised games will typically have a fourth video referee or Television Match Official (TMO).
Rugby sevens is a variant of rugby union in which teams consist of only 7 players instead of the usual 15, but uses the same field as traditional rugby union, and consists of 7-minute halves (or 10-minute halves in major tournament finals). Due to the smaller number of players, rugby sevens is typically much faster paced than traditional rugby union. The rules are mostly similar to those of traditional rugby union, an exception being that penalty goals and conversions have to be scored from drop kicks and cannot be scored from place kicks.
Much like in association football, the home nations of the United Kingdom compete separately in international tournaments, with separate teams for England, Scotland and Wales, while there is only one team for the entire island of Ireland, which consists of players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, the three British sides of England, Scotland and Wales field a combined "Great Britain" team for the rugby sevens event at the Olympics, while the Ireland team (including the players from Northern Ireland) competes as the Republic of Ireland.
- Rugby World Cup: A WR event held every four years with 20 countries competing each time. The next World Cup will be in Japan in 2019.
- Six Nations Championship: Annual event involving national teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Not directly operated by WR, but is sanctioned by that body.
- The Rugby Championship: The Southern Hemisphere's equivalent to the Six Nations. Founded as the Tri Nations Series in 1996 and originally involving the national teams of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it adopted its current name in 2012 when Argentina joined the competition. Like the Six Nations, sanctioned by WR but not directly operated by it; it is instead run by a body known as SANZAAR, consisting of the national federations of the competition's participating countries.
- World Rugby Sevens Series: An annual series consisting of 10 events since the 2015–16 season, sanctioned by WR for national teams in the sevens variant of rugby union, with 7 players per side on a full-sized field and halves of 7 minutes. The season starts in October and ends in May. Due to the greater spacing of players, game play is very fast-paced.
- Hong Kong Sevens: The most famous event of the Sevens Series, usually held in March (though April in 2018) and probably Hong Kong's biggest sporting event, involving 16 countries in the main tournament and 12 in a secondary tournament whose winner is assured a place in all of the series events for the following season.
- European Rugby Champions Cup: Europe's top club competition, featuring 20 teams from the Six Nations countries. The organisation that runs this competition also operates the second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup, featuring 20 teams from both within and outside the Six Nations (but mostly within).
- Super Rugby: The top Southern Hemisphere club competition, operated by SANZAAR and involving franchised regional/provincial sides from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, plus franchised national sides from Argentina (playing in Buenos Aires) and Japan (splitting its home matches between Tokyo and Singapore).
- British and Irish Lions tours: A combined side from the four "Home Nations" of rugby union—England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales—assembles every four years, in the year after the Summer Olympics (also the middle year of a Rugby World Cup cycle), to tour one of the three traditional Southern Hemisphere powers, rotating in order between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The Lions will typically play two or three warm-up matches against invitational or international teams before arriving in the host country. While there, they play three matches against the host's full national team, always on a weekend, and several "mid-week" matches against regional or other specialty teams from that country (such as Super Rugby sides, or when in New Zealand the Māori All Blacks, a side made up of players from the country's indigenous Māori people). The Lions completed a tour of New Zealand in July 2017; the next tour will be to South Africa in 2021.
- Commonwealth Games: Rugby sevens has been featured at the Commonwealth Games since 1998. New Zealand are by far the most successful men's team, having won the gold medal in five out of the six tournaments held, including in 2018. South Africa won the other men's gold in 2014. A women's tournament was featured for the first time in 2018, with New Zealand winning.
- Olympics: Rugby sevens has been a part of the Summer Olympics program since 2016. Traditional Rugby Union had been part of the Olympic games in various forms four times, but was cut in the 1920s. The inaugural champion of men's Olympic rugby sevens was Fiji, marking their first Olympic medal in any sport. The women's gold medal went to Australia.
Argentina does not have a dedicated national stadium; the Pumas play at venues around the country. Several stadiums, all built for soccer, see frequent use:
- Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires. Normally home to the soccer club Vélez Sarsfield, but for many years was the unofficial home of the Pumas. Now full-time home to the Jaguares, the country's new entry in Super Rugby.
- Estadio Ciudad de La Plata. A considerably more modern stadium that has been hosting most of the Pumas' highest-profile home matches.
- Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza.
- Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena in Salta.
- Estadio Monumental José Fierro in Tucumán. The city is notable as one of the heartlands of Argentine rugby union, along with Buenos Aires.
Australia does not have a dedicated national stadium; the Wallabies play at venues around the country. The most frequently used stadiums include the following:
- Stadium Australia (commercially known as ANZ Stadium) in Sydney Olympic Park. The main stadium of the 2000 Summer Olympics, it has been renovated from its original configuration to be a multi-purpose venue capable of hosting oval-field (cricket and Australian rules football) and rectangular-field (the rugby codes and soccer) sports to a purely rectangular stadium.
- Docklands Stadium (commercially Etihad Stadium) in the Melbourne Docklands, just west of the city centre. A retractable-roof stadium built mainly for Australian rules, but has movable seating to accommodate rectangular-field sports.
- Lang Park (commercially Suncorp Stadium) in Brisbane. The largest rectangular stadium in the country before the renovations to Stadium Australia.
- Sydney Football Stadium (commercially Allianz Stadium) in Sydney's Moore Park about 3 km (2 miles) southeast of the city centre is scheduled to be demolished in the southern spring of 2018 to make way for a new stadium on the site.
- Subiaco Oval (commercially Domain Stadium) in Perth.
- Canberra Stadium (commercially GIO Stadium Canberra) in the neighbourhood of Bruce.
- Robina Stadium (commercially cbus Super Stadium) in Gold Coast.
- Sydney Showground Stadium (commercially Spotless Stadium) in Sydney Olympic Park is not used by the Wallabies, but with the impending closure of the Sydney Football Stadium has become the new home of the Australian stops in the men's and women's versions of the World Rugby Sevens Series.
One less frequently used stadium of note is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, located just east of the city centre. It's the country's largest stadium, the country's cricket mecca, and the spiritual home of Australian rules football.
As of the 2018 season, Australia has four franchises in Super Rugby:
- Brumbies, representing Canberra and southern New South Wales, playing at Canberra Stadium.
- Melbourne Rebels, representing Victoria and playing at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (commercially AAMI Park).
- New South Wales Waratahs, representing the rest of New South Wales. The primary home is Sydney Football Stadium, with Stadium Australia as a secondary home.
- Queensland Reds, representing that state and playing at Lang Park.
A fifth franchise in Perth was folded after the 2017 season, and now plays in the National Rugby Championship (see immediately below).
The main domestic competition is the National Rugby Championship, with eight teams in all. Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra each host a team. New South Wales Country is a team that represents NSW outside Sydney. It takes its home matches to several venues around the state. Similarly, Queensland Country represents the non-Brisbane portion of that state, and use three venues in that region. The remaining team is the Fijian Drua, an effective developmental side for that country's national team, which joined the NRC in 2017.
Rugby union is most popular in the south of England, including the London metropolitan area, where most of the clubs are located.
- Twickenham in South West London has the country's largest rugby stadium and hosts many international events. It is the exclusive home of the England national team, and also hosts the next-to-last event in the World Rugby Sevens Series each season.
- The country's top club league is the Premiership (not to be confused with the Premier League of association football), known for sponsorship reasons as the Gallagher Premiership. It consists of 12 clubs, most of them located in the southern two-thirds of the country.
- Stade de France (French for "Stadium of France") in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis is the main home for the French rugby team. The country's governing body takes the team around the country to host visiting national teams in November, but all Six Nations home matches have traditionally been held at Stade de France. The 2018 Six Nations was an exception to this rule, with two matches at Stade de France and one at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.
- France's top club competition, the Top 14, is the world's richest professional league in either rugby code, slightly ahead of Australia's National Rugby League in rugby league. Most of the clubs are located in the southern half of the country; the only current exceptions are two clubs in Paris and its immediate area.
- France hosts events in both the men's and women's World Sevens Series, with both tournaments currently held on the same weekend. The men's tournament is at Stade Jean-Bouin in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, while the women's is at Parc des Sports Aguiléra in Biarritz.
- ANZ National Stadium in Suva is the main stadium of Fiji's various outdoor sports teams, including its national rugby union team and the aforementioned Fijian Drua. While Fiji is only a second-tier side in traditional 15-a-side rugby union, it is the dominant force in rugby sevens, having won more Hong Kong Sevens titles than any other team, and the gold medal at the inaugural men's rugby sevens tournament at the Olympics in 2016.
- There is one national side for the whole island of Ireland, with players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The home stadium is the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin.
- Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Italy share one single professional league, known as Pro14 (from the number of teams); the league now includes two teams from South Africa as well. Ireland has four teams in the league, each representing and named after one of the traditional provinces of Ireland—Leinster (Dublin), Munster (most games in Limerick, with some in Cork), Ulster (Belfast), and Connacht (Galway).
- The Italian national team has usually been at the bottom of the Six Nations since entering that competition in 2000, but has steadily become more competitive. Similarly to France, the country's governing body takes the team around the country to host visiting national teams in November, but all Six Nations home matches are held at Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
- Italy has two teams in Pro14—Benetton Treviso and Zebre, playing in Parma.
New Zealand does not have a dedicated national stadium; the All Blacks play at venues around the country.
- The top stadium is Eden Park in Auckland. The All Blacks are almost unbeatable there (as of the end of 2017, they have not lost a game at Eden Park since 1994, though they have drawn twice in that span).
- The biggest seven-a-side tournament in New Zealand, part of the World Rugby Sevens Series, had been held at Wellington Regional Stadium, commercially known as Westpac Stadium and nicknamed the "Cake Tin", from the series' first season of 1999-2000 through 2016–17. However, that event has now moved to Hamilton. The Cake Tin remains the main Wellington venue for 15-a-side games.
Other regularly used stadiums include:
- Waikato Stadium, commercially known as FMG Stadium Waikato, in Hamilton. This became the new home of NZ's Sevens Series stop beginning in 2017–18.
- Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin
- Rugby League Park, commercially known as AMI Stadium, in Christchurch. It's not to be confused with the former AMI stadium, historically known as Lancaster Park, which was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake.
New Zealand has five franchises in Super Rugby:
- Blues, representing Auckland and points to the north; most matches are held at Eden Park.
- Chiefs, representing the central North Island, including the Waikato. Most matches are at Waikato Stadium.
- Crusaders, representing the northern two-thirds of the South Island, playing mostly at Rugby League Park.
- Highlanders, representing the Otago and Southland regions and playing mainly at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
- Hurricanes, representing the greater Wellington region, with most home games at Westpac Stadium.
The main domestic competition is the Mitre 10 Cup, which is split into the top-level Premier Division and second-level Championship Division.
- The New Zealand Rugby Museum is in Palmerston North.
- Murrayfield Stadium in West Edinburgh, commercially known as BT Murrayfield but almost always called just "Murrayfield", is home to the Scottish rugby team.
- Scotland has two teams in Pro14—Edinburgh Rugby and the Glasgow Warriors.
Rugby in South Africa has traditionally been associated with the white Afrikaner community, though since the fall of Apartheid, the sport has also been taken up by many coloured South Africans, as well as a much smaller number of blacks and English-speaking whites.
Like most Southern Hemisphere countries, South Africa has no national rugby stadium. The Springboks play home matches, both in The Rugby Championship and against other touring national teams, at several stadiums around the country. The most frequently used stadiums include:
- Ellis Park Stadium (commercially known as Emirates Airline Park) in Johannesburg
- Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria
- Cape Town Stadium, already home to the South African event in the World Rugby Sevens Series, is now the city's home for Test rugby, with the city's traditional rugby home of Newlands set to close after the 2018 domestic season.
- Kings Park Stadium (commercially Jonsson Kings Park Stadium) in Durban
- Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth
- Free State Stadium (commercially Toyota Stadium) in Bloemfontein
As of the 2017–18 northern hemisphere season, South Africa is involved in two top-level professional competitions. It has participated in Super Rugby since that competition began in 1996 as Super 12; it originally had four franchises, later expanding to five and finally six. Following the 2017 Super Rugby season, two of these six teams were dropped. They immediately found a home in the aforementioned Pro14 (renamed from Pro12).
The sides continuing in Super Rugby are:
- Bulls, representing Pretoria and points north, playing at Loftus Versfeld.
- Lions, representing most of the Johannesburg area and playing at Ellis Park.
- Sharks, representing KwaZulu–Natal and playing at Kings Park.
- Stormers, representing the Western and Northern Cape, but mostly Cape Town, and moving from Newlands to Cape Town Stadium after the 2018 season.
The sides now playing in Pro14 are:
- Cheetahs, representing Free State and playing at Free State Stadium.
- Southern Kings, representing the Eastern Cape, play at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The major domestic competition is the Currie Cup, which is split into two divisions. The top level is known as the Premier Division.
- The Millennium Stadium (commercially known as Principality Stadium) in Cardiff is home to the Welsh rugby team.
- Wales has four teams in Pro14—the Cardiff Blues, the Dragons (playing in Newport), the Ospreys (playing in Swansea), and the Scarlets (from Llanelli).
Rugby league enjoys less popularity worldwide than rugby union, but is a popular code (rule variant) in some countries. It is governed internationally by the Rugby League International Federation (RILF).
The rules for rugby league are, for the most part, very similar to those of rugby union. However, there are several significant differences, which makes it much faster paced and arguably more exciting to watch than rugby union. Each team consists of 13 players on the field, and each game is divided into two 40-minute halves. Each team is allowed to be tackled up to five times before they are required to score, failing which the ball is turned over to the opposing team on the sixth tackle. In this, it is arguably somewhat similar to American football, but unlike that sport, Rugby League disallows any forward passes and has less specialized positions.
Where rugby league truly differs from rugby union, though, is in its scoring system. In rugby league, a try is worth four points, a conversion is worth two points, a penalty goal is worth two points, and a drop goal is only worth one point.
- Rugby League World Cup - Although less prominent than its rugby union counterpart, the rugby league world cup is the premier tournament between national teams in rugby league, and is also held every four years. The most successful team is Australia, having won the title a total of 11 times, including in 2017, while New Zealand and England typically post the strongest challenge to Australia's dominance. The next Rugby League World Cup will be hosted by England in 2021.
Australia is probably the only major country in which rugby league is more popular than rugby union. After Aussie rules football and cricket, this is probably the game that's most attended by crowds of spectators, and it is the most popular spectator sport in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. The National Rugby League (NRL) administers the most popular annual competition, the Telstra Premiership. For the past few years, there have been 15 Australian teams and a sole New Zealand team, the Warriors, based in Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, competing for this cup. After a league season of 26 rounds, with each team playing 24 matches, the top eight teams advance to a playoff (known locally as a "finals series") that culminates in the NRL Grand Final at Stadium Australia in Sydney. The World Club Challenge is an annual match played between the champion club of the Australian National Rugby League and the top club of the European Super League competitions, where it usually ends up with an English side battling the Aussies.
However, arguably the biggest event in Australian rugby league is the State of Origin series, an annual series of three matches between teams representing rugby league's two leading states of New South Wales and Queensland. Player eligibility depends mainly on the state in which each player first played senior rugby league, with the state of birth being a secondary factor. Additionally, State of Origin players must be eligible to represent Australia internationally. Matches are usually held in Sydney and Brisbane, and sometimes in Melbourne or Perth; sellouts are a virtual certainty, and the series draws some of the biggest TV ratings for any Australian sporting event. Many observers consider State of Origin matches even more competitive than international matches.
The Australian Women's Rugby League is quite successful internationally where they're known as the Jillaroos.
Most support tends to be concentrated in Northern England with some of the most successful teams concentrated within the old boundaries of the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire and coming from Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Salford, St Helens, Wakefield, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan.
The top competition is Super League, consisting of 12 teams. 11 of the teams are in the English game's heartland of Northern England; the other is from Perpignan in France. The league's championship match, the Super League Grand Final, is held at Old Trafford in Manchester, better known as the home of the storied association football club Manchester United.
Papua New Guinea
In PNG rugby league is the national game and attracts highly partisan crowds with fierce fights sometimes erupting amongst spectators. The risk of injury used to dissuade overseas players from playing here despite the obvious local enthusiasm but security and safety measures have improved. Since 2014 the country has a professional club, the PNG Hunters who play in the Queensland Cup, a second-tier state level league in Australia. The Hunters were champions in 2017.
Rugby league was only introduced into Tonga in 1986 with the staging of the Pacific Cup in Rarotonga. In 1988 the national side played its first Test match against Western Samoa in Apia. Since then Tonga has played regularly against Pacific Islands nations and, on a less regular basis, against top nations such as England, France and New Zealand.