Rugby football is a game named for the school in the English town of Rugby. There are two main versions: rugby union with 15 players a side (with a 7-a-side variant), and rugby league with 13 players a side (with 7-a-side and 9-a-side variants). Rugby union is played in many countries, whereas rugby league is little played beyond Australia, Papua New Guinea, the south of France and the north of England.
Many towns in Britain had traditional ball games, but the rules were entirely local and unwritten, and games were mob affairs akin to pitched battles. In the early 19th century, it still wasn't agreed whether you were meant to kick or throw the ball. The legend goes that during a match at Rugby School in 1823, young William Webb Ellis opted to pick up the ball and run with it. Whether or not he did so, it was that school that first wrote rules for the game we now call rugby. Most clubs preferred the non-handling game and founded The Football Association (hence "Association football", or "soccer" in short) in 1863, but 21 clubs led by Blackheath split away, and formed the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in 1871. The schism with soccer was made permanent by accident, when changes in the making of balls caused the rugby ball to become elongated. This was crucial: you can kick a spherical ball with accuracy over distance, at close quarters dribble it round your opponents, and head it, flick it and all sorts of tricks. You can't do so with an ellipsoid ball as the kicker's contact is too variable, the bounce is unpredictable and the ball bobbles not rolls; it's better to carry and pass it. It's also more snug to hold than a spherical ball.
The RFU required players to be amateurs, which was alright for the nobility and a growing middle class with money and leisure time. But working men lost wages if they took time off for games and training, and clubs from the industrial north of England sought to refund them with "broken time payments". The RFU wouldn't accept this so in 1895 those northern clubs broke away, forming the Rugby Football League (RFL). This second schism was very bitter: the RFU banned not only payment but any taint of association with rugby league, even in an unpaid or non-playing capacity. It took human rights legislation in the 1990s and a string of lawsuits to bring the RFU to its senses. Both games are now professional at their higher levels, and there is some cross-over of players, but rugby league hasn't expanded much beyond its northern heartland, and rugby union has also struggled to gain a foothold in the north of England.
Britain exported rugby to its colonies, who swiftly learned to beat the mother country at her own game - New Zealand became pre-eminent, and remains so over a century later. Rugby also became popular in France, Argentina and Italy, and to a lesser extent elsewhere. Large countries where it never took hold include India, USA, Russia and China.
In the 21st century women's rugby union has greatly developed.
Going to a match
The top matches are the internationals. These sell out weeks in advance - check the host nation union's official website for ticket sales, and be wary of online scalpers. (Plane and hotel prices will also be hiked.) These matches are usually on TV, and watched in pubs on widescreen. At the level below, of professional clubs, you should have little difficulty getting tickets, or getting into the stadium on the day, yet you'll see top-rank players doing their stuff with skill and verve. Games lower down the pyramid are thinly attended, the skill and athleticism are not so fine, but the impact and intensity are all there. See the Wikivoyage travel pages for the relevant cities for practicalities.
You will always be welcome. Rugby union rival fans mingle amicably inside and outside the stadium, and abhor the hostilities and hooliganism that too often mar soccer games. Keep the violence on the pitch, where it's controlled by the rules and the referee's whistle. "Hard luck today guys, you were unlucky with some of the decisions and the bounce of the ball, what are you having to drink?" After a drink or three however, an argument is likely to boil over, with punches thrown - but it won't be country versus country unless it's about Brexit. It'll soon come to order and everyone pals again and more drinks, until the next brawl starts. The drinking culture is both traditional and silly and is best avoided, especially in a strange city where unfriendly denizens lie in wait for drunks.
Accept from the outset that you'll never fully understand these. It's like Tao, where that which can be written is not the true Tao. The reason it's baffling is that there are several different passages of play, with different rules on handling the ball and on contact with other players. And the game can switch between passages at high speed, with the ball hidden in a pile of furious bodies. Even the players can't always tell, so the referee maintains a running commentary to guide them. "Tackler roll away! That's a ruck - hands off Number Six! Blue Five, step back." The referee has two assistants or "touch judges" on the sidelines, and big games have a fourth video referee or TMO: "Television Match Official".
The game is played with 15 a side, players 1 to 8 being "forwards", 9 to 15 being "backs" ie defensive, and up to eight substitutes, 16 to 23. They play on a pitch 100 m long by 70 m wide with an H-shaped goal at each end. Players seek to advance the ball across any part of their opponents' goal line (not just the H) to score a try, worth 5 points. Players may run with or kick the ball in any direction, but may only pass the ball backwards or horizontally. A player carrying the ball may be tackled, no small matter if that player weighs 120 kilo and is running hard. The tackled player must release the ball, whereupon there is a struggle to regain it, usually in the form of a "ruck". There are two halves of 40 mins, with teams switching ends; there is no added time because the referee stops the clock at interruptions to play. However play doesn't stop on the 40 mins, but whenever the ball next goes dead: there are thrilling examples of teams keeping play alive in "red-clock" time to snatch a victory.
To score a try, the ball must be securely grounded in the opponent's "in-goal area" - dropping it doesn't count, and the defenders may contrive to get under the ball and hold it up. The try-scoring team is also awarded a conversion, earning two more points if it's kicked over the crossbar of the H-shaped goal. These names came about because originally, the try itself didn't score points; it just provided an opportunity to "try" to kick a goal unimpeded by the opponents, and a successful kick would "convert" the try into a goal. The kick is taken in line from where the ball was grounded, so try-scorers attempt to go central to give their kicker a better angle. Conversions are must be attempted from a place kick or (very rarely) a drop kick. A drop kick is defined as one where the ball is dropped and kicked immediately upon touching the ground.
Players may also drop kick the ball over the goal crossbar during open play, for a drop goal worth 3 points. It's a tricky manoeuvre and not often attempted. Most scores come from penalty kicks awarded for serious infringements. Teams have a choice of how to play from a penalty, but often opt for a place kick (or rarely, a drop kick) at goal, worth 3 points if it clears the crossbar. Indeed, hustling your opponents into mistakes that incur a penalty is an important part of attack.
There are several set plays. A lineout is awarded if the ball goes over the sidelines "into touch". The lines themselves are in touch, so a ball or player carrying the ball and setting foot on the line is out of play (likewise a ball grounded on the goal line itself is a try.) Normally the other side then has a throw-in to the two lines of opposing players, but if the ball has gone out from a penalty kick, that side gets the throw-in. This is a common attacking ploy: you kick for touch close to the goal line, hoping to win the line-out and charge over for a try. A scrum is awarded for a minor infringement: the forwards crouch into a 3-4-1 set, while the "scrum-half" feeds the ball in. The ball may not be handled within the scrum. Messy, collapsing scrums are the game's least attractive feature, and carry risk of injury.
What counts as a minor or major infringement often depends on the game situation, eg did it thwart a promising attack, was it deliberate or repeated offending, was it physically dangerous? Common offences usually deemed minor are forward passes, knock-on (ie ball forward from hand to ground), and tackled player not releasing the ball. It's usually a penalty for collapsing a scrum or being offside, ie competing for the ball from in front of it. For an offence that thwarts a probable try the referee may award a penalty try, 5 instant points and a conversion kick for two more. For serious misconduct such as a dangerous tackle, a player could be sent off for 10 minutes ("yellow card"), or for the rest of the game ("red card"). In a game that's all about weight and numbers, that hands a big advantage to the other team. Referees are martinets from a bygone era, and visible dissent from their decisions is punished more rigorously than in other sports.
Rugby sevens is a variant of rugby union with only 7 players, but using the same sized field, so play is fast and open, a real test of fitness. A few rules and set-plays are adapted, eg scrums are of three players, and penalty goals and conversions must be from drop kicks and not place kicks. The game is two halves of 7 or 10 minutes; this lends itself to tournaments with all the games played over a single weekend, or sometimes even a single day. Drop goals and penalty goals are extremely rare in rugby sevens, and the vast majority of points are scored from tries.
The worldwide governing body for rugby union is World Rugby (WR), formerly known as the International Rugby Board. The Rugby World Cup is held every four years with 20 nations competing. The next World Cup is in Japan from 20 Sept to 2 Nov 2019, with four pools of five teams: the top two in each pool will go into a knock-out contest. The pattern of the draw means that at least one top team will fail to make the cut from the pool stage, and will be eliminated early.
The Women's Rugby World Cup is held every four years. The next event is in New Zealand in 2021, with 12 nations competing.
15-a-side rugby is not played at the Olympics due to time constraints, most notably mandatory rest periods between matches. Because of the much shorter duration of a Sevens match (14 minutes of playing time instead of 80), that form of the game is more compatible with time-limited multi-sport events, and both the summer Olympics and the Commonwealth Games feature sevens competitions. WR organises annual circuits of tournaments for national sevens teams, with 10 events on the men's circuit and six on the women's. The rugby sevens event at the Olympics is the only time the home nations of England, Scotland and Wales combine to field a unified Great Britain team.
In the northern hemisphere the top tournament is the Six Nations, played Feb-March each year by England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Thus, the three nations of Great Britain field separate teams, while Ireland has a single team for the Republic and Northern Ireland. (And this usually applies to other tournaments.) These games always have good away-team support as they're played in popular destinations with short travel times, so you need at most one day off work to get to a weekend away match. The top tournament for clubs is the European Rugby Champions Cup, with 20 teams from those six nations. There's also a second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup, with another 20 clubs.
In the southern hemisphere the top tournament is The Rugby Championship, played Aug-Oct each year between Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. The top club tournament is Super Rugby, with 15 teams from those four nations plus Japan, which in the 21st century has emerged as a new force in rugby.
Every four years, the British and Irish Lions, a combined team from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, tour one of the southern nations, with a mixture of warm-up, regional and full international matches. The next Lions tour is to South Africa in 2021.
The pre-eminent northern teams are the "Six Nations". Below them lie a second and third tier playing in the RU International Championships. For 2019 / 20 in tier 2 these are Georgia, Spain, Romania, Russia, Belgium and Portugal, and in tier 3 Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Lithuania, Switzerland and Czech Republic. Those tiers have promotion / relegation, but there is none to the Six Nations, who thus act as a cartel dominating the money, TV exposure and influence in the game. There's recurrent argument over this: Italy are perennially bottom of the Six Nations, awarded the "Wooden Spoon". But it's not difficult to entice fans to visit Rome and bring their families, quite apart from their expecting to win, but supposing next year the equivalent fixture is in Bucharest? In February?? Ain't gonna happen soon.
The governing body is the Rugby Football Union, branded as England Rugby. The stadium for all England internationals is Twickenham in southwest London, which also stages other major rugby and other events.
The country's top club league, with most of the teams based in the south, is the Premiership of 12 clubs: Exeter, Saracens (of Hendon, NW London), Gloucester, Harlequins (at the Stoop, Twickenham), Northampton Saints, Sale (of Manchester), Bath, Wasps (of Coventry), Bristol Bears, Leicester Tigers, Worcester Warriors and Newcastle Falcons.
Below them are 12 second-tier clubs in the Championship, 16 third tier clubs in National League One, and below that a South and a North National League Two.
Twickenham also hosts a stop in the World Rugby Sevens Series (men) every May.
The governing body is Irish Rugby. There is one national side for all of Ireland, with players from the Republic and Northern Ireland. The stadium for internationals and other big games is the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, south of the river at Lansdowne Road.
The top Irish clubs play in a European professional league, the Pro14, which also has clubs from Scotland, Wales and Italy; recently two South African teams have joined. Ireland has four teams in Pro14, representing its traditional provinces of Leinster in Dublin, Munster mostly in Limerick with some games in Cork, Ulster in Belfast and Connacht in Galway. Those teams do well and routinely qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup.
There are two professional teams in Pro14, Benetton Treviso and Zebre in Parma (Emilia-Romagna). And not much below: the main reason for the national team's stuttering performance is the lack of an infrastructure to spot, recruit and foster talent in Italy. So its next generation mostly ends up in soccer, with taller types who might excel in certain positions ending up in basketball or volleyball. The current Six Nations team is being kept afloat by one or two exceptional talents, such as Sergio Parisse, with no obvious rising stars to replace them on retirement. Italian Rugby benefited historically from the collapse of American football in the country due to several scandals in the 1990s with many players - and fans - switching codes.
The governing body is the French Rugby Federation, Fédération Française de Rugby. International matches are usually played at Stade de France in Saint-Denis, some 10 km north of central Paris, but occasionally elsewhere eg Marseille.
France's top club competition is the Top 14 - French clubs don't play in the Pro14. Those teams are Toulouse, Clermont, Lyon, Castres, Bordeaux-Begles, Racing 92 (of Paris), La Rochelle, Stade Français Paris, Montpelier, Toulon, Paloise of Pau, Agen, Grenoble and Perpignan. Below Top 14 is Rugby Pro D2, involving 16 teams, and below that is a pyramid of Fédérale leagues that involve nearly 200 other clubs.
France hosts stops in the World Rugby Sevens Series and World Rugby Women's Sevens Series each June. The men's event is held at Stade Français' home of Stade Jean-Bouin in the 16th arrondissement and the women's event in Biarritz.
French rugby has a dark past. During the German occupation of 1940-44, many sports and cultural organisations were closed down. But the French persuaded the Germans that rugby union promoted the noble values of National Socialism; according it was spared, while rugby league was made illegal and all its assets handed over to union clubs. This greatly strengthened the post-war union game in France, and no compensation was ever paid to the league game, which never really recovered here.
This is the wild card of rugby union, having emerged from nowhere in recent years, most notably with a stunning upset of South Africa in the group stage of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Their governing body is Japan Rugby Football Union (日本ラグビーフットボール協会, Nihon Ragubi- Futtobo-ru Kyo-kai). In Sept-Nov 2019 they will host the rugby world cup, with 20 nations playing in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kumagaya north of Tokyo, Shizuoka, Kobe, Aichi, Fukuoka, Hanazono in Osaka, Oita, Kamaishi, Sapporo and Kumamoto.
Japan has the northern hemisphere winter but is too far away to participate routinely in European competitions. Their highest-level league, generally known as the Top League (branded with the English-language name in Japan; more fully ジャパンラグビートップリーグ, Japan Ragubī Toppu Rīgu), typically runs from August to January. It's an industrial league, meaning that teams are owned by major Japanese corporations, and many players are employed by the companies involved. While the league is known for very high salaries, only a handful of foreign players, plus some high-profile Japanese players, actually earn at that level. In recent years, it's become a popular late-career destination for players from top-tier countries. Most players, however, are amateurs who make most of their money in their day jobs at the sponsoring companies. The country's sole fully professional team, Sunwolves, play in the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby, but they haven't done well and will be axed from the tournament after 2020.
Japan hosts a World Rugby Women's Sevens Series event in Kitakyushu.
United States and Canada
Rugby, whether union or league, is largely a fringe sport in these countries. While association football, known in both countries as soccer, is increasing in popularity, the sporting scene in these countries is still largely dominated by home-grown sports—gridiron football (either American or Canadian), baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. Nonetheless, these countries, especially the US, are seen as something of a "holy grail" for rugby administrators worldwide, given their wealth and enormous population base (Canada is larger than Australia and New Zealand combined, and the US has more people than the Six Nations and Rugby Championship countries combined). The national governing bodies are USA Rugby and Rugby Canada.
The US is trying to establish a fully professional league, Major League Rugby. It was launched in 2018 with seven teams, all in the US; it added teams in New York City and Toronto in 2019, and will add three more US teams in 2020.
The US and Canada host World Rugby Sevens Series events in successive weeks in March. The US event has been hosted by Las Vegas, but will move to an as-yet-unnamed city for at least 2020 due to stadium issues; the Canada event is held at BC Place in Vancouver, the city's main venue for field sports.
The two countries also host events in the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series, but at different times of the year. The US event, which opens the series, is held in October in the Denver suburb of Glendale, Colorado; the Canada event is held in April in Langford, British Columbia, near Victoria on Vancouver Island.
United Arab Emirates
While the Middle East is largely a rugby backwater, it's the focus of the sevens world every December, when the men's and women's sevens series come to Dubai at a stadium known as The Sevens. The men's event is the opener for its series.
Perhaps the most famous annual sevens event is the Hong Kong Sevens, a men's sevens series event held every April at Hong Kong Stadium in the So Kon Po district of Hong Kong Island. While the women's series doesn't stop in Hong Kong, an annual qualifier for the women's series is held alongside the main men's tournament. Rugby is a fairly popular spectator sport in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong's national rugby team is second only to Japan in Asia.
Another place that has a dearth of top-level rugby except for one weekend out of the year—when the men's sevens circuit makes its annual stop in April at the National Stadium, just to the northeast of the Downtown Core in the Kallang district.
The governing body is New Zealand Rugby. There isn't a dedicated national stadium; internationals are often played at Eden Park in Auckland, but also at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton, Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, Rugby League Park in Christchurch, and very occasionally at Wellington Regional Stadium. The national team are known as the All Blacks from their black strip with a silver fern. They are by some distance the world's top side, a position they have held for over a century, and all the more remarkable coming from a nation with less than 5 million people.
Just before the start of a game, the All Blacks perform a haka, a Māori ritual dance. It's often described as a war-dance or challenge to the opponents, though historically it was more about stoking up the performers themselves. It was also originally free-style and individualistic but has become a synchronised set-piece. It's as much a part of the pre-match routine as singing the national anthems, and should be respected as such. The All Blacks' haka was traditionally Ka Mate but recently, there has been new composition, Kapa o Pango - those words translate as "team in black". Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have similar ritual pre-match dances.
New Zealand has five clubs playing in the 15-team Super Rugby:
- Blues for Auckland and points north, playing at Eden Park, Auckland.
- Chiefs for the central North Island, playing at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
- Crusaders for the north and centre of the South Island, playing at Rugby League Park, Christchurch. The team is considering a name change due to the historic association of the Crusades with anti-Muslim violence, following the 2019 terrorist attack on a Christchurch mosque.
- Highlanders for Otago and Southland, playing at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin.
- Hurricanes for the Wellington region, playing at Westpac Stadium there.
The main domestic competition is the Mitre 10 Cup, with 7 clubs in the top-tier Premier Division and 7 in the lower Championship Division. So that makes 14, but the competition sponsors "Mitre 10" are a New Zealand home improvement store chain.
New Zealand's stop in the World Rugby Sevens Series is held at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton in January or February.
The governing body is Rugby Australia. There isn't a dedicated national stadium; the national team Wallabies play around the country. Common venues are Stadium Australia aka ANZ Stadium at the Olympic Park in Sydney, Docklands aka Marvel Stadium in the Melbourne Docklands, Lang Park aka Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Perth aka Optus Stadium in the inner suburb of Burswood, Canberra aka GIO Stadium in the Bruce neighbourhood, and Robina aka cbus Super Stadium in Gold Coast. Sydney's Football aka Allianz Stadium has closed and some fixtures (especially Sevens) are now at the Showground aka Spotless Stadium in Sydney Olympic Park.
Australia has four teams playing in Super Rugby:
- Brumbies for Canberra and southern New South Wales, playing at Canberra Stadium.
- NSW Waratahs for the rest of New South Wales, who play at Stadium Australia in Sydney.
- Melbourne Rebels for Victoria, playing at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (AAMI Park).
- Reds for Queensland, playing at Lang Park in Brisbane.
The main domestic competition is the National Rugby Championship, with seven teams from Sydney, rest of New South Wales, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, rest of Queensland, and Canberra. The eighth team is the Fijian Drua.
Following the closure of Sydney Football Stadium, the country's stops in the World Rugby Sevens Series and World Rugby Women's Sevens Series are held at the Showground in January or February.
Rugby union is the national sport of Fiji. The national team play at ANZ National Stadium in Suva, where most big events in the islands are staged. Fiji's equivalent to the haka is the cibi (pronounced thimbi), traditionally a celebration for homecoming warriors but adopted as a pre-match ritual.
The Fijian Drua are a professional team playing in the Australian National Rugby Championship; they play home fixtures at Lautoka, Sigatoka and Suva. (A drua is a traditional Fijian double-hulled war-canoe.) They're intended as a developmental team, raising talent for the national team. The development seems to be working, because in their inaugural season of 2017 the Drua came third in the NRC, and they came first in 2018.
Fiji is perhaps best known for their world-class men's rugby sevens team, having won the Hong Kong Sevens a record 19 times, as well as the gold medal in the inaugural men's rugby sevens tournament at the 2016 Summer Olympics, their first Olympic medal in any sport.
The governing body is the South African Rugby Union. There's no dedicated national stadium and the Springboks play at venues around the country. Those commonly used are Ellis Park aka Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg, Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, Cape Town Stadium (the city's Newlands Stadium has closed), Kings Park Stadium aka Jonsson in Durban, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth and Free State aka Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein
South African rugby is tied up with the bitter politics of the country. It was introduced by the British and enthusiastically taken up by the Afrikaner Boers - and also by black and coloured people, but they were marginalised even before an apartheid government came to power in 1948. Other nations colluded, in rugby and other sports, dropping non-white players from their touring sides. But from 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre, South Africa became isolated internationally, and its sports were excluded from overseas events or met by hostile demonstrations. This intensified after the Soweto riots of 1976. Not until 1990 was apartheid dismantled, with a multi-racial Springboks and governing structure emerging in 1992 and regaining an honourable place on the world stage. To this day sports largely correlate with ethnic groups in South Africa; cricket is popular among Anglo-South Africans, rugby is popular with Afrikaners and soccer is popular with everybody else.
Remarkably, South African professional clubs play in both hemispheres. Four of them are in the southern Super Rugby. These are:
- Bulls for Pretoria and points north, playing at Loftus Versfeld.
- Lions for Johannesburg, playing at Ellis Park.
- Sharks for KwaZulu–Natal, playing at Kings Park in Durban.
- Stormers for the Western and Northern Cape, playing at Cape Town Stadium.
Two clubs were axed from Super Rugby in 2017 but joined Europe's Pro14. They are:
- Cheetahs for Free State, playing at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein.
- Southern Kings for Eastern Cape, playing at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
The main domestic competition is the Currie Cup, played June-Oct. It's split into a Premier and a First Division each of 7 teams.
South Africa's event in the World Rugby Sevens Series is held at Cape Town Stadium in December.
The governing body is the Argentine Rugby Union (Unión Argentina de Rugby). There's no dedicated national stadium, so the Pumas play at various venues often used for soccer. These include Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires, Estadio Ciudad in La Plata, Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza, Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena in Salta and Estadio Monumental José Fierro in Tucumán.
One professional club plays in Super Rugby: that is Jaguares at Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires.
There are two domestic competitions: twelve clubs from Buenos Aires play in the "Top 12", while 16 provincial clubs play in Torneo del Interior A (with lower B & C divisions). The higher teams from these two qualify for the Nacional de Clubes. The leading team in recent years is Hindú Club, based in the Don Torcuato district of Greater Buenos Aires.
Rugby union is Tonga's national sport, and the Teufaiva Sport Stadium in Nuku'alofa in Tonga's national stadium. Although only a second tier side, Tonga's national team has scored upset victories over top tier sides, the most famous perhaps being its victory over France in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Tonga's equivalent to the haka is the sipi tau.
Rugby union is the national sport of Samoa, and the national team plays at Apia Park in the capital, Apia. While not a top tier team, Samoa's national team has sometimes pulled of upset victories against more fancied top tier sides. Samoa's equivalent to the haka is the siva tau.
Rugby league is played in fewer countries than rugby union and attracts smaller audiences. It is however a much faster, open game, and its play is easier to comprehend.
The field layout is similar to rugby union, albeit with different markings, and just as in rugby union, the aim is to score tries. Teams are 13-a-side, so they have more field to cover, but the big difference is the notional nature of the ruck and scrum. A player who is tackled simply gets up and back-heels an uncontested ball to team-mates. The side in possession can sustain five tackles then, if they haven't scored or play hasn't broken up by then, after the sixth tackle they must hand over possession. Usually after the fifth they punt downfield and chase to make the opponents start their own five advances from further back. The scrum is likewise an uncontested ball, its significance being that it momentarily pre-occupies the forwards leaving lots of space for the backs in possession to exploit. Altogether this means that the ball stays in view, and rules aren't continually switching between different passages of the game. A try earns four points, a conversion two points, a penalty goal two points, and a drop goal (called a field goal in Australia) is only one point. An offence that merits a penalty but fails to thwart a try will earn the scoring team a penalty kick as well as their conversion attempt, so they may come away with 8 points. There are two halves of 40 mins, ended by the honk of a factory hooter redolent of the game's industrial origins.
The international governing body is the Rugby League International Federation (RILF). The top international tournament is the Rugby League World Cup, played every four years. The next World Cup is in England in Oct-Nov 2021, with 16 nations playing in four pools of four; the full set of qualifying teams will be known by Nov 2019. The Women's and the Wheelchair World Cup will be staged alongside the Men's, with all three finals held 27 / 28 Nov 2021.
Australia is the only major country where rugby league is more popular than rugby union, and it even eclipses soccer and Australian rules football in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. The national governing body is the Australian Rugby League Commission and the national team are the Kangaroos; the women's team are the Jillaroos.
The main club competition is the National Rugby League (NRL) or Telstra Premiership, with 15 Australian teams and one from New Zealand, the Auckland Warriors. The top eight teams in the Premiership go into a knock-out contest culminating in the NRL Grand Final at Stadium Australia in Sydney. The winner goes on to play the winner of England's Super League in the World Club Challenge.
The State of Origin series, which draws even bigger audiences and TV ratings than the NRL Grand Final, is an annual series of three matches between New South Wales and Queensland, the game's two predominant states. Player eligibility reflects where they first played senior rugby league, rather than state of birth, but they must be eligible to represent Australia internationally. Matches are usually held in Sydney and Brisbane, occasionally in Melbourne or Perth. Many fans consider the level of play in the State of Origin series to be even higher than in the Rugby League World Cup.
The governing body is the Rugby Football League. The England team play at various stadiums around the country, including soccer grounds such as Manchester United's Old Trafford and Liverpool's Anfield.
The rugby league season in England is from Feb to Sept. The top club competition is Super League, consisting of 12 teams. Most are from the game's northern heartlands: Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Salford, St Helens, Wakefield, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan. The other two are London Broncos, and Catalans Dragons from Perpignan in France. In September the bottom team is relegated to the second-tier, the Championship, while the top five teams have a further contest towards the Grand Final, held at Old Trafford. The winner of that goes on to play the champion of Australia's NRL in the World Club Challenge.
Alongside this is a knock-out competition, the Challenge Cup. Teams are seeded, with amateur clubs starting in the first round then progressively stronger sides joining. The final is played at Wembley in August; in 2018 Catalans became the first non-English team to win. Other teams from abroad are sometimes invited and in 2019 this was Serbian team Red Star Belgrade. Additionally, a team from Toronto competes at the second level of the English league system, and barely missed out on promotion to Super League in 2018.
Papua New Guinea
In PNG rugby league is the national sport 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.
Although playing second fiddle to rugby union, rugby league also has a strong tradition in New Zealand. The New Zealand national team won the Rugby League World Cup in 2008. New Zealand also fields a professional club side, the New Zealand Warriors, in Australia's NRL.
Rugby league was only introduced to Fiji in 1992, but has since grown substantially in strength, with many Fijian players having gone on to successful careers in Australia's NRL. The national team has also done well in recent years, reaching the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup in 2008, 2013 and 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.
- American football - A similar and related game played across the Atlantic.