This is a short introduction to the game of Rugby. It might be of use when you are a Melbournian visiting the MCG for the Bledisloe Cup, not willing to shout 'baaaaaaaaaaaaal', Aussie Rules Style, at every tackle made. It might also be of use when you're just looking for an alternative view on the game and the people around. In that case you could also visit Henri Burger's Alternative Rugby Page (in Afrikaans only).

Before we start, let's get one thing straight. This is not rugby league. This is not the bash-it-up, kick-it-on-the-sixth-tackle drudgery. This is something more aesthetic, more operatic, more hands-on, more international. This is rugby union. This is leather-patches, smoking jackets, cognac after dinner. This is a barbaric sport played by gentlemen, unlike rugby league, which is a barbaric sport played by barbarians. Yes, you've got the drift. This is a sport, a culture, a lifestyle, that takes itself extremely seriously. Welcome to toff's paradise. And like any acquired taste, it requires a crash-course to work out what all these silly diversions, odd interruptions and strange names mean. Just be patient, because soon you will also be swilling the cognac around in the mouth, rather than spitting it out.

The aim of the game
Although rugby union appears a weird cross of world championship wrestling, Aussie Rules, rugby league, Gaelic football, netball, trampolining and anything else lacking logic, its prime purpose is simple - to get through the opposition's defence and place the ball over their try-line. Sounds simple, but it is as difficult as taking a screamer in the goal-square, then kicking the goal on the run over your left shoulder. No wonder everyone wets their pants when a try is scored.

The number of players - and their roles
Unlike rugby league, which has 13 players, there are 15 in union, comprising eight forwards and seven backs. Forwards are far more important in union because the scrum, which is a joke in league, is a vital attacking and psychological tool, and many Test matches are determined by what happens at the rucks and mauls (this will be explained shortly), and in the lineouts (read on). How dominant the backs are in a match, and how much space and time they have to work with is determined by the dominance of the forwards and the scrum. When a team's forwards are on top, it will invariably win. When the pack is shunted all over the paddock, massive losses are inevitable. Sixteen forwards bashing their heads into each other is somewhat uncouth, but it does mean something. It is the crux of the matter. Just nod accordingly.

Simple. A try is worth five points. A conversion, which comes after a try is scored, two points. Three points for a penalty goal. And a field goal, which results from a successful drop-kick going over the cross bar is worth three. So nine times out of 10, the team with the most tries wins.

The laws
Yes there are some. Many, actually. But most are too bewildering to attempt to fathom. So it is better for the uninitiated that we go on to the next subject - as one needs several million words even to attempt to explain most of them. If you find yourself confused during a game, you're not alone - most of the players are confused by interpretations of the rules as well. To avoid blank looks on the big night, just remember these three simple laws: a player cannot pass the ball forward; you don't laugh when New Zealand does the haka; the All Blacks invariably win.

Who plays where?
The muscle-men in the forward pack are the two props and one hooker, who make up the front row. The acrobats are the two second rowers (or locks), whose prime aim is to win the lineouts, which are elaborate versions of a boundary throw-in, whereinstead of two players trying to elbow each other out of the way you have as many as 16. The front row and second row comprise the Tight Five, the cornerstone of the scrum.

The backrowers - a No.8 and two breakaways - are the ruck-rovers of the team, whose prime aim is to gather the loose ball, be here, there and everywhere, and win the scraps. The midget is the halfback, who tosses the ball into the scrum, and acts as the link between the forwards and the backs. He dives a lot. He does that because it looks good. The five-eighth is the organiser, deciding whether the team adopts a kicking game, or a ball-in-hand attacking game through the use of his two centres, who stand outside him. The wingers are the show-ponies, supposedly the fastest players in the team who finish off attacking movements with tries. The full-back is, as the term states, the last line of defence. But unlike in AFL, a full-back is often a full-forward as well - frequently being used as an unexpected attacking weapon.

Rucks and mauls
Unlike rugby league, in which a player who is tackled is allowed to hold the ball, return to his feet, and play the ball to a teammate, in rugby union the game continues. A player when tackled has to release the ball near him on the ground, which prompts each team's forwards to jump all over him in a bid to retain possession or to wrest it away. There are several ways the forwards can attack from this position: they can set up a ruck, which means the forwards reef the ball back with their feet, to start another phase of play; or they can start a maul, where they conduct an elaborate game of pass the parcel by keeping the ball in hand and transferring it from player to player. Many times the players will go into the tackle with the prime aim of setting up a rolling maul, or a ruck, believing it is the way to drive through an opposition pack. As you will discover, most of the game's penalties revolve around this area, because players do all sorts of sneaky things when they believe the referee will not see them under a pile of bodies. Indiscretions include wrongly jumping on top of each other, being off-side, using their hands when they are supposed to use only their feet, collapsing, and so on. This is a pandora's box.

One of the most spectacular parts of the game, even if it makes little sense. It is just an elaborate way of continuing play after someone has either kicked the ball, or been tackled, over the sideline. The laws in this area have recently been changed, allowing jumpers to be lifted by their teammates so they can grab the ball thrown in by the hookers. Once a highly athletic pursuit has turned into an acrobatic act straight out of Circus OZ. Lineouts also have the desired effect of giving the backs extra room to run around in, which they love. Backs just hate being cramped by the forwards. After all, they are the artistes of the team.

The Referee
The guy with the wistle and different jersey is the referee (universally known as 'Mr Ref'). He is hated by everyone (players, spectators and officials), has never seen a rule book, and is usually the reason why teams lose. He is supposed to implement the rules and allow the play to flow (which is mutually exclusive, if you took note of the duties of the players). He is normally not associated with either of the teams playing, but you will often hear people say that a team played with 16 men. He does not participate in play as such, with the exception of George Gregan.

If you have difficulty in identifying this guy, look out for the one at which spectators shout things like "phone call, Mr. Ref!", or "you left your spectacles in the dressing room!", or "since when is the rule book available in braille?" However, should a player make one of these remarks, you will recognise the referee as the one walking towards that player's try line with one arm in the air for 10 paces (and the player most probably towards the dressing room).

If you really want to make sure about the referee, you can try and find him in the referee's dressing room. Make sure you do this before the match starts. Afterwards he will either be locked inside (either by himself, or the players - most probably from both teams), or will be surrounded by an entire police force.

Touch Judges
There are 2 touch judges, or linesmen at a match. They don't actually touch anything (though their feet sometimes touch the grass), but patrol the touch lines (the 2 lines running the length of the field on the sides, or sidelines). The touch line, by the way, is never touched by any player carrying the ball (in his opinion), and is never cleared directly by any fly-half (in his opinion).

The touch judge usually carries a flag (unless he was hit on purpose by players 1, 2 or 3). He is a qualified referee (a misnomer - see 'referee') and normally from the home side, except in major matches, when he is supposed to be neutral (in which case he spins a coin to deside on whose side he is). His main duty is to hang out the said flag to point out to the referee the sins of the team that he opposes on the particular day. He also instructs the referee what punishment to dish out (presumably because the referee is blind, and therefore cannot read the rule book, which he does not possess, as said before).

He also has a few minor duties. One is to indicate where the ball was kicked into touch. He does this by keeping his flag upright at a point 5-10 paces from where the ball actually crossed the line , and his free hand outwards to indicate which side should throw the ball in at the line-out. He does the same when a player steps on the line whilst carrying the ball (which never happens). He will also indicate to the referee that a try was scored when the scorer actually touched the corner flag before crossing the try line (another reason for calling him 'touch judge').

Another important duty is to indicate whether a kick at goal is good. He does this by not actually watching the ball, but the other touch judge (who again is watching him), and then sticking his flag in the air (when the kick is good), or keeping it down. The referee invariably makes his own decision, since one flag is always up and the other kept down. This decision is a very tricky one since the referee is blind.

Finally, in case the referee is injured (or decided to leave early) he is replaced by one of the touch judges, at which point the visiting captain normally leads his team off the field for a few beers. Although they are trailing far behind, the score will be more respectable.

The touch judge also must from time to time interrupt a good game to claim his share of TV attention. He will then stand with the flag held out for a looong time. Till all come back to HIM. He will then tell the ref about some thing utterly horrible and totally unjust that he had to witness. The ref will then reverse probably the best play of the day and punish the side that started to play the game very well. The TV will then spend some time trying to figure out what the fuck the idiot saw. This creates a gap for the commentators to say things like "Well, he is down on the field and probably saw something...."

The linesman / touch judge's most important function is however to carry the shame of the losings sides' fans. He was crooked and that is why they lost. The winning side will then find instances to prove that he was even more shit. They should have scored another try as well.

Without him the fans will have to find the reasons on the field.

The Weird World of Rugby (c) M.M. Roelofs, Amsterdam, NL
All Rights Reserved