Rugby union has come a long way since William Webb Ellis, a naughty schoolboy at Rugby School in the English midlands, caught the ball during an 1823 game of football and ran towards the opposition goal. Twenty-two years later, Rugby School pupils wrote the first laws of the sport. The Rugby Football Union was established in 1871 and England played Scotland in the first international game that same year.
Rugby union is a team sport played by sides with 15 players on the field and seven replacements. The 15 starting players are split into eight forwards and seven backs. It is the job of the forwards to gain and retain possession of the ball, which is oval shaped and, therefore, liable to bounce in unpredictable ways. The forwards comprise the loosehead prop, hooker, tighthead prop, number four lock, number five lock, blindside flanker, openside flanker and number eight. Collectively they are known as the pack because it is these eight players who pack down to scrum. It is the job of the backs to create and convert point-scoring chances. The backs comprise the scrum half, fly half, left wing, inside centre, outside centre, right wing and full back. The scrum half and the fly half are known as the half backs, while the centres and the wings are known as the three quarters.
There are three points values in rugby union. A try, scored by grounding the ball in the in-goal area, is worth five points and a subsequent conversion kick is worth two points. Teams can score three points by one of two methods – a drop goal or a successful penalty kick. Critics of rugby union say that tries are not valued too lowly and that sides do not have sufficient incentive to score them when it is easier to kick goals, either as drops or penalties.
Rugby union should not be confused with rugby league, which is a very different sport. Rugby league, which grew from a breakaway from rugby union in the late 19th century, is a 13-a-side game. Some players have crossed codes but such are the differences that it takes a special talent to do so.
Where are rugby union’s strongholds?
Rugby union has spread far beyond its English birthplace. More than 100 countries feature in the latest International Rugby Board rankings and rugby union is the national sport of at least half a dozen of them – Fiji, Georgia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga and Wales – while it enjoys a high profile in countries such as Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Scotland and South Africa.
What are rugby union’s premier competitions?
Rugby union’s top international tournament is the Rugby World Cup, the trophy for which is the Webb Ellis Cup, named in honour of the mischievous Rugby School pupil. The Rugby World Cup is the world’s third largest sport event – only the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games are bigger – and it takes place every four years. First staged in 1987, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have each won two Rugby World Cup titles, while England has one victory.
There are major annual international rugby union events in both hemispheres. The northern hemisphere’s top half-a-dozen teams – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – contest the Six Nations Championship in the first few months of the year. Since Italy joined the tournament in 2000, France has been the most successful side with five titles, including three much prized Grand Slam triumphs.
The Rugby Championship, which took on a new name in 2012 following the admission of Argentina, is a four-country competition played in the middle of the year. Along with Argentina, the national teams of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa participate. New Zealand clinched the inaugural tournament emphatically, winning their six matches by an aggregate score of 177-66, including a 22-0 home defeat of Australia at its famed Eden Park fortress in Auckland.
In club rugby union, the top competitions are the Heineken Cup in Europe and Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere nations of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The Heineken Cup is a 24-side tournament that features the premier teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. There are six pools of four sides in the first stage and that feeds into the eight-team knockout stage. French giant Toulouse has been the most successful side in the Heineken Cup since it got under way in 1995, recording four championship victories and two runner-up finishes.
Super Rugby featured 12 teams when it was set up in 1996. Now it is up to 15 sides, with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa each having five representatives. Australia’s teams are the Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs. The Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes are New Zealand’s sides. South Africa has the Bulls, Cheetahs, Kings, Sharks and Stormers playing in its conference. The top six teams qualify for the play-offs, with each nation guaranteed to have at least one side in that phase. No team comes close to matching the Super Rugby record of the Crusaders, the Christchurch-based superpower that has claimed seven titles in the fairly young competition.
How do punters bet on rugby union?
Rugby union games tend to have short-priced favourites so line betting, sometimes known as handicap betting, is the bread and butter of rugby union punters. Bookmakers award a theoretical head start to the underdog team and ask punters to bet on what is, in effect, a mythical match. For example, bookmakers may rate Australia as a six-point favourite for its Rugby Championship home game versus South Africa. The Wallabies may win the match 25-20 but, for line betting purposes, the winners would be the Springboks. Many rugby union punters are reluctant to back sides to concede huge starts because of what is known as the ease-off factor.
Winning margin and total points are other popular rugby union betting markets on games and, of course, the average man in the street loves to place small bets on exotics such as first try scorer, a market in which most of the players trade at double-figure odds, even the fleet-flooted wings.