players all need to be particularly physically fit and tough because of the game's fast pace and the expansive size of the playing-field as well as the inherently rough physical contact
involved. Depending on his exact role or position, a player's size, strength and/or speed can provide different advantages (or disadvantages). Effective teamwork is also extremely important as all players must work in concert with each other if they're to be successful.
The rules of the sport have changed significantly over the decades since rugby football split into the league and union codes. This article details the modern form of the game and how it is generally played today.
A game of rugby league consists of two forty-minute halves, played by two teams on a rectangular grass field of 120 metres in length and about half that in width. In the middle of the field is the 50 metre "halfway" line. Each side of the field, on either side of the 50 metre line, is identical. 10 metres from the 50 metre line is the 40 metre line, followed by the 30, 20, 10 metre and goal or 'try' lines. This makes up 100 metres of field that is used for general play.
At the middle of each goal line is a set of goal posts in the shape of the letter 'H', used for point scoring from kicks (field goals, penalty goals and conversions). Six to twelve metres beyond each goal-line is the dead ball line. The area between these two lines is called the in-goal area.
The dead ball lines and the touch-lines (side lines) make up the boundary of the field of play. If the ball (or any part of the body of a player in possession of the ball) touches the ground on or beyond any of these lines, the ball is said to be dead and play must be restarted.
Method of play
Play commences once the ball has been kicked off from the ground in the centre of the field by one team to the other. The longer the kick, the more advantageous, as this forces the team receiving the ball to return it from deeper within their own territory. However a kick that is too large or misdirected and goes out of the field of play without first bouncing in it results in a penalty being awarded to the non-kicking team.
Each team is responsible for defending their end of the field, and they take turns throughout a game at defending and attacking. At half-time (the 40th minute of the game), the teams have a 5 minute break, then swap ends before resuming play.
The team with possession of the football is the attacking team. The primary aim of the attacking team is to 'work' the ball out from their own end of the field, into a more favourable position towards the opposition's end, and score a try by grounding the ball in the opposition's in-goal area or on the try-line. In some circumstances the attacking team may opt to kick a one-point field goal instead of attempting to score a try. Scoring will at least involve first gaining field position and, in the case of scoring a try, will almost certainly involve breaking the opposition's defensive line.
The objective of the defensive side is to prevent the attacking side from scoring and obtaining their shorter term objectives. The defensive team carries out these objectives by:
- maintaining the defensive line
- providing last ditch defenders
- preventing a try
Favourable field position is an important aim in rugby league, a goal present in the minds of players at almost all times. Possession of the football is also a very important and greatly-valued factor in the sport. While teams will swap possession of the ball several times in a game, they will generally try to limit the opposition's time in possession as much as possible by trying to minimise ball-handling errors and penalties conceded (which always result in a changeover of possession).
There are three ways to score points in rugby league: tries, conversion/penalty goals and field goals.
- The try is worth four points and is the primary means of scoring in rugby league. To successfully score a try, the ball must be placed on the ground within the designated in-goal area (or on the try-line itself) by applying positive downward pressure with the hand or forearm without losing control of the ball. This is referred to as grounding the football. If the player scoring the try is also being tackled at the same time, the try must be completed before or at the moment the tackle is completed. Occasionally, when it is deemed that a try would certainly have been scored were it not for a rule infringement of a defending player, a "penalty try" can be awarded (instead of a regular penalty) directly under the goal posts regardless of where the offence took place. Because of the certainty the referee must have that the try would have been scored, penalty tries are quite uncommon.
- Both conversion goals and penalty goals are worth two points and are attempted from place kicks from the ground, and are not part of general play. For a kick to be awarded a conversion or penalty goal, it must pass both over the crossbar and between the uprights of the goal-posts.
- Following a try, the scoring team has a chance to convert the try from four points to six; This is known as a 'conversion' and the resulting six point total is commonly referred to as a 'converted try'. The position of the place kick is dependent on the imaginary line perpendicular to the goal line from the point that the try was scored. The kick can be taken as close or as far from the try-line as the kicker likes, but must be in line with the point where the ball was grounded for the try. This leads to try-scorers sometimes trying to "improve field position" for the kicker, when able to, by grounding the football as close to the goal-posts as possible.
- When an attacking team is awarded a penalty, they are given the choice of taking a penalty kick from the point that the offence took place, or continuing their attack with a new set of six tackles. Depending on the proximity to the goal posts and other circumstances of the game, the team's captain will choose what he feels is the most appropriate option.
- A field goal is worth only one point. It is attempted during general play, and to be awarded must be made by a drop kick, and as with penalty and conversion goals, must pass both over the crossbar and between the uprights of the goal-posts. Attempting a field goal in favour of a try when in good field position is often a last ditch attempt to secure a win late in a close game when the scores are within a converted try of each other. It is also a common way to win a match that goes into golden point extra time. Less commonly, field goals will be attempted just before half-time, to secure the most points scored in the first half.
Players on the team with possession may pass the ball to one another while trying to reach the opposition's end of the field. A rugby league player may only pass the ball behind him, or across the field parallel to the try-line. Therefore the rest of the players on the team in possession must ensure that they are 'on-side', and in a position to legally receive the ball by staying behind or in-line with the passer. A pass deemed to have propelled the ball forward is called a 'forward pass' and results in an immediate halt to play and changeover of possession. Passes are also susceptible to interception by enterprising players on the defensive team who anticipate the pass and rush up to catch it, winning possession for their team.
The defensive team tries to stop the attacking team from scoring by tackling the player with the ball as quickly as possible to prevent him gaining more ground. A tackle
forces a halt in play for as long as it takes the tackled player to return to his feet and play the ball
. In that time, the defending team, with the exception of two markers
, must move back a minimum of 10 metres towards their end of the field. The attacking team restarts play and continues with its next chance to score via the play-the-ball
. After each tackle the attacking team should be closer to their opposition's end of the field.
Six tackle rule
An attacking team has a set of six
'chances' to score, often referred to as 'six tackles'. The referee keeps track of how many tackles have been performed in each set of six. Some referees choose to shout the number of tackles (to avoid any players' confusion as to what point in the tackle count it is); however, this is not a requirement.
When a side has used five tackles, the referee signals "fifth tackle" by raising an arm above his head with fingers spread, indicating that five of the tackles in the set have taken place and the next tackle will be the last. If a sixth tackle is made, a change-over takes place, where the attacking team hands the ball to the defending team at the point on the field where the tackle was made. The defending team, having gained possession then plays the ball and starts its assault on the opposition's end of the field.
Sixth tackles are usually avoided by the attacking team kicking the ball after the fifth tackle in either a last-ditch attempt to score, or to force the opposition to start their next set of six tackles as far back in their half of the field as possible.
An attacking team may also have seven chances to score in a special circumstance, governed by the zero tackle rule.
is used to restart play in various instances during a game, but most-commonly immediately following a tackle. The act of the play-the-ball is sometimes referred to simply as 'playing the ball'. To return the ball to play correctly, the tackled player must:
- have stopped forward progress (i.e., been tackled);
- have both feet on the ground;
- place the ball on the ground in front of one foot and;
- roll the ball backwards by use of the boot.
From the moment the ball is rolled back by the tackled player's boot, the next phase of play begins. The 'dummy half' is the term used to refer to the player who then picks up the ball and resumes his team's attack.
The ruck is generally known as the area that surrounds the tackled player at the moment of completion of a tackle till the moment when the player finishes playing the ball. The ball cannot be interfered with by a defending player whilst it is in the ruck, otherwise a penalty will be issued against that player's team. A penalty is also issued against the attacking team if the player responsible for playing the ball, does not play it correctly. Many penalties in rugby league occur in and around the ruck.
The defensive team and attacking team carry out any number of tactics, within the rules, to achieve their short term and ultimately long term objectives. The tactics below are a basic guide to how the game is typically played. On occasions, enterprising teams may choose to deviate from the typical tactics in order to surprise their opponents.
Improving field position
is the act of carrying the ball and running into the opposition's defensive line using brute strength. Hit-ups are usually employed to gain low-risk metres early in the tackle-count, but a good hit-up can also result in a breach of the defensive line. It also tires defenders, who have to stop an on-rushing opponent by putting their bodies on the line. Defending players may be drawn in towards the player hitting the ball up in an effort to make a tackle, possibly leaving other parts of the defensive line weakened for other attackers should the ball-carrier manage to off-load the ball to a teammate. Forwards
are usually used for taking hit-ups because of their greater size (often over 100kg) and strength, although most players on a team will take some hit-ups during a match.
involves playing mainly down the centre of the field, making one pass to a forward from dummy-half
and having him make as much ground as possible and then taking a tackle, is known as "one-out (or one-and-out) rugby".
- Attacking kicks in play can, if successful, result in rapid field advancement. Towards the end of the tackle count, the ball will often find its way to the best kicker on the team who will then return possession of the ball to the other side in the most favourable position for his team by kicking it down to the other end. These kicks are sometimes intended to go into touch (leave the field of play), resulting in a scrum to restart play. Scrums take a few minutes to form, so this gives the attacking team and a chance for a short rest before play resumes.
- The 40/20 rule is a relatively new rule created to reward excellence in kicking for touch. When a player on the attacking team kicks the ball from behind his 40-metre line and it goes into touch between the opposition's 20-metre line and goal-line after bouncing at least once within the field of play, a 40/20 is awarded. The usual decision to give the head and feed of the scrum to the non-kicking team when the ball enters touch is reversed if the kick is a 40/20. A successful 40/20 virtually guarantees possession in an attacking position by effectively moving the team from their own 40 metre line to the position where the ball went out.
Breaching the defence
In addition to trying to break the defensive line with the sheer force of a hit-up, players attempt to breach the opposing team's defence through combinations of plays, utilising speed, passing and/or kicking.
- Most rugby league tries result from back-line movements which involve deft passing between attacking players to move the ball out quickly to the wings or centres. If the ball movement is quicker than the defensive line's ability to shift to cover the outer attackers, resulting spaces towards the side of the field give opportunities for the faster wingers and centres to score out wide.
- The most skilful forwards will, during a hit-up, look to release the ball in the tackle before it's completed to a supporting player; known as an off-load. The hit-up, if successful, should create spaces in the defensive line due to defending players having been drawn into the tackle. This creates opportunities for the supporting players to breach the defensive line while the defence is busy trying to contain the initial hit-up.
- A 'dummy' is a move in which the player with the ball pretends to pass to a team-mate, but retains the ball and continues to run with it. The aim of this move is to take advantage of defenders that like to rush up on players who are about to receive the ball. This in effect draws the defending player(s) into the 'supposed' receiver of the ball leaving the player with the ball, unmarked.
- Generally, defensive players are assigned a player (or rather a position) which they must account for in defence. Manoeuvres by players on the attacking team are sometimes aimed at foiling this defensive system. A 'run-around' occurs when player A passes the ball to player B, and then circles behind him to receive the ball again from him. This play is designed to take advantage of those defenders who will follow the 'player' and not the 'position' thus luring one or many defenders out of their respective positions in the defensive line, leaving the defensive line punctuated by gaps. The defending team must try to move laterally with the ball across the field to ensure all attacking players remain marked.
- A 'face-ball', 'second man play' or 'cut-out pass' is a pass that travels through the air in-front of one or more attacking players (who do not catch it) to another player further down the line. Defenders may mistakenly focus on the next player in the attacking line, who does not receive the ball, potentially leaving the actual ball-receiver unmarked.
- A chip kick can be used to put the ball behind the defensive line so that either the kicker himself or a teammate can regather it. Sometimes the kicker himself will attempt to regather after an extremely short chip kick over or past the defenders whilst running towards them. Upon kicking, a player is deemed to have relinquished possession of the ball and thus may not be tackled or interfered with by the defence. The kicker's speed towards his in goal area makes it hard for defenders to switch play and chase. However this chip and regather is risky as it is difficult to perform successfully.
- The grubber is more commonly used in a similar play. The grubber kick is commonly performed when close to the in-goal area; the grubber kick causes the ball to roll along the ground which at times, makes the ball jump up into a perfect catching position, easier than catching a punt or other kick. The rolling on the ground gives chasers more opportunities to regather the ball, rather than waiting for the ball to fall back to earth. The rolling also slows down the ball, allowing the kicker to place the kick so that it comes to rest inside the in-goal area.
- The bomb is a kick that goes high into the air. Both teams watch and wait for the ball to come down, and both teams usually having an equal chance at regathering it.
When a side is defending they must prevent metres lost. They must defend against ball runners and kickers.
Defending against ball running
Preventing metres lost
- The easiest way to do this is to select the largest players from the team to do most of the tackling; A larger tackler will force back an attacking player much easier than a smaller tackler.
- In preventing metres lost it is also important to 'wrap up the ball' to prevent the attacking player who is currently hitting the ball up from offloading. Offloading causes second phase play, which virtually equates to the effort of the previous tackle being wasted energy.
Preventing line breaks
Defending players aim to spread across the field in a single line and stop the attacking players from breaking this line. The 'Slide Defence' and the 'Umbrella Defence' tactics aim to curb the amount of breaks in the line.
- The 'sliding defence' requires that gaps are left at either edge of the field at the end of the defensive line, which aims to squeeze more players around the area of play. This allows the line to be at its strongest around the position of play, thus leaving the attacking side less opportunity to run through the line. Should the attacking side move the ball towards one edge of the field in an attempt to go around the defensive line, then the entire defensive line will move in that direction; this is known as sliding.
- The 'umbrella defence' (or 'up and in' defence) requires that players do not spread across the entire field. The defensive line is particularly vulnerable on the edges around the wings, therefore the best defensive measure in this case is a preventative measure. That is, the aim becomes to prevent the attacking team from going to the wings or to disrupt any passes towards the edge of the field. This requires that defensive players (wingers or centres) on the edge of the defensive line move up faster than those in the middle of the line.
Defending against kicks
An attacking side may kick the ball through or over the defensive line of players. The defence must defend against kicks in the normal field of play and in the in-goal area.
Defending the field of play
- Late in the tackle count, when the attacking side is more likely to kick, the fullback and wingers drop back towards the attacking team's in-goal area. As the name suggests, the full back covers the end of the field and in-goal area whilst the wingers cover the edges and area between the defence line and the full back. A kick to the corner can be more efficiently fielded by a winger than pulling the fullback out of position. This then allows the other rear defenders to become available for a pass when starting their side's attacking set of six tackles.
- It is usually rather predictable when a side is going to kick. Firstly, normally one team member has the duties of kicking in a team. To prepare for a kick, the kicker makes himself available deep behind the dummy half to give himself ample time to set up for the kick. The attacking side will likely rush up out of the defensive line to apply pressure to the kicker and give him less time in setting up. This action can also clouds the kicker's mind, who may or may not suddenly be overwhelmed with the thoughts of the anticipated 'hit' from the defender, or other attacking possibilities now available to the sudden change in the defensive line.
Defending the in-goal area
- If the ball is caught by a defender prior to the ball hitting the ground, whilst the defender is standing in the in-goal area, then the defending team is awarded possession of the ball. This is aimed to penalise the attacking team for a poor kick that was easily fielded by the opposition full back whilst awarding the defending team who were skilled enough to field the kick. The defending team must restart the play on the 20 metre line with an option kick.
- A defender will shadow the ball over the touch line in order to prevent an attacking team member from getting into a position to ground the ball. It is most likely a ball may be heading to touch off a kick from the attacking side. On this occasion, the roles of each team are reversed, where the attacking team becomes the defending and vice versa.
- Grounding the ball in-goal or putting the ball into touch are considered last ditch defensive techniques that prevent the attacking side from scoring. These two moves effectively force a stoppage of play, which means the opposition cannot score. Both of these measures result in a goal-line drop-out, meaning the attacking team retains possession of the ball. Thus, even if an attacking team is unable to score they can regain another set of chances to score by forcing the defending team to perform either of the above two moves; accomplish by placing a kick into the in-goal area.
Turning defence into offence
It is commonly said that the best form of defence is offence. A defensive team in rugby league can gain possession of the ball at any stage during an attacking teams set.
- The one-on-one strip is performed by a defender on an attacking player when that defender is the only person involved in the tackle. A player is ruled to be in the tackle if he/she is currently holding onto or has only just recently let go of the attacking player. The strip itself is the act of taking the ball from the arms of an attacking player, thus gaining possession for the defending team (who becomes the attacking team).
- An intercept is performed by a defending player coming out of the defensive line in anticipation of a pass that can be prevented from reaching its targeted player. An intercept usually ends in a try because in achieving the interception, the player has passed through the opposition's line of players. The interceptor may or may not have a full back to evade. Speed is a great asset in assuring the interceptor scores a try.
- During a tackle, the defensive team may force the attacking player 'into touch' while he's in possession of the ball. As it is illegal for any part of a player in possession of the ball's body touching the ground outside the field of play, this results in a stoppage of play. Play restarts via a scrum with the head and feed going to the defensive team that forced the attacking player into touch.
- Lastly, strong tackles utilising the size and speed of a defending player can force the ball loose from the impact. The defensive side shall only win a scrum if the ball comes forward out of the tackle towards the in-goal area, (consisting of a knock-on) otherwise the first team to pick up the ball wins possession. Forwards are more effective at this play than the backs because of their size, but it is not unknown for backs to force a ball loose in this manner.
Late in the tackle count the attacking side will start to think defensively in anticipation of a change over
. That is, whilst most kicks performed at this time will be primarily for attacking purposes, there is always a defensive element to consider. The attacking team uses these tactics to put themselves in the better defensive position when their set of six ends at the 'change over'.
The attacking team uses the bomb in attack, but this attack can quickly turn to defensive if the bomb is fielded by the opposition team. Therefore there is a defensive element in deciding whether to kick a bomb. A bomb is useful defensively because even if it is fielded by the opposition, it is still useful in giving the kicking team ample time to get as close as possible to the player with the ball which allows the kicking team to prevent the opposing team from making too much ground towards their in goal area.
At the end of an attacking team's set of six, the attacking team may wish to kick (grubber or chip kick) the ball in to touch and give the opposition a scrum feed. This is aimed at slowing down play, which gives the players a rest and allows them to set up a good defensive position.
- Kicking into touch gives a scrum to the opposing team, which is better than the alternative; that being the opposing team regathering the ball, forcing the newly defensive side to make the tackle. Thus, putting the ball into touch makes the newly attacking team play from a non-running position, as far away from their in-goal area as possible.
- The grubber is used in this manner to prevent the opposing team from trying to regather the ball or to force a mistake if they do try. A grubber also ensures that the ball will fall in the field of play before going in to touch, which would result in a penalty otherwise. A punt in this situation is placed as close to the out of field line as possible, which gives the opposition little chances to regather.
During the play-the-ball
it is customary for a player from the defending team to stand directly in front of the player playing the ball, called the marker. If no marker is present, the tackled player may tap
the ball on his boot to start the next play, instead of the normally required play-the-ball. As the tap is faster to perform than the play-the-ball, giving great advantage to the attack, there is almost always a marker. Usually the person who tackled the player becomes a marker because he is the closest to the tackled player. There may be a maximum of two markers for each play-the-ball, the second standing behind the first.
The marker(s) must stand directly in front of the tackled player; not doing so will result in a penalty. A marker must also not move towards the ball until the play-the-ball has been completed, otherwise he will be penalised.
Zero tackle rule
If the defending team 'knocks on', (or even simply touches the ball when it's in the air intentionally when playing at it) whilst the attacking team have possession and the ball is immediately regathered by the attacking team, the referee usually elects to re-start the tackle count in lieu of awarding a scrum; known as the zero tackle rule because the next tackle is counted as 'tackle zero' and not the usual 'tackle one'. The zero tackle rule cannot be used in a set that was started by the zero tackle rule. On awarding the zero tackle rule, the referee will shout "Back to zero!" or "Six again", and wave one arm over his head with fingers clenched into a fist, indicating the attacking side's next tackle is tackle zero.
is formed by the 'front row' forwards of each side locking together, and packing down to push against each other. The 'second row' forwards pack in behind the front rows, and the loose forwards join the scrum at the back. The ball is "fed" through the legs of one of the props by the halfback
, who normally then retrieves it again from the back of the scrum.
The scrum was traditionally used as a mechanism where the two teams compete for possession of the football; however this has since changed with the introduction of uncontested scrums, where the ball is fed into the second row, instead of the first, all but eliminating an effective competition for the ball. Because of these changes the scrum serves to simply remove the forwards from the play for a period, thus creating more space for the backs to attack the depleted defensive line. This is intended to give advantage to the side that is awarded the scrum. It is very rare (but not completely unknown) for a team to win possession of the ball, despite not having the feed.
A scrum can be awarded following a forward pass, knock on or the ball going into touch.
was introduced in Australia in 1997 to further reward accurate kicking in general play; a 40-20 kick must be both accurate and long. For a successful 40-20:
- the kicker must be behind his side's 40 metre line when he kicks the ball,
- the ball must first land within the field of play past the opponent's 20 metre line,
- the ball must then going over the sidelines of the field of play (into touch) past the opponent's 20 metre line.
The team that kicked is awarded the scrum feed from the point that the ball left the field. Before the 40/20 rule, the non-kicking team would have otherwise been awarded the scrum feed. As Rugby League scrums are currently uncontested and almost always won by the team with the feed, the kicking team moves at least 40 metres forward while retaining possession after a successful 40-20.
This rule is similar to the Safety
rule in American football
. If a defending player is tackled behind his own try-line, or plays the ball over his own dead-ball line, their team is obliged to perform a drop-kick
from between their own goal posts. This kick must travel over the 10-metre line before it bounces. The goal-line drop-out usually gives possession back to the attacking team, although in certain situations the defending team can kick short in an attempt to gain possession of the ball.
Unlike the Safety rule, however, no points are awarded for tacking a player behind his goal line.
The standard disciplinary sanction in rugby league is the penalty. The referee may also award a penalty try, which is described in the section on scoring.
If a team that has been penalised commits a further offence (often dissent against the referee's decision), the referee may advance the position of the penalty 10 metres towards the offending team's goal line, and may also sin bin (temporary expulsion) or send off (permanent expulsion) the offending player(s).
In Britain, the referee uses penalty cards to signal a sin-binning (yellow card) and a sending-off (red card). In games played in the southern hemisphere, the referee raises both arms straight out with fingers spread (to indicate 10 minutes) for a temporary expulsion and simply points sent-off players from the field of play.