Rugby football, often just "rugby", may refer to a number of sports descended from a common form of football developed at Rugby School in England, United Kingdom. Rugby league, rugby union, American football and Canadian football are modern sports that originated from rugby football. Rugby league and rugby union are the only two sports referred to as "rugby" today.
Rugby descends from an 18th century Cornish or Welsh sport known as "hurling" in which a ball was thrown up and the players acting either as individuals or as teams attempted to carry it to a goal. The goal could be set as far as several miles away thereby creating the opportunity for large-scale brawls in intervening villages. In Welsh the sport is called cnapan or "criapan," and has medieval roots. The old Irish predecessor of rugby may be caid, not to be confused with Gaelic "hurling" or "hockey" which has the difference that the ball was hit with a stick rather than carried. Rugby Football is commonly known as "rugby" and as "rugger".
The status of the rugby codes in various countries
Rugby union, is both a professional and amateur game, is dominated by eleven "major" unions: France, Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Wales, Argentina, Italy, and Scotland. Rugby Union is administered by the International Rugby Board (IRB). Rugby union is the national sport in New Zealand, South Africa and Wales. "Minor" unions include Fiji, Georgia, Japan, Namibia, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Spain, Tonga, Chile, The United States and Uruguay. In Malaysia, rugby union is played by campus students. Rugby League is also both a professional and amateur game, administered on a global level by the Rugby League International Federation. In addition to the countless amateur and semi-professional competitions in countries such as the United States, Russia, Lebanon and across Europe, there are two major professional competitions worldwide - the Australian National Rugby League and the European Super League. In the 'National Rugby League' there are teams from all Australian states and territories except South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania, and there is also one in Auckland, New Zealand. In Super League there are just two teams from outside the north of England, London-based Harlequins and Perpignan-based Catalans.
Distinctive features common to both rugby codes (league and union) include the prolate spheroid ball and the ban on passing the ball forward, so that players can gain ground only by running with the ball or by kicking it. As the sport of rugby league moved further away from its union counterpart, rule changes were implemented with the aim of making a faster-paced, more try-oriented game, in the hope of increasing attendances at games.
Today, the main differences between the two games, besides league having teams of 13 players and union of 15, involve the tackle and its aftermath:
- Union players contest possession following the tackle: depending on the situation, either a ruck or a maul occurs. League players may not contest possession after making a tackle: play is continued with a play-the-ball (AKA: "Scratch")
- In league, if the team in possession fails to score before a set of six tackles, it surrenders possession. Union has no six-tackle rule; a team can keep the ball for an unlimited number of tackles before scoring as long as it maintains possession and does not commit an offence.
Set pieces of the union code include the scrum, where packs of opposing players push against each other for possession, and the lineout, where parallel lines of players from each team, arranged perpendicular to the touch-line (the side line) attempt to catch the ball thrown from touch (the area behind the touch-line).
In the league code, the scrum still exists, but with greatly reduced importance. Set pieces are generally started from the play-the-ball situation. Many of the rugby league positions have similar names and requirements to rugby union positions but there are no flankers in rugby league. The result of these variations have led to rugby union being considered a traditional form of rugby.
In the U.K, an old saying goes "football is a gentleman's game played by ruffians and rugby is a ruffian's game played by gentlemen". In most rugby-playing countries, rugby union is widely regarded as an "establishment" sport, historically amateur, played mostly by members of the upper and middle classes. For example, many students at private schools and grammar schools play rugby union. By contrast, rugby league has traditionally been seen as a working and middle class, professional pursuit. A contrast to this ideology is evident in the neighbouring unions of England and Wales. In England the sport is very much associated with the public schools system (i.e. independent/private schools). In Ireland, rugby union is also associated with private education and the " D4" stereotype, and this image of the spoilt, ignorant, wealthy rugby-playing jock inspired the best-selling Ross O'Carroll Kelly novels. In Wales, rugby is associated with small village teams which consisted of coal miners and other industrial workers playing on their days off.
Exceptions to the above include New Zealand, Wales, France except Paris, Cornwall, the Borders region of Scotland, County Limerick in Ireland, and the Pacific Islands, where rugby union is popular in working class communities. Nevertheless, rugby league is perceived as the game of the working class people in the English counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, and in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland. In the United Kingdom, rugby union fans sometimes use the term "rugger" as an alternative name for the sport, (see Oxford '-er'). Also the kick off is known to be called "Rug Off" in some regions. In the US, people who play rugby are sometimes called "ruggers", a term little used elsewhere except facetiously. Those considered to be heavily involved with the rugby union lifestyle — including heavy drinking and striped jumpers — sometimes identify as "rugger buggers". Retired rugby union players who still turn up to watch, drink and serve on committees rank as "alickadoos" or, less kindly, as "old farts". An alternative name for the game adopted primarily in local rugby comps is known as "Ra-Ra" referring to the pomp and circumstance associated with the sport.
Because of the nature of the games (almost unlimited body contact with little or no padding), the rugby world frowns on unsporting behaviour, since even a slight infringement of the rules may lead to serious injury or even death. Because of this, governing bodies enforce the rules strictly.
In Australia support for both codes is concentrated in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. The same perceived class barrier as exists between the two games in England also occurs in these two states, fostered by rugby union's prominence and support at private schools. Australian followers of rugby league usually refer to rugby league as "league", "footy" or "football" and rugby union as "rugby" or "union".
New Zealanders generally refer to rugby union simply as either "football", "rugby" or "rugby union" and to rugby league as "rugby league", "football" or "league". In New Zealand, playing rugby football has a reputation as the epitome of manliness for both Māori and Pākehā (non-Māori), as symbolised by a haka (war dance) at the start of important games. Kiwis see rugby as the accepted substitute for military heroism and an excellent training ground for soldiering. If Britain won the Battle of Waterloo on the playing-fields of Eton College, New Zealand long saw its role in the British Empire as intimately connected with the football field. Popular Kiwi mythology sees the encouragement of New Zealand rugby in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Imperial reaction to declining physical fitness in Britain's industrial slums.