Rugby football is a game named after 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, urban New Zealand, the South Pacific, 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 all players to be amateurs, which was alright for the nobility and a growing middle class with money and leisure time. But working-class 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 the geographical distribution of fans for both codes still bears the scars of the split; in England, support for rugby union is still largely concentrated in the south, while support for rugby league is still largely concentrated in the north.
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, the United States, Russia and China (except Hong Kong).
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-ranked 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. 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 kg 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 miniutes, 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 minutes, 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 an attempt at a conversion, earning two more points if it's kicked over the crossbar of the H-shaped goal. These names came about because before 1886 the try 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.
Players may also drop kick (whereby the ball is dropped and immediately kicked on hitting the ground) 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 at goal, worth 3 points if it clears the crossbar. 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, e.g. 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 (i.e. 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, i.e. competing for the ball from in front of it. For an offence that thwarts a probable try the referee may award a penalty try, 7 instant points (since 2018, penalty tries are no longer converted). 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 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, 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 most recent World Cup concluded in Japan in November 2019. As of 2019, the tournament is organised with four pools of five teams, with the top two in each pool going 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 next men's World Cup will be hosted by France in 2023.
The Women's Rugby World Cup (now officially called just the "Rugby World Cup") is held every four years. The next event is in New Zealand in 2022 (rescheduled from 2021 due to COVID-19), 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 8 on the women's, the Hong Kong Sevens being the main highlight of the circuit. 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, while the Ireland team, including players from Northern Ireland, competes as the Republic of Ireland.
In the northern hemisphere the top tournament is the Six Nations, played February-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, with South African teams joining starting in 2022–23. 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 Pacific, with 5 teams each from Australia and New Zealand, plus an NZ-based team representing the smaller Pacific islands and a Fijian team that will play most of its home games in Australia. Japan, which was involved in Super Rugby for a few years in the 2010s, has emerged as a new force in rugby in the 21st century.
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 Australia in 2025.
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 and 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 London Irish (of Reading). English teams don't play in the URC (below).
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 both 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 United Rugby Championship (formerly Pro14), which also has clubs from Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa. Ireland has four such teams, 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 usually do well and qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup.
As the Ireland team contains two nationalities, they've adopted a neutral anthem "Ireland's Call". It's only when they play within the Republic that the Irish national anthem Amhrán na bhFiann is played, and followed by "Ireland's Call. The rugby sevens event at the Olympics is the only time that Amhrán na bhFiann is played exculsively.
The governing body is the Scottish Rugby Union. The national rugby stadium is Murrayfield in West Edinburgh.
Scotland has two professional teams in the United Rugby Championship, Edinburgh Rugby who now play at their own stadium next door to the national team's home of Murrayfield, and Glasgow Warriors playing at Scotstoun Stadium 4 miles west of Glasgow city centre.
The governing body is the Welsh Rugby Union or Undeb Rygbi Cymru. The national rugby stadium is the Millennium (or Principality) Stadium in the centre of Cardiff.
Wales has four clubs in the United Rugby Championship: Cardiff Rugby playing at Cardiff Arms Park (which is physically attached to Millennium Stadium), the Dragons in Newport, the Ospreys in Swansea, and the Scarlets in Llanelli.
The governing body is the Italian Rugby Federation or Federazione Italiana Rugby. The national rugby stadium is Stadio Olimpico in the northwest of Rome.
There are two professional teams in the United Rugby Championship: Benetton Rugby in 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 had been kept afloat by one or two exceptional talents, most notably Sergio Parisse (who retired after the 2020 Six Nations), 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 such as Marseille.
France's top club competition is the Top 14 - French clubs don't play in the URC. Those teams are Agen, Bayonne, Bordeaux Bègles, Brive, Castres, Clermont, La Rochelle, Lyon, Montpellier, Paloise (of Pau), Racing 92 (playing in Nanterre, just to the west of Paris), Stade Français Paris, Toulon, and Toulouse. Below Top 14 is Rugby Pro D2, involving 16 teams, and below that is a pyramid of semi-pro and amateur 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. From at least 2019–20 to 2022–23, the men's and women's events will be held on the same weekend at Stade Français' home of Stade Jean-Bouin in the 16th arrondissement.
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, most notably with stunning upsets in each of the two most recent Rugby World Cups—over South Africa in 2015, and both Ireland and Scotland in 2019. 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). Japan hosted the most recent Rugby World Cup in 2019, becoming the first Tier 2 nation to do so.
Japan has the northern hemisphere winter but is too far away to participate routinely in European competitions. The country radically reorganised its league system in advance of the 2022 season. Before that time, the top level (branded as the Top League) was an industrial league, meaning that teams were owned by major Japanese corporations, and many players were employed by the companies involved. Japan now operates a fully professional three-level league system, with the top level known as Japan Rugby League One (branded with the English-language name, even in Japanese). While the top flight under its various names has been known for very high salaries, only a handful of foreign players, plus some high-profile Japanese players, actually earn at that level. It's become a popular late-career destination for players from top-tier countries. Due to the professional transition being so recent, most players are still amateurs who make most of their money in their day jobs at the companies that still serve as sponsors of many top teams. Before the 2022 reorg, the country had one fully professional team, Sunwolves, which played in the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby, but they didn't do well and were axed from the tournament after 2020.
Japan hosted a World Rugby Women's Sevens Series event in Kitakyushu through the 2018–19 series, but that event is on hiatus because the country is hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics.
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 U.S. has more people than the Six Nations and Rugby Championship countries combined). The national governing bodies are USA Rugby and Rugby Canada.
The U.S. is trying to establish a fully professional league, Major League Rugby. It was launched in 2018 with seven teams, all in the U.S.; it added teams in New York City and Toronto (Canada) in 2019, and will add three more U.S. teams in 2020. The Toronto Wolfpack will join England's Rugby League top tier, the Super League, in 2020.
The U.S. and Canada host World Rugby Sevens Series events in successive weeks in March. The U.S. event is held at Dignity Health Sports Park in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson, California, home to the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer. 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 early May 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 in the world is the Hong Kong Sevens, normally held every April at Hong Kong Stadium in the So Kon Po district of Hong Kong Island. However, due to the current coronavirus outbreak in China, the 2020 edition has been rescheduled to October. It was historically a men's event, with a qualifier for the women's series held alongside the men's event. The 2019–20 season will begin a new era for the Hong Kong Sevens, with the overall event becoming an official stop for both the men's and women's series. 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 at the National Stadium, just to the northeast of the Downtown Core in the Kallang district. It's normally held in April, but like the Hong Kong event, the 2020 edition has been delayed to October due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
The top Southern Hemisphere teams are New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. The Southern Hemisphere teams have for the most part been more successful than their northern counterparts, having won all Rugby World Cups save for one, when England won in 2003. Just below those four are the Pacific Island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, as well as several others such as Uruguay and Namibia.
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 barely over 5 million people. They have won the Rugby World Cup three times, making them tied with South Africa for the most World Cup titles.
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 players themselves. It began as 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' regular haka used to be Ka Mate, but the team now uses a newer composition, Kapo o Pango, from time to time; the latter translates as "team in black". Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have similar ritual pre-match dances.
New Zealand has six clubs playing in the now 12-team Super Rugby Pacific:
- 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. Following the 2019 terrorist attack on a Christchurch mosque, the Crusaders considered changing their name, but they instead opted for a new logo that incorporated Māori elements.
- Highlanders for Otago and Southland, playing at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin.
- Hurricanes for the Wellington region, playing at Westpac Stadium there.
- Moana Pasifika, representing the Pacific Islands as a whole (but mainly Samoa and Tonga), playing at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland. One of the two newest entries, joining in 2022.
The main domestic competition is the Bunnings National Provincial Championship (NPC), with 7 clubs in the top-tier Premier Division and 7 in the lower Championship Division.
The New Zealand Rugby Museum is in the Te Manawa Museum Complex in Palmerston North.
New Zealand's stop in the World Rugby Sevens Series is held at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton in January or February; from 2019–20, the men's Sevens Series event will be joined by a Women's Sevens Series stop.
The governing body is Rugby Australia. There isn't a dedicated national stadium; the national team Wallabies play around the country. Common venues are two in Sydney, Stadium Australia aka ANZ Stadium at the Olympic Park and the new Sydney Football Stadium aka Allianz Stadium at Moore Park; Docklands aka Marvel Stadium in the Melbourne Docklands; Lang Park aka Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane; Optus Stadium in the Perth inner suburb of Burswood; GIO Stadium in Canberra's Bruce neighbourhood; and Robina aka cbus Super Stadium in Gold Coast. During construction of the current Sydney Football Stadium on the site of the former stadium of that name, some fixtures (especially Sevens) were held at Western Sydney Stadium aka Bankwest Stadium.
Australia has five teams playing in Super Rugby Pacific, with a sixth playing most of its home matches in the country:
- Brumbies for Canberra and southern New South Wales, playing at Canberra Stadium.
- NSW Waratahs for the rest of New South Wales, playing at the new Sydney Football Stadium (Allianz Stadium).
- Melbourne Rebels for Victoria, playing at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (AAMI Park).
- Reds for Queensland, playing at Lang Park in Brisbane.
- Western Force for Western Australia, playing at Perth Oval (HBF Park).
- The Fijian Drua, a developmental side for the country's national team, plays most of its home matches in Sydney, but also plays at least one of its 2022 home matches at ANZ National Stadium in the country's capital of Suva. The Drua had played in Australia's former domestic competition, the National Rugby Championship, until the league folded in 2020.
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 that joined Super Rugby Pacific in 2022. They had played in the Australian National Rugby Championship from 2017 until the league folded after the 2019 season. The Drua traditionally played home fixtures at Lautoka, Sigatoka and Suva, but in Super Rugby Pacific are based in Sydney. (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 Olympic gold medal twice in succession.
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, and winning their first Rugby World Cup in 1995. To this day sports largely correlate with ethnic groups in South Africa; cricket is popular among Anglo-South Africans and ethnic Indians, rugby is popular with Afrikaners and soccer is popular with everybody else. That said, progress has been made in breaking down racial barriers, with Siya Kolisi becoming the first black person to captain the South African national team to victory in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 2019, their third title, making them tied with New Zealand for the most number of World Cup tiles.
The top South African professional clubs used to play in both hemispheres. This became impractical in the COVID era so from 2020 they withdrew from the southern Super Rugby, to join the northern United Rugby Championship, an expanded version of the former Pro14, with a playing season Oct-March. Teams in this 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.
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. From 2019–20, the men's Sevens Series event will be joined by a Women's Sevens Series stop.
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.
Formerly, one professional club played in Super Rugby, the Jaguares at Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires, but the COVID era ended Argentina's run in that competition.
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 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.
The scoring also differs significantly from rugby union. 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 min, 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 will be held France in 2025, with 16 nations playing in four pools of four; the full set of qualifying teams will be known by 2024. 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 the New Zealand Warriors (which mainly play in the Auckland region). 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, and 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 association football grounds such as Manchester United's Old Trafford and Liverpool's Anfield.
The rugby league season in England is from Feb to Sep. The top club competition is Super League, consisting of 12 teams. Most are from the game's northern heartlands; as of the next season in 2020, Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Salford, St Helens, Wakefield, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan will be represented. The other two are Catalans Dragons from Perpignan in France and the Toronto Wolfpack. The latter, the first North American team to join Super League, were promoted from the second-tier Championship at the end of the 2019 season, replacing the relegated London Broncos.
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, the Toronto Wolfpack participated in the Challenge Cup in their first two seasons in the RFL league system (2017 and 2018), but did not do so in 2019 due to differences with the RFL.
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 had 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, 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, and reaching the Rugby League World Cup semi-finals in 2017.
- American football - A similar and related game played across the Atlantic.