Philly Sports Live

Rugby Sevens 101: What the %@#$ is Going On?

We here at the Soccer Desk want you to be excited, stoked and amped about this weekend’s College Rugby Championship 7s at PPL Park in Chester, PA.  But even more than that, we want you to know what’s going on out there.  Whether this weekend’s event will be the first rugby games you ever see, or you just need a refresher, this article is intended to teach you the ins, outs, ups, downs, and sideways of Rugby Sevens.

It’s worth mentioning that I will make some allusions to gridiron football in this guide.  That is not meant to compare the two games directly, but rather to recall traits of the sport that is more familiar to Americans in order to help understand rugby better.

The object of rugby sevens is to score as many points as possible over two, seven minute halves.  Teams of seven player each advance the ball down the field by passing, running, and kicking the ball down the field in order to score a try, similar to a touchdown in football.  Simple enough, right?  Well, this is just an overview, we’ll get more into scoring and ball advancement in a moment.

The Field:

The rugby pitch. Image: Understand Rugby Union / Blogspot
Image: Understand Rugby Union / Blogspot

The rugby field is rectangular in shape, measuring up to 144 meters (157.5 yds) long by 70 meters (76.5 yds) wide.  Like American football, both ends of the field have end zone “goal areas” that are 100 meters apart.  The 50-meter, or halfway, line divides the field in two, where kickoffs take place.  The two dotted lines on either side of it are the 10-meter lines, are used to determine kickoff infractions. Each side of the field also has 22-meter lines, named because of their distance from the goal line.  Each zone also has a dotted line 5-meters from the goal line.   The dotted lines running along side the field are used for throw-ins.

On each goal line is an “H” shaped goalpost, its uprights 18.3 feet wide, and its crossbar 9.8 feet off the ground.  This is similar to the goalposts in the NFL, which are 18.5 feet wide and 10 feet off the ground.

Like most aspects of rugby sevens, its field is the exact same one used in the full, fifteen-a-side game that this version is derived from.

The Ball:

The Rugby Ball, essential to the game. (Image:
The Rugby Ball, essential to the game. (Image:


Rugby sevens is played with an oblong ball, similar to that of a gridiron football.  Rugby balls, however, are larger and more rounded — 12 inches long and 24 inches in circumference, and they do not contain laces.  While the first rugby balls were made out of leather, modern balls are made out of synthetic materials and are dimpled to allow players to grip the ball in wet conditions.

The Players:

As its name implies, rugby sevens is played with seven players on the field for each team at once.  The players are divided into two groups, forwards and backs.

There are three forward players: two props and a hooker.  The forwards are the first line of defense against the speedy back players, and also are key elements of scrums and lineouts.  While forwards in the fifteens game are big and beefy, like gridiron linemen, sevens forwards are quicker in order to keep up with the speedier pace of the game.

Four players make up the ‘back row’: A scrum half, a fly half, a center, and a full back.  The scrum half is the link between the forwards and backs, and has to be able to perform both functions.  The fly, center, and full back do most of the ball handling on offense, and are the last line of defense to take down their back counterparts should the get loose.

Each team also carries up to five substitutes.  They can only use up to three during the game, however, and once a player leaves the match, he cannot return.

Alright, we have a field, a ball, and players.  Let’s play rugby sevens.

The Game:

The match begins with one team kicking off the ball from the center of the 50-meter line.  This is a drop kick, and it must travel at least 10-meters in the air (past the 10-meter line, of course) before being touched by either team.  If it doesn’t, the receiving team is awarded possession of the ball in midfield.  Unlike gridiron, where teams use the kick off to drive the receiving team as far back as possible, the offense will usually kick the ball straight into the air, hoping for the receivers to make a mistake by dropping it or by knocking it forward, which is illegal.

Once the receiving team has the ball, they can do three things with it:
– They can run with it,
– They can pass it; only backward and lateral passing is allowed in rugby.  The ball may not even be knocked forward with the hands (“knock on”)
– They can kick it.  In rugby, any offensive player who is behind the ball when it is kicked, including the kicker, can pick up the ball and advance it.

Running with the ball is a good way to score. So is not getting tackled. (Photo: IRB)
Running with the ball is a good way to score. So is not getting tackled. (Photo: IRB)


The offense attempts to work the ball down using these techniques to open up gaps in the opposing defense.  The ball carrier’s teammates are not allowed to block players out of the way.  The defense, meanwhile, is attempting to stop the ball carrier’s progress by tackling the player and bring him to the ground.  Once tackled, the ball carrier must release the ball immediately. Once the ball is on the ground, both teams form a “ruck”, where they dive on the ground and attempt to “hook”, or move the ball back to their teammates with their feet.  Players from both teams must be on their side of the ball, similar to the “line of scrimmage” rule, or they will be called offside.  Once the ruck is won, the ball is picked up and play continues.

The ruck, which is also helpful in finding contact lenses (photo:
The ruck, which is also helpful in finding contact lenses (photo:


When the ball goes out of bounds over the sidelines, it is put back into play by a “line out”.  Both teams line up on the dotted inbound line near the touch line, and the ball is thrown in by the opposition of the team that put the ball out of play.  The ball is thrown overhead, and must be thrown directly between the two teams, or else the other team takes possession of the ball.  In some cases, teams may attempt a “quick lineout”, where the ball is put back into play quickly in order to catch the team off guard.  The players in the lineout will jump high in the air, even onto other players’ shoulder to catch the ball.  From there, they can either attempt to advance the ball, or bind together to form a “maul”, which is similar to a ruck except standing up.

The lineout, get high and get the ball. (Photo: Wikimedia)
The lineout. Go High or Go home. (Photo: Wikimedia)


On offense, if teams find themselves deep in their own territory and want to relieve the pressure of the opposition, they will punt the ball down the field and out of danger.  They can also kick the ball out of bounds to force a lineout, but they can only kick the ball out on the fly if the kick comes from behind their own 22-meter line.  Otherwise, the throw-in will occur back at the spot of the kick, which penalizes the offense.  The only exception to this on a penalty kick, which is described below.

One of the more recognizable parts of rugby is the “scrum”, which is usually awarded after an infraction.  Three players on each team push into each other as the ball is put into play by the half of the team to whom the scrum was awarded.  The players in the scrum then attempt to kick or “hook” the ball back with their feet to their own scrum half, who picks the ball up and plays on.

The Bad Stuff

By “bad”, I mean penalties, fouls, and infractions.  Minor infractions, such as “knock-ons”, forward passes, or when the ball is frozen inside a ruck or maul, are resolved with scrums to the infringed team.

Major fouls, such as offsides, tripping, high tackles, and other rough play, are rewarded with a penalty kick to the infringed team.  Once awarded a penalty kick, a team can do one of three things with it:
– They can “kick for touch”; punt the ball directly out of bounds and then take the line out from the spot where the ball went out,
– They can kick for goal, trying to drop kick the ball through the uprights in order to score three points, or
– They can do a “tap kick”, tapping the ball on their foot to themselves and then playing on as normal.

The decision on which to do depends on the team’s position on the field, as well as the game situation — the score, time remaining, etc.

In addition, serious fouls can incur cards, a la soccer.  If a player is given a yellow card, he/she is sent off the field — to the aptly named “sin bin” for two minutes.  If he/she incurs a second yellow card, or is given an outright red card, they are ejected from the game and their team must play down a man.

The Good Stuff

By “good”, I mean scoring.  Everyone likes to score, and scoring is how you win.

If you're going to score a try, look good doing it. (Photo: Virgin Media)
If you’re going to score a try, look good doing it. (Photo: Virgin Media)


Teams can amass points in one of four ways:

TRY (5 points) — A try is awarded when a player on the offense grounds (touches the ball to the ground while in possession) in their opponents goal area.  The key here is the grounding of the ball once in goal; if this does not happen, say by the defense knocking the ball away before the ball is grounded, the ball is turned over.

CONVERSION (2 points) — After a try is scored, the scoring team attempts a drop kick through the uprights.  The spot of the kick depends on where the ball is ground on the preceding try.  Hence, you’ll see players try to run towards the middle of the goal area once they have crosses the goal line to give their kickers an easier kick.

PENALTY KICK (3 points) — A kick through the uprights following an infraction by the opposing team.

DROP GOAL (3 points) — A ball, during the run of play, that is drop kicked through the uprights.  These are very rare in rugby sevens because of the shortness of the game, but are useful when a team is trying to score quickly.

The Clock

Rugby sevens games generally take about 20 minutes to complete.  There are two seven minute halfs, split by a two minute halftime.  The clock runs, even after tries, and stops only in case of serious injury.  In sevens tournaments, pool matches can end in draws, while knock-out games use extra time to decide the winner.

And that’s it.  Now that you’ve read this guide, hopefully you too can now cheer on the teams, boo the referees (but not too much, they work hard too), and help your fellow sevens newbies as you too enjoy a weekend of rugby in Chester.