England vs USA…in rugby?

Tomorrow morning, at 5:45am, the USA will take on England in the rugby world cup. Some of you might be wondering:

What is the rugby world cup?

The rugby world cup is played every four years. This year its in Japan, hence the kick off time. The winner of the final, played November 2nd, will be world champions. The USA is in a pool with England, France, Argentina, and Tonga. Realistically, the USA have a real struggle on their hands. Only two teams go through and it is almost certain to be two of England, France, and Argentina, probably the first two of those. But, you never know. The game against Tonga, at least, should be competitive.

What is rugby? 

Like soccer and American football, it is one of the games descended from the folk football of medieval England. Indeed, it is the direct ancestor, in many ways, of the game the Vikings play.

How to score in rugby 

There are four ways to score in rugby.

A try is worth five points. Like a touchdown, you score one of those if you cross the try line. Unlike a touchdown, you have to actually place the ball on the ground.

You can add another two points with a conversion, which is like a field goal. Following a try, this is a kick taken from a point in line with where the ball was grounded for the try and you have to kick the ball between the upright posts. That is why players who cross the try line in a wide position will, if they can, move into the center to ground the ball. It sets up an easier conversion. A converted try is, thus, worth seven points.

Penalties can be awarded for a vast number of things and have to be taken from where the penalty was awarded. If you feel your kicker can manage it, you can set the ball down and kick for goal. Again, like a field goal in football, you have to stick it between the upright posts and you get three points.

If you are close enough to the try line, you can go for a drop goal. Here, any player on the team can get hold of the ball and try and kick, from open play, through the uprights. Do this, and you get three points.

The team

A rugby team contains fifteen players, unless any are sent off. This is divided between forwards and backs.

There are eight forwards who get their names from the position taken in the scrum (more of that later).

The front row. Numbers 1 (loosehead prop), 2 (hooker), and 3 (tighthead prop). These guys are generally small and stocky, their job is to fight and ferret for the ball.

The second row. Two lock forwards numbered 4 and 5. They are typically tall (which is important in the line out – more of that later) with powerful legs (which matters in the scrum).

The back row. These are 6 (the blindside flanker), 7 (the openside flanker), and 8 (just known as the back row). The flankers are a mix of speed and strength. They have to be quick enough to break away from the scrum with the ball in an attacking scrum and strong enough to break the line or take the tackle when they do. They also have to be strong enough to stop the opposition’s flankers doing the same to them. The back row provides power at the back of the scrum, augmenting the locks, but also feeds the ball back out of the scrum to the scrum half.

This takes us to the backs.

Number 9 is the scrum half. Along with the fly half, this is the fulcrum of the team, sort of two people doing the job of a quarterback. The scrum half gets the ball out of the scrum from the back row and can either run it, pass it, or kick it. When a ball carrying player is tackled and goes to ground, a maul will form with offensive forwards trying to protect the ball and offensive forwards trying to win it. The scrum half will pop up behind the maul to receive the ball from the tackled player and run it, pass it, or kick it himself. If he is the tackled player, someone else has to step up.

Number 10 is the fly half. Probably closest to a quarterback. They get the ball from the scrum half and can run it, pass it, or kick it. They play behind the scrum half so have a little more time to consider their play before getting hit (or sacked). Top fly halves can dictate a game.

Number 12 is inside center and number 13 is outside center. A little like flankers, they have to be quick enough to run and break the opposition line when they receive the ball, and strong enough to tackle their opposite number when they try the same thing.

Number 11 is the left wing and number 14 is the right wing. Typically the smallest and fastest guys on the team, their job is to receive the ball out wide and sprint down the touchline. (Declaring an interest, these were my old positions)

Number 15 is the full back. They sit deep looking for kicks over the top. If they catch one, they can go over to the attack, like a kick returner. They will also act as backstop against an opposition player breaking the line and getting through for a try.

Some other things

You can’t throw the ball forward. If you do its a forward pass and you give away a penalty.

If you are awarded a penalty, you can kick for goal (three points), take a tap penalty, where you kick it to yourself and start running, or kick for touch, which means booting it out of play. You’ll want to do this as close to the opposition’s try line as possible. You’ll do it if you are too far from goal to kick for the three points, or if its late in the game and only a try will do. Increasingly, teams kick for touch from kickable positions early in the game to ‘make a statement’. My old coach would have benched me for that.

If you do this, you get the throw in at the line out. This is how the ball returns to play after going into touch. Each team forms a line perpendicular with the touchline, the number of players in each line chosen by team with the throw in. You have to throw it dead straight and hope that your guys catch it. This is where the height of the locks comes into play. If you send the ball out of play from anything other than a penalty, the opposition gets the throw in.

A major feature of the game is the scrum. Here, the referee will award one side the put in. The scrum half feeds the ball in, dead straight like the line out and hopes that one of his guys gets it. Typically, the hooker knocks – or ‘hooks’ – the ball back, hence his name. You can keep the ball in the scrum and push forward, using the leg strength of your locks and back row. Or you can let your flankers take it and try to punch through the opposition line. Or you can work back to the scrum half at the back of the scrum for him to run it, pass it, or kick it.

You never know…

There is lots more to the game than that but, if you feel like getting up at 5:45am to watch sports, this should get you through most of it.

The Eagles of the USA are rank outsiders tomorrow. But the amateurs of the USA were rank outsiders when they faced England’s professionals in the soccer world cup in 1950, yet they sprung one of the great upsets in the tournament’s history, winning 1-0 with a goal from Joe Gaetjens, a dishwasher in a New York restaurant. And, when George Washington and his withered band were shivering in their rags at Valley Forge in the winter of 1776, were they not rank outsiders also? Maybe the Eagles, too, could spring a surprise for the ages.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.