Rugby League For Dummies

Do you want to go see a Cowboys rugby league game, but can’t understand the rules? JCNN’s international reporter is here to help you understand the ins and outs of this tough sport.

SUPPORTERS: Norwegian exchange students Sofie Wilberg and Thea Johansen enjoying a cowboys home game
PHOTO: Camilla Moldekleiv

By Stine Pjaaten

As an international student in Townsville, I felt obligated to go to at least one Cowboys game while living in Townsville. With Cowboys hats and inflatable hands, we were ready to blend in with the fans, and get a real rugby league experience. After the match, we agreed that it was great to watch, but we really didn’t understand anything about the game.

The basics

Rugby is a style of football named after the Rugby School in England. It divides into two current sports, rugby league and rugby union.

In Australia, rugby league is one of the most popular sports. This is the same in England, New Zealand, Tonga, France and Papua New Guinea. The premier club competitions are the European Super League and the Australian National Rugby League.

Rugby league (or just league, to fans) is a tough, challenging sport with a lot of body contact. It is actually cited as the toughest, most physically demanding of all team sports. The players use minimum protection – they wear simple leather helmets to protect their ears and not much else.

The game is played between two teams of thirteen players on a rectangular grass field with goals at each end. The aim is to score more points than the other team within 80 minutes of play. To get the oval ball up the field, players have to run with the ball, pass it to a player behind them or kick it forward.

Scoring points

Points are scored by carrying or kicking the ball down the field, or by passing the ball from player-to-player in order to maneuver around the opposition’s defense, until the ball can be moved past the opponents’ goal line and touched to the ground. This is called a try, and is the primary method of scoring. A try is worth four points. It is comparable to the touchdown in American football.

The opposing team attempts to stop the attacking team gaining points by preventing their progress up the field by tackling the player carrying the ball. Another way to score points is by kicking goals. After each try, the scoring team gains a free kick to try at goal for further points. Kicks at goal may also be awarded for penalties, and field goals can be attempted at any time during general play.

A goal is worth two points and is achieved by kicking the ball over the crossbar between the goal posts at the opponent’s side of the field. A field goal, or drop goal, is only worth one point and is gained by dropping and then kicking the ball on the half volley between the goal posts in open play.


Field position is crucial in league. The players can only pass the ball in a backward or sideways direction. Teammates therefore have to remain aside, and not move ahead of the player with the ball. However, the ball may be kicked ahead for teammates, but if they are in front of the kicker they are deemed offside.

Tackling is a key component in a rugby league game. Only the player holding the football may be tackled. A tackle is completed when the player is stopped, or he’s put to ground. The attacking team gets a maximum of six tackles to progress up the field before possession is changed.

The players

Players on each team are divided into forwards and backs. The backs are generally smaller, faster and more agile than the forwards. They rely on running, kicking and handling skills, as well as tactics and set plays, to break the defensive line. The backs consists of one fullback, two wingers, two centers, one stand-of half and one scrum half. All of them have different tasks and positions during a game.

The forwards are generally larger built players than the backs. It is not unusual that they weigh over 100 kg. They do the majority of the work by tackling. The forwards’ two responsibilities can be broken into normal play and scrum play.

The scrum

A scrum is used to bring the ball back into the game in situations where the ball has gone out of play over the touchline or a player has made a mistake, a knock-on or forward pass.

The scrum consists of six forwards from each team joining arms in a three, two, one formation. The ball is fed through the legs of one of the players by the halfback, who normally then retrieves it again from the back of the scrum.

Both teams may attempt to secure the ball while it’s in the scrum by hooking for it or by pushing their opponents off the ball. The ball can be brought back into open play by the player retrieving it from the rear of the scrum, or by another player picking it up after detaching from the scrum.

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 for a team to win possession of the ball, despite not having the feed, though in such situations the referee may restart the scrum.

SCRUM: Ireland rugby team in a scrum with the Pumas (international teams)
PHOTO: Paolo Cameron (Flikr)

Drawing or winning

The team who has scored most points during the 80 minutes match wins a game of rugby. If the two teams are drawing, which means that they have the same score, a draw may be declared, or the game may enter extra time under the golden point rule depending on the kind of competition.

If you think “ah, finally now I got all the rules”, well, this is just the beginning. But these will probably help you follow the scores, and for me, that is a big improvement from the last game!