Rugby Union

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Guess what happened next.

Rugby Union is a game where large men run at each other and then stomp on each other with spiked boots for 80 minutes.
Cracked

In league you have six tackles (think downs) to make it to the end zone. In Union, you have as long as you can keep hold of the ball. Imagine Gridiron played like that. There would be a lot of running the ball up the gut.

Ladies and gentlemen, Rugby.

The idea is you get the ball and run with it. You are then tackled. Then a variation upon the following happens:
* You fall to the ground, and release the ball.
* Your mates run in and play stacks on.
* The other team runs in and plays stacks on.
* This is called a "ruck".
You then try to get the ball out with your feet, assuming you are not already paralyzed from the neck down, and then throw it to your mate and keep playing.

Simple.

Only not really. Strangely there are many different ways of playing the game. You can
a) Throw the ball around and run fast. This looks cool. You can score lots of points, but it is risky. If you're not skilful enough, you'll get a neat impact crater in your sternum from someone else's shoulder. Like playing Spread Offence in the NFL.
b) Run the ball up the gut with your forwards (traditionally, the fat guys. Nowadays, they generally look like they could eat a power lifter alive and run fast enough to catch them). Not so entertaining, but it works.
c) Either kick field goals (known as drop goals), or rely on the other team messing up and kicking penalty goals.
d) Kick for field position by kicking the ball into the other end of the ground making the opposition play the ball out, and hope they cough it up for you.

This may not sound like much, but there are quite a few philosophical approaches to the game which can produce many different results. For newcomers, it can be quite difficult to understand, but no more so than watching NFL for the first time.

Rugby Union is a version of football supposedly started at Rugby School in Warwickshire when a player picked up the ball and ran with it. It's played in Britain, France, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, a good proportion of the south Pacific, South Africa, Japan, and even (a little) in the U.S. note  However, Rugby Sevens, a shortened form of Union returned to the Olympics in 2016. Neither Fiji or Samoa had ever won an Olympic medal at any sport, and both are among the strongest sevens nations, so they were among the most ferocious competitors in Rio de Janeiro. And indeed Fiji brought home gold, endearing the world both to the plucky underdog nation and the sport's much faster paced "little cousin".

The differences from Rugby League (a related football code) are mostly subtle to outsiders. Union has 15-player teams; League has 13-player teams. Union is traditionally the gentlemen's game (though it can be played by women); League is the working-class game. This distinction is only (if ever) true for certain regions (specifically the North and South of England, with the North being a traditional stronghold of Rugby League and Union dominating across the South, and the North and South of France, where it's inverted) and the accusation is commonly used by League fans as an insult. It's also averted in Wales and New Zealand, among other places. However, in England at least, it holds true at International level. In 2013, 12 of the 24 members of the England squad were privately educated, while 12 were state educated (while one player, Ben Foden, managed to be both). Only 7% of the entire British population is privately educated. By contrast, 6 of the 33 man Rugby League Squad were privately educated. This is still disproportionate, but less obviously so. Players can and do cross codes from one to the other (usually from League to Union) and some, like legendary England winger Jason Robinson are very successful. Others, not so much. Rugby League is also a bit more similar to American Football than Union (the limited number of tackles / downs for instance) and a handful of players have tried crossing over, one even making it to the NFL.

The differences between both versions of Rugby and American Football are much greater: players wear no body armour beyond a gum shield, and play continues without interruption and time-outs for much longer. Also, no forward passing under any circumstances, you're not allowed to tackle someone not holding the ball and to get the points for a try (think touchdown) you must be holding onto the ball when it is placed onto the ground. (There have been numerous instances of amateur players forgetting about this and spiking the ball.) This applies to both codes, which tend to share a disdain for the perceived softness of American Football and delight in mocking it to that end. Rupert Giles sums it up by saying, with a hint of mockery, "I just think it's rather odd that a nation that prides itself on its virility should feel compelled to strap on forty pounds of protective gear just in order to play rugby."

However, things aren't quite that simple - a good rule of thumb is that Rugby has almost no protective gear and fairly strict rules about what you can do to people, and American Football has a lot of protective gear and almost no rules about what you can do to people. Also, American Football players run the gamut from very big and heavy to rather lightweight - especially at the semi pro level. In Rugby there are certain positions that require more or less weight, but specialisation is a lot less pronounced. Yet 250 pound linemen can be surprisingly fast in a sprint. You do not want someone like that coming at you without any protection.

As with most sports codified and then popularised around the world via the British, the pinnacle of the game is the competition between international teams. As with most sports in general, there is a Tier System in which certain teams are generally more likely to triumph over others. The thing about rugby however is that, due to the complexity and physical intensity of the game and the variety of differing ways to score, major upsets are fairly rare. When you go up against a significantly better rugby team than you, you can generally expect that you will be beaten. This has the effect (appropriately, perhaps, for a sport that emerged in Britain) of producing a sort of "caste system" in both domestic club competitions and the international circuit. At the top rung are the nations defined by the sport's governing body as "Tier 1" teams - the best of the best, all of whom have or are involved in professional or semi-professional competitions each year. These teams can also be divided based on which hemisphere they are found in, as this determines which transnational competitions they compete in. In the Northern Hemisphere, these are England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. In the Southern Hemisphere, they consist of Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Note that, with the curious exceptions of Italy, France and Argentina, all of these nations were once part of the British Commonwealth, which is how the game was popularised there. And Argentina really isn't that large of an exception—the sport was introduced to Argentina by British expats (who played a major role in the country's industrial development) in the 1870s. As time goes by the dominance of the top teams is diminishing - at the most recent World Cup, Japan stunned South Africa and pretty much the rest of the world by recording their first ever win over the Springboks, which was also their second ever win in the entire history of the World Cup. For reference, South Africa have won the whole thing twice and are at any given time very likely to be in the top 3 teams in the world. Japan, by contrast, have never been higher in the world rugby rankings then ninth.

It is one of the few sports that the English can claim to be genuine world beaters at, with their making appearances in three out of seven rugby World Cup finals and winning it once, with that famous drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson in 2003. The England rugby team is renowned both for the poshness of the players, as mentioned above, and for the sheer power of the forward pack (think linemen and linebackers). Whatever state the rest of the team is in, the England scrum is generally a thing to be feared and always a force to be reckoned with. That said, they are still an English sports team and as such are never all that far away from a really spectacular public collapse. Even with this general tendency they recently outdid themselves, becoming the first team ever to host a World Cup and fail to make it past the group stage. They have bounced back very quickly however to win their first Six Nations Grand Slam in 13 years and are currently ranked as the second best team in the world. In Sevens Team GB did quite respectably for itself, coming in second at the inaugural Olympic men's tournament behind dominant Fiji. The women's side placed fourth behind Canada, New Zealand and gold medalist Australia.

Rugby is also one of the best places to find proof of the non-wussiness of the French, who love the sport and on their day, dominate, challenging the likes of the All Blacks. When it isn't their day, the Home Nations tend to roll straight over them. Interestingly, it surpasses even (association) football in popularity in the southern part of the country (particularly the région of Midi-Pyrénées, which despite being cobbled together from disparate provinces to create a région for Toulouse to call its own has developed a strong identity around rugby).

The Italians, meanwhile, were until recently the Butt Monkey of Europe, with each of the other teams in the Six Nations regarding their match against Italy as a chance to rack up points and have a bit of fun. However, after years of pushing and patiently developing a formidable forward pack, they finally beat Scotland in 2015 and ran (an admittedly very off-form) Wales close in a World Cup warm-up match later that year. That said, even their own players admit that they lack strength in depth and in the last two years of the Six Nations, the Welsh have beaten them by an aggregate score of 128-35.

In Wales and New Zealand, it is something close to a national religion, with both nations dominating their regions note  despite their relatively minuscule populations. Wales are perennial favourites for the Six Nations title (though in a good year, there are at least four serious challengers for the title) and completed the Grand Slam, defeating all five other teams, three times in seven years (2005, 2008, 2012). New Zealand extend this dominance worldwide, and the All Blacks have long since developed a global reputation for invincibility which is only rarely challenged. They are unique in international sports in that they have a winning record against every single team that they have ever played. It is considered a major achievement for one of the Northern Hemisphere superpowers (England, France, Ireland and Wales) to even run the All Blacks close: France have won the most encounters with New Zealand with 12 from 55. England have won 7 from 40, Wales 3 from 30 (and they haven't won since 1963...) and Ireland have never won one at all.

The Southern Hemisphere teams tend to have nicknames: South Africa are known as the Springboks, Australia as the Wallabies, Argentina as the Pumas and New Zealand, most famously, as the All Blacks. The Northern Hemisphere teams, however, don't, save for the French team called Les Bleus, and the Italians, the Azzurri (confusingly, both teams' names translate to "the blues", though for entirely unconnected reasons). Note that the official symbol of the All Blacks is a silver fern, while Les Bleus are supposedly designated by a rooster. However, all the British teams are commonly associated with a flower - a red rose for England, a leek/daffodil for Wales, a thistle for Scotland and a shamrock for Ireland.

Major competitions

International competitions
  • The Rugby World Cup — Held every four years in the year before the Summer Olympics, this is the sport's highest prize for national teams. The victors receive the Webb Ellis Trophy, named for William Webb Ellis, apocryphally credited with creating the game. Due to the same quirks of history which resulted in the game going professional a mere 21 years ago, almost a century after it was created, the Rugby World Cup has only been running since the 1980s. However, with the primacy placed on international competition in the sport, it has already become the grandest stage on which to perform in all of rugby union. New Zealand are the current holders of the trophy, having won it at home in 2011 and in England in 2015. The next World Cup, in 2019, will be hosted by Japan.
  • The Six Nations Championship — Europe's premier national competition, currently involving the Northern Hemisphere's six top teams—England, France, Ireland,note  Italy, Scotland, and Wales. The event grew out of a competition informally known as the Home Nations Championship, involving the British and Irish sides only and launched in 1883. France joined in 1910, creating the Five Nations, but were kicked out after the 1931 edition. They were invited back after the 1939 edition, but World War II ended international rugby in Europe until 1947. The competition became the Six Nations with Italy's entry in 2000. England clinched the 2016 championship with a round to spare and in their final match completed the Grand Slam - done by defeating all 5 other teams. The bottom team gets the so-called 'wooden spoon', a tradition that goes back to the 1890's, if not before. These days it's usually held by Italy, but both Wales and France have held it before (once each) and it used to regularly be held by Scotland, leading to the mocking song sung by English fans, 'O spoon of Scotland...' to the tune of their national anthem.
  • The Rugby Championship — Created as the Tri Nations Series in 1996, shortly after the sport became professional, and initially involving South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. In 2012, Argentina was invited to join and the competition adopted its current name. The governing body is SANZAAR, a joint venture between the governing bodies of the participating countries (originally SANZAR until Argentina became a full member in 2016). New Zealand are the reigning champions, having won the 2016 edition with two rounds to spare.
  • Rugby World Cup Sevens — Traditionally the top prize for national sevens teams, it was first held in 1993. The winner receives the Melrose Cup, named after the Scottish town where sevens was first played. When sevens was added to the Olympic program for 2016, it was initially decided that the World Cup Sevens would be scrapped after 2013. However, it was later decided to retain the World Cup; the next event will take place in the USA in 2018, with future editions every four years thereafter. New Zealand are the current holders, winning in Moscow in 2013.
  • World Rugby Sevens Seriesnote  — An annual series of tournaments for national sevens teams conducted since 1999–2000. In the upcoming 2016–17 season, the tour will have 10 stops: Dubai, South Africa (Cape Town), Australia (Sydney), New Zealand (Wellington), Canada (Vancouver), the USA (Las Vegas), Singapore, Hong Kong, France (Paris), and England (London). Each tournament except for Hong Kong involves 16 teams competing for four distinct trophies, plus points toward the overall series championship. Fifteen of these teams are "core teams" that compete in each event during a given season. The Hong Kong event incorporates a separate 12-team tournament that, since the 2013–14 season, has been used for core team qualification for the following season. The winner of this tournament is assured a core team place in the next season, replacing the core team that finished with the fewest points at the end of the series. Fiji have won the last two titles, but New Zealand have dominated this series, winning 12 times in all.

Domestic competitions
  • Super Rugby - A contest between domestic teams (generally referred to as franchises rather than clubs) from the SANZAAR nations (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina), plus one, slightly token team from Japan. It is contested annually, and as you'd expect from a competition featuring teams from some of the best rugby nations in the world, the quality is generally considered to be second only to international rugby. This is somewhat debatable at times and there is a lengthy argument to be had regarding the devaluing or otherwise of the competition as it slowly expands - it started life as a competition between 6 provincial sides from Australia and New Zealand, but has gradually expanded to incorporate a total of 18 franchises (5 each for New Zealand and Australia, 1 from Argentina, 1 from Japan and 6 from South Africa - the sixth South African team being added partially for money but mainly for domestic political reasons). It is a showcase of "basketball" style rugby, played in generally agreeable weather on firm grounds by teams whose primary concern after winning is to put on a great show. The tournament's supervising body also aims to encourage a grand spectacle. It has seen a fairly broad spread of winners, with the most successful teams unsurprisingly tending to herald from New Zealand - but both Australian and South African teams have won it as well. The reigning champions are the Hurricanes of New Zealand.
  • European Rugby Champions Cup - Broadly speaking the Northern Hemisphere equivalent of Super Rugby, this is an international competition between the best teams from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy (although the Italian sides are very much also-rans). Because the season is more fragmented in the Northern Hemisphere and also because the national competitions are stronger and run at roughly the same time, this competition is more truncated than Super Rugby - where the latter runs for 17 regular season rounds followed by 3 elimination rounds, the former has only 6 regular season rounds before the elimination stage. Like Super Rugby the competition undergoes periodic mutation, but has remained more stable in structure. However, the actual teams who contest it are not fixed as with Super Rugby, but rather determined by performance in the respective national competitions in the preceding year. Like most Northern Hemisphere rugby competitions, compared to the Southern offering the ERCC is a little more stodgy, defense-focused and setpiece oriented. This is partially a product of mindset among players and coaches but also a simple result of weather - rugby is a winter sport and it is not uncommon for it to be played, in Europe, in howling gales, driving rain and the occasional mild snowstorm, all of which are comparatively rarer in most of the Southern Hemisphere rugby nations. The reigning champions are Saracens, based in North London in England.note 
  • Top 14 - the premier French domestic competition. 14 (clever, eh?) teams compete against each other across 26 regular season games and a six-team playoff, with two quarterfinals, a pair of semifinals and a final. The final, normally at Stade de France in the inner Paris suburb of Saint-Denis (though held in Barcelona in 2016 due to a scheduling conflict with UEFA Euro 2016), is one of France's biggest sporting events and has a party atmosphere. The competition has been running since 1892 and is without much question the most popular non-international domestic competition in the world. The French, it turns out (especially in the south), are crazy about rugby, and the T14 is rapidly becoming rugby's equivalent of the English Premier League, with star players from around the world turning out in front of huge, rabid crowds and being paid comparatively substantial sums of money. It is also believed by some to be the reason French international rugby has been on the wane for the better part of a decade, and it's a tough sell for the neutral given the intense desire of every team to win every game (the league operates a promotion and relegation system with the second-level Rugby Pro D2, and every team is desperate to avoid relegation, meaning games are often played in a very cautious and risk-free manner). The reigning champions are Racing 92, based in another Paris suburb.
  • Aviva Premiership - the English domestic competition. 12 teams from around the country compete every year across 22 regular season games (playing each opponent once at home and once away), two semi-finals and one grand final, played out at the home of English rugby, Twickenham Stadium. Very much plays second fiddle to the Top 14 in terms of revenue and even the Pro12 in terms of viewership, but despite this the Aviva Premiership is one of the top leagues in the world and is slowly gaining pace and success. In particular, the standard of rugby played in the Aviva Premiership is generally considered, currently at least, to be higher than the Pro12 and more interesting than the Top 14, and the increase in commercial success is starting to mean that the best international players are increasingly being drawn to England over France (though the language issue is also likely a factor). Like the T14 it operates with a promotion and relegation model, but the more amicable relationship between the English national administration and the clubs compared to the situation in France and the less frenzied financial pressures mean that teams are not quite as risk averse. The reigning champions are Saracens of North London after completing the rare domestic and European double.
  • Guinness Pro12 - formerly (and in some quarters unofficially still) known as the Celtic League, this is a curious beast by domestic rugby standards, involving an international domestic competition at the level below the ERCC. It consists of 4 teams from Ireland (including Ulster which overlaps with Northern Ireland), 4 from Wales, 2 from Scotland and 2 from Italy (who were just happy to be invited). Played to the same general structure as the Aviva Premiership, it has higher viewing figures thanks to being played across a less concentrated population. The standard of rugby, at least among the top teams, is very high and several teams who contest the Pro12 have gone on to become famous European champions. In particular the Irish provinces (it's a local thing) of Leinster and Munster enjoyed something of a golden age in the 00s, although both are in decline at present. The other thing to note about the Pro12 is that it doesn't have promotion or relegation, meaning teams are free to play in a more carefree, Southern Hemisphere-esque fashion than they are in the Aviva Premiership or Top 14. The reigning champions are the Irish province of Connacht, who made history by winning the final at the end of last season to win their first competition honours in their entire 131-year history.
  • Mitre 10 Cup - New Zealand's premier entirely domestic competition, and thus arguably the highest quality (on average at least) rugby competition in the world. It is however not particularly well-known outside of rugby mad New Zealand, for the simple reason that Super Rugby is generally treated as the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the domestic competitions listed above. All the same if your primary concern is watching the highest consistent levels of skill on a regular basis the Mitre 10 is probably where you should look. It operates with a promotion and relegation structure, but the New Zealand rugby culture means that it still averages a very high number of tries scored per game, which is usually a hallmark of both high quality and teams playing with risk and abandon. The Mitre 10 also functions, like all domestic competitions, as the pipeline for the next generation of rugby talent, so it provides an opportunity to see up-and-coming All Blacks as they first arrive on the scene - along with the current ones in fact, because the competition runs at a different time to Super Rugby and thus allows players to keep getting games in and honing their skills when normally they'd be in the off-season. The reigning champions are Canterbury, based in the South Island city of Christchurch.
  • Currie Cup - the South African equivalent of the Mitre 10. As with the Mitre 10 the CC has a comparatively low profile, but South Africa is sufficiently rugby mad that it still has a decent buzz surrounding it. The competition has been running since 1892, and is probably the most efficient way to watch a combination of rugby, and men getting put through the ringer - South African rugby has a well-deserved reputation for physicality, and the players who compete in it are no shrinking violets. The reigning champions are the Golden Lions, based in the country's largest city and commercial capital of Johannesburg.note 
  • The National Rugby Championship - Australia's equivalent to the Mitre 10 and Currie Cup competitions. The NRC is, in contrast to most other domestic rugby competitions, very young indeed, having been established in 2014 (although there have been other similar competitions in the past). Rugby faces a unique challenge in Australia - although the only major rugby countries where it is the most popular sport are New Zealand and Wales, in most of the rest of the world it only really has to compete with Association Football (and maybe Gaelic games in Ireland) for the public's affections. In Australia however, not only is rugby not the most popular national sport, not only is it not the second most popular sport, it isn't even the second most popular form of football. Association Football, Rugby League and Australian Rules Football are all generally more popular than rugby union, not to mention the national obsession that is cricket. As a result Aussie rugby has generally been slightly anaemic at the domestic level, fuelled mainly by intense popularity among the nation's private schools and a few local club competitions (especially in the state of New South Wales). The NRC represents the latest attempt to surpass that obstacle and raise the profile of the game among Australia's sports-mad population - as yet the jury is out on how successful that attempt is. The reigning champions are Brisbane City.
  • PRO Rugby - Founded in late 2015, PRO Rugby is the USA's first professional rugby competition. 6 teams compete against each other home and away across 12 games, with the winner (unusually in rugby, which has embraced the end-of-season playoff concept in virtually all domestic competitions) determined by the highest placed team at the end of the season. PRO Rugby is currently in a slightly awkward position lying somewhere between "professional rugby competition" and "proof of concept", but their first season was considered a success based on performance vs. expectations and should resume in spring 2017. The reigning, inaugural champions are Denver Stampede.

Miscellaneous
  • The Lions Tour - a quadrennial tour by the British and Irish Lions (generally abbreviated to simply 'the Lions'), a squad composed of the best players in the British Isles, of one of the three traditional Southern Hemisphere nations (i.e., not counting Argentina). Traditionally, the Lions play several warm-up games against provincial sides or top club teams before taking on the national team in three matches. The results are generally fairly even, with the last two tours (of South Africa and Australia respectively) in 2009 and 2013 both ending with a series score of 2-1 in the winning team's favour. The Lions won the last tour, with the first two test matches being extremely close (23-21 to the Lions and 16-15 to Australia), before the Lions handed out a crushing 41-16 defeat to the Wallabies.
See Rugby Laws to get an understanding of how the game works.


Examples

Anime and Manga
  • One episode of Full Metal Panic! has Sōsuke putting the once mellow and wimpy school Rugby team through some extreme training that turns them outright murderous.
  • The manga No Side is centered on a terrible university rugby team that has just picked up a girl as its star player. She's the reincarnation of their old captain (sorta).

Film

Newspaper Comics
  • Rob from Get Fuzzy is a Rugby Union fan, despite being American.

Video Games

Western Animation
  • Rocket Power featured a New Zealander boy named Trent teaching rugby to Otto and his friends.

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