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

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.


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 either get a neat impact crater in your sternum from someone else's shoulder, or an opposing player with a good eye for trajectories and a better sense of timing will snatch it out of the air and quite possibly score at the other end. 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 run down a power lifter and eat them alive). Not so entertaining, but it works. This is the equivalent of the conservative "three yards and a cloud of dust" strategy for which the Big Ten was historically famous.

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 is 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  which has separate championships from normal Rugby Union and even different "great powers" - reigning Olympic Champion Fiji being a big name in Sevens but no match for New Zealand in fifteen on fifteen Rugby Union. 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". And did so again in Tokyo four... make that five years later.

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 these days; back in the 80's the reverse was true, mainly because League was professional while Union was still amateur) 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 is 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. Even more recently, converts from American football to rugby sevens have turned the USA men's sevens team into a major threat to that code's traditional powers, with Team USA finishing a narrow second to Fiji in the 2018–19 World Rugby Sevens Series. The only player to date to have been named by World Rugby as its (men's) Sevens Player of the Year more than once is Perry Baker, who played NCAA Division II football and in the Arena Football League before converting to sevens, leading the Sevens Series in tries in 2016–17, and being named as World Player of the Year for 2017 and 2018. Another former D-II football player, Carlin Isles, led the Sevens Series in tries in 2017–18 and 2018–19.

The differences between both versions of Rugby and American Football are much greater: players wear little, body armour beyond a gum shield and an optional scrum-cap (foam padding is allowed), 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, while there are certain positions that tend to attract players of more or less weight, the specialisation is a lot less pronounced than it used to be - Forwards used to be huge, fat and slow,(Unless they were back rowers, who were - and are - huge,very chunky and frighteningly quick) while Backs, especially wingers, were small and fast. The last great example of the latter was Shane 'Shimmering Shane' Williams, a 5'8" multiple Grand Slam Winner with Wales and was called up to the Lions squad (composed of the best players in the British Isles) as injury cover at the age of 36 when he'd be due to fly out as a commentator. (In the end, he didn't play in any of the Tests, though he did turn out for midweek matches.)

Now, the backs are usually faster, less hairy and more technical versions of the forwards, who have themselves slimmed down, skilled up and sped up. Indeed, it's not out of the ordinary to have a winger who's actually heavier than some forwards. The Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for today's giant wingers was late All Blacks great Jonah Lomu, who weighed in at about 260 pounds (a touch less than 120 kilos). Since then, many modern wingers approach or even exceed Lomu's size, with current examples including Wales' George North, who clocks in at "only" 240 pounds, and Fijian Nemani Nadolo, who's listed at close to 300 pounds. You do not want someone like that coming at you without any protection. In other words, everyone is a Lightning Bruiser.

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—British expats, who played a major role in Argentina's industrial development, brought the sport, among many others (Newell's Old Boys anyone?), to the country in the 1870s.

As time goes by the dominance of the top teams is diminishing - at the 2015 World Cup, Japan stunned South Africa and pretty much the rest of the world by recording a win over the Springboks, which was also their second ever win in the entire history of the World Cup (with their first coming against Zimbabwe in 1991). For reference, South Africa had won the whole thing twice at the time of Japan's upset, and were (and still are) at any given time very likely to be in the top 3 teams in the world. Japan, by contrast, had never been higher in the world rugby rankings than ninth... until the next World Cup at home, when they took down Ireland and Scotland in group play. The Boks got a measure of revenge, defeating Japan in the quarterfinals on the way to their third World Cup.

It is one of the few sports that the English can claim to be genuine world beaters at, with their making appearances in four out of nine Rugby World Cup finals and winning it once, with that famous drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson in 2003. They're the one Northern Hemisphere team that can consistently (i.e. not counting the French) go into matches against the Wallabies and the Springboks with even odds of winning, and with the All Blacks with even odds of not being absolutely thrashed. 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 outdid themselves in 2015, becoming the first sole hosts of a World Cup to fail to make it past the group stage after an injury hit Wales squirmed past them at Twickenham. They bounced back very quickly, however, to win their first Six Nations Grand Slam in 13 years; they made it all the way to second in the world and stayed there as recently as March 2018, but a disappointing 2018 Six Nations campaign dropped them to fourth, and they dropped as low as fifth before clawing their way back up the rankings and making the 2019 World Cup final, losing there to South Africa. (England ended the 2019 RWC at #3 in the rankings.) 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 medallists 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, had each of the other teams in the Six Nations regarding their match against them as a chance to rack up points and have a bit of fun. Although they defeated defending champions Scotland in their first match in the competition in 2000, they've only managed a dozen wins since, and had a record-breaking losing streak of 36 games between defeating Scotland at Murrayfield in 2015 and Wales in Cardiff in 2022. However, they have managed to notch at least one victory over every team in the competition except for England. note 

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, four times in the 21st century (2005, 2008, 2012, 2019). New Zealand extend this dominance worldwide, and the All Blacks have long since developed a global reputation for invincibility which is only rarely challenged.

Indeed, the All Blacks are unique in international sports in that they have a winning record against every single team that they have ever played.note  Consequently, it has historically been considered a major achievement for any 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 13 from 62. England have won 8 from 43 and Wales 3 from 37 (and they haven't won since 1953...). However, despite taking until their 29th attempt in 2016 (in, of all places, Chicago) to record a win over the All Blacks, Ireland have become a significant recent rival for them, winning 5 of their last 8 encounters, including a 2-1 Test Series victory in New Zealand in 2022. New Zealand's closest competitors, the Springboks of South Africa, have a record of 38–62, plus four draws. The next-closest, Australia's Wallabies, have a record of 45–122, plus eight draws. However, these records reflect the entire history of said countries in the sport. In the professional era (since August 1995), the Boks are 17–44 with one draw against the All Blacks,note  and the Wallabies are 18–54 with two draws. It should be noted that both the Boks and Wallabies are nearly as invincible for other teams that aren't New Zealand, with only England, Ireland, Wales, and France (the latter two on their better days) generally giving them a contest. The Boks can't manage a 40% win rate against New Zealand, and the Wallabies can't even get to 33%.

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). With that being said, the British and Irish Lions, a touring side made up of the best players in the British Isles, are usually just referred to as 'the Lions'. 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 only in 1995, 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. South Africa are the reigning champions, winning in 2019 in 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. The competition is held as a single round-robin—i.e., each team plays the others once. The current champions are Ireland, who won the 2023 championship with a Grand Slam, earned by defeating all 5 others in the same season. The bottom team gets the so-called 'wooden spoon', a tradition that goes back to the 1890s, 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. It's played in a home-and-away format except in World Cup years, in which it's truncated into a single round-robin series. 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.
  • 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, with the next edition held in 2018 and future editions every four years thereafter. The reigning champion (2022) is Fiji.
  • World Rugby Sevens Seriesnote  — An annual series of tournaments for national sevens teams conducted since 1999–2000. The current 8-tournament schedule, effective in 2023–24, features events in Dubai, South Africa (Cape Town), Australia (Perth), the US (the Los Angeles suburb of Carson, California), Canada (Vancouver), Hong Kong, Singapore, and Spain (Madrid). Each season featured as many as 10 stops before COVID-19 got in the way. Each of the first seven tournaments involves 16 teams competing for two distinct trophies, plus points toward the overall series championship. Twelve of these teams are "core teams" that compete in each of the first seven events during a given season. (Before 2023–24, there were 15 core teams.) After the Singapore event, the top eight teams advance to a "Grand Final" in Madrid, and the other four core teams drop to a promotion/relegation playoff that also features top teams from World Rugby's regionalised "Challenger Series", with the top four teams from that playoff either retaining or being promoted to core status. New Zealand have traditionally dominated this series, with 14 titles in all, most recently in 2022–23. The other nations to have won are Fiji and South Africa with four each, plus Australia and Samoa with one each.
  • There are also a number of parallel women's competitions to the above, which draw far less interest, plus a couple of women's competitions with no men's counterpart. A brief rundown:
    • Rugby World Cup – Historically known as the Women's Rugby World Cup, but in 2019 the sport's governing body, World Rugby, officially removed gender-specific language from the name of the World Cup. First held in 1991, but outside the authority of World Rugby. WR took over sponsorship in 1998, but didn't officially recognise the 1991 and 1994 editions until 2009. The 2021 edition in New Zealand was postponed to 2022 due to COVID, although still branded as the "2021" edition. It was eventually won by New Zealand, beating England in the final.
    • Women's Six Nations – Much like its men's counterpart, it began as an event for the Home Nations, though not until 1996. France joined in 1999; Ireland left in 2000 and was replaced by Spain. It became the Six Nations with Ireland's return in 2002. In 2007, the (men's) Six Nations committee took over the tournament, kicking Spain out in favor of Italy to align the two competitions. The current holders are England, who won the 2023 title with their second straight Grand Slam. COVID-19 led to one permanent change to the tournament; since the 2022 edition, the women's 6N starts after the men's version ends.
    • Pacific Four Series – An indirect parallel to The Rugby Championship, but with Argentina and South Africa replaced by Canada and the USA. It started in 2021, but with only the North American sides due to COVID issues. The first competition that involved all four sides was in 2022. New Zealand won that edition and repeated in 2023.
    • WXV – Launching in 2023 (delayed from 2021... guess why), this three-tiered competition, which lacks a men's counterpart, is being held annually except in (women's) World Cup years. The top level, WXV 1, initially features the top three teams from both the 2023 Women's Six Nations and 2023 Pacific Four Series. WXV 2 begins with the fourth-place teams from the 2023 6N and P4, the winner of a playoff between the 5th-place 6N side and the champion of WR's European zone (non-6N teams), and the champions of WR's African, Asian, and Oceanian (non-P4) zones. WXV 3 starts with the bottom team of the 2023 6N, the loser of the WXV 2 qualifying playoff, the champion of WR's South American zone, and the African, Asian, and Oceanian runners-up. There will be promotion and relegation between all three levels.
    • Rugby World Cup Sevens – The women's version, held at the same site and the same time as the men's tournament, was first held in 2009 in Dubai. The current holders are Australia.
    • World Rugby Women's Sevens Series – Launched in 2012–13 with four events; now has the same eight events as the men's competition. The only champions to date have been the current holders, New Zealand (7 wins), and Australia (3 wins).
Domestic competitions
  • Super Rugby - A contest between domestic teams (generally referred to as franchises rather than clubs), currently from the SANZAAR nations of Australia and New Zealand, plus two teams representing the Pacific island nations. The competition has in the past included teams from the other two SANZAAR nations of South Africa 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 for years there has been a lengthy argument to be had regarding the devaluing or otherwise of the competition as it slowly expanded. It started life as a competition between 6 provincial sides from Australia and New Zealand, but 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).

    The aftermath of the expansion from 15 to 18 teams saw noticeable declines in interest and competitiveness in Australia and to a lesser extent South Africa, which was apparently the last straw for New Zealand and SANZAAR. For 2018, the competition reverted to a 15-team format, with one Australian side and two South African sides being axed. The South African teams landed on their feet in the European league formerly known as Pro12, later as Pro14, and now as the United Rugby Championship (see below), and the Australian side eventually wound up in the country's National Rugby Championship (also below).

    Further changes were announced in 2019 — the Japanese side, the Sunwolves, were to be axed after the 2020 season, after which the competition was intended to return to a single round-robin format, followed by a 6-team playoff. However, COVID-19 led to the effective demise of Super Rugby, at least in its previous form. With travel restrictions in place throughout and between the SANZAAR countries, the Australian and New Zealand sides respectively established their own fully-domestic competitions, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa. South Africa, under much more severe lockdown conditions for several months, could not immediately launch its own domestic mini-league, but began Super Rugby Unlocked in October 2020. After a row between the Aussie and Kiwi national federations, both countries decided to continue with their domestic-only leagues for at least 2021. South Africa then made a long-rumoured pivot toward European competition. One of the two teams that had moved to Pro12 folded, and the 2020–21 season was the last in Europe for the other. The country's four remaining Super Rugby sides moved en masse to that competition, expanding it to what's now the United Rugby Championship. As for the Aussies and Kiwis, they settled on a two-stage competition, though that would end up only being held in 2021:
  • The first stage was entirely domestic, with Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU holding a 10-round league season, followed by a one-off final between the top two teams on the ladder.
  • All 10 teams then played in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, conducted in a single-table format with each team playing a full round-robin against teams from the opposite country, followed by a final between the top two teams on the table.
The champions under that format were the Reds in Australia (playing out of Brisbane), the Crusaders in NZ (from Christchurch in the South Island), and the Blues (from NZ's largest city of Auckland) in Trans-Tasman.

The competition expanded again in 2022, but this time with an emphasis on developing rugby in the Pacific islands. The Fijian Drua, which had competed in Australia's National Rugby Championship (below) until that league went belly-up after the 2019 season, joined, as did Moana Pasifika, an Auckland-based side that draws players from all of the Pacific islands (but mostly Samoa and Tonga). With the new teams joining, the competition has been rebranded as Super Rugby Pacific, and is no longer split into conferences. Instead, each team plays a full round-robin schedule, plus three extra matches with an emphasis on regional derbies. The top eight teams at the end of the regular season advance to a traditional knockout playoff. The aforementioned Crusaders have won both championships of the current Super Rugby Pacific format.

Under its various guises, Super Rugby has been 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. It helped that the big four countries' "playing styles" from which franchises were drawn have an interesting dynamic based on a cultural disposition to play a certain brand of rugby - the Australian and New Zealand teams favour skilful passing and inspired unstructured play (with the Australians far more unpredictable for both good and ill), South African teams share the Springboks' mastery of the set piece, and the Argentines make it a point to beat the living daylights out of their opponents - surely an exciting spectacle when you see the techniques thrown against each other. 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 hail from New Zealand - but both Australian and South African teams have won it as well, and the Argentine side made the 2019 final.
  • 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). In 2022–23, the "European" part became an Artifact Title with South Africa being fully integrated into the European club structure, though the competition has been branded simply as the "Champions Cup" for the last few years. 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 14 regular-season rounds before the elimination stage, 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. Not to mention that with South Africa now included, teams may have to handle the subtropical summers of Durban or the lung-busting altitude of the Highveld (Johannesburg and Pretoria). The reigning champions are France's La Rochelle.note 

    Starting with the 2022–23 competition, teams from South Africa have been incorporated into the European club competitions. At least one SA side will qualify from the United Rugby Championship, with more possible.
  • 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 had been on the wane through the 2010s,note  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 Toulouse.
  • Gallagher Premiership - the English domestic competition. 10 teams from around the country compete every year across 18 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. As recently as the start of the 2022–23 season, 12 teams were featured, but Wasps went into administration in midseason and were suspended from the competition before being administratively relegated, and London Irish were relegated after the season following their own entry into administration. Very much plays second fiddle to the Top 14 in terms of revenue and even the United Rugby Championship in terms of viewership, but despite this the Gallagher 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 Premiership is generally considered, currently at least, to be higher than the URC (though that may change with South Africa now fully involved) 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 the North London side Saracens.
  • United Rugby Championship - formerly (and in some quarters unofficially still) known as the Celtic League,note  as Pro12 before 2017, and then Pro14 through the 2020–21 season, this is a curious beast by domestic rugby standards, involving an international domestic competition at the level below the ERCC. Since the 2021–22 season, its first under its new name, it consists of 4 teams from Ireland (including Ulster which overlaps with Northern Ireland), 4 from Wales, 2 from Scotland, 2 from Italy (who were just happy to be invited), and 4 from South Africa. Played to the same general structure as the Gallagher 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 URC 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, and after a decline in the first part of the 2010s are on the rise again. The other thing to note about the URC 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 Gallagher Premiership or Top 14. The reigning champions are Munster.
    • The competition began in 2001 as strictly a Celtic affair, involving Irish provinces, Scottish super-districts, and top-level Welsh clubs. Two years later, Wales regionalised its top tier of rugby, going from nine clubs to four regions. (The clubs turned into developmental operations for the regions.) In 2010, two Italian sides were added, bringing the competition to 12 teams. Next, the two clubs that South Africa had axed from Super Rugby after its 2017 season were invited to join from the 2017–18 season forward. The league duly changed its name to Pro14 at that point.note  More recently, one of the two South African sides, the Southern Kings (Port Elizabeth), was liquidated in 2020 after an intended takeover bid collapsed in fraud. The Cheetahs (Bloemfontein) played in the 2020–21 season, but after that left the league. South Africa's "Big Four" Super Rugby sides—the Bulls (Pretoria), Lions (Johannesburg), Sharks (Durban), and Stormers (Cape Town)—then joined. Following the 2020–21 Pro14 season, the league had a swan song under its then-current identity, the Pro14 Rainbow Cup. It consisted of two separate tournaments, the Rainbow Cup for the 12 European sides, and Rainbow Cup SA for the South African Big Four, followed by a final between the winners of each. European winner Benetton Treviso defeated the SA champion Bulls in the final, becoming the first Italian club team ever to win an international competition.

      The 2021–22 season, the first under the URC name, divided the 16 sides into four "pods"—Irish, Italian–Scottish, South African and Welsh—though classified in a single league table. Each team plays home and away against sides within its pod, plus single matches against all other sides, resulting in a 18-round league season. The top eight teams on the league table advance to knockout playoffs, with higher seeds hosting except for the final at a predetermined venue. The top team from each pod, plus the four top teams on the league table not already qualified, qualify for the next season's Champions Cup. This includes South Africa, which now participates fully in European club competitions. Each pod also awards a "Shield" to the side that finishes atop the pod in the regular season; in 2023, Leinster won the Irish Shield, Glasgow Warriors the Italian–Scottish Shield, Stormers the South African Shield, and Cardiff won the Welsh Shield.
    • Before the first South African expansion was announced, the league was discussing an expansion into North America, with Georgia (the country) and Germany also pushing to be included. In the end, nothing came of it.
  • National Provincial Championship - New Zealand's premier entirely domestic competition, and thus arguably the highest quality (on average at least) rugby competition in the world. Now having reverted to its original name, though currently with name sponsorship by Aussie hardware chain Bunnings (which also operates in NZ), 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 NPC is probably where you should look. It operated with a promotion and relegation structure from 2011 through 2021, returning to a single division in 2022, but the New Zealand rugby culture means that even in the two-division era it featured 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 NPC 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 Wellington.
  • Currie Cup - the South African equivalent of the NPC. As with the NPC, 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 wringer – 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 Bloemfontein-based Free State Cheetahs.
  • National Rugby Championship - Australia's now-defunct equivalent to the NPC and Currie Cup. The NRC was, 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 represented the latest attempt to surpass that obstacle and raise the profile of the game among Australia's sports-mad population - before COVID-19, the jury was out on how successful that attempt was. The NRC had either eight or nine teams throughout its history; it started out with nine, but one of Sydney's three original sides went belly-up after the 2015 season. The league returned to nine teams in 2017 with the arrival of the Fijian Drua, which joined as part of a regional initiative to improve the 15-man game in the Pacific islands.note  A second Sydney side folded just before the 2018 season, which the Drua won. The final champions in 2019 were the Western Force out of Perth; the 2020 season was scrapped due to COVID-19, and when Fox Sports lost the contract to televise Aussie domestic rugby in that year, it killed the competition entirely (being the primary funder of the league). As noted above, the Drua were revived in the retooled Super Rugby Pacific from 2022. The aforementioned Western Force were invited to play in Super Rugby AU, and became a permanent part of Super Rugby Pacific alongside the Drua.
  • The USA is now on its second try at a truly professional league. The first attempt, PRO Rugby, was founded in late 2015 and was initially planned to involve 6 teams, but ended up with only 5 when play started in 2016. These teams competed against each other home and away, 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 was in a slightly awkward position lying somewhere between "professional rugby competition" and "proof of concept", but its first season was considered a success based on performance vs. expectations. However, the league found itself in a nasty dispute with USA Rugby (the national federation), including claims of unpaid wages by some of the league's highest-profile players, that caused the league to fold before it got a chance at a second season. The plans of the former Pro12 to expand into North America also didn't help matters. The inaugural and only champions were the Denver Stampede. After a year without a pro league, and the end of Pro14's North American expansion plans, the void was filled by Major League Rugby, which launched in 2018 with teams from Austin, Denver, Houston, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Seattle. The original seven teams were joined in 2019 by sides from New York City and Toronto, plus teams from Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C. in 2020. COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the 2020 season, with the Denver team leaving shortly thereafter and being replaced by a Los Angeles side. A Dallas team was originally set to join in 2021, but put off its debut to 2022. The league currently operates on a single-entity model much like Major League Soccer, with the league owning all teams and the team operators being shareholders in the league. Of note in this regard, several serious investors bought into the league in the 2019–20 offseason. The Scottish Rugby Union took a minority interest in the incoming DC side, Australian fitness entrepreneur Adam Gilchrist (not the Aussie cricket great) bought into the Austin team and later the LA team as well, and Top 14 power Clermont bought a piece of the New Orleans side. Several major international stars on the downside of their careers also signed up, among them Wallabies Adam Ashley-Cooper, Digby Ioane, and Drew Mitchell; All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Rene Ranger, and Adam Thomson; Springbok Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira; France's Mathieu Bastareaud; and England's Ben Foden. Unlike PRO Rugby, MLR ends its season with a four-team playoff. The current (2023) champions are the New England Free Jacks, based in the Boston area.
  • On a much lower profile to the above competitions, the Welsh Premiership is the highest level of purely domestic Rugby in Wales and was where (prior to the consolidation of Welsh professional Rugby into regional sides in what is now the URC) most of the Welsh national side played their week-in-week-out Rugby, though it is now a mixture of professional and semi-pro players. With many of the biggest teams coming from small towns or large villages in the notoriously rainy Valleys, in contrast to the running Rugby displayed in the Southern Hemisphere, this is often your archetypical muddy, cold, windy, rough and unpleasant Rugby environment. Rugby is slaughter indeed. The reigning champions are Llandovery.


  • 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; there has not been a whitewash since the All Blacks swept the Lions 3–0 in 2005. Three of the last four Lions Test series have finished at 2–1, with the Springboks winning in 2009 and 2021 and the Lions defeating Australia in 2013. The 2017 tour in New Zealand saw the ABs literally inches from a series-winning try before losing control of the ball, resulting in a drawn series (1–1–1).

See Rugby Laws to get an understanding of how the game works.


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).

Comic Books

  • In Asterix in Britain (and its animated adaptation), Britons anachronistically practice rugby circa 50 BC and it's quite the kid-friendly Blood Sport. Once feeble Butt-Monkey player Hipiphurrax has been given some magic potion, the Camulodonum-Durovernum match quickly turns into a Curb-Stomp Battle. Although Durovernum are the first team to get on the scoreboard, the final score is a thoroughly lopsided Camulodunum DCCCIV (804), Durovernum III (3).


  • Llamedosian Rules Fifteen-A-Side Foot-The-Ball is explored as a sub-theme in A.A. Pessimal's tale Gap Year Adventures. The culture surrounding "llamedosian Rules" is viewed largely via the Springboeks, a side playing in the senior Ankh-Morpork league who are drawn from emigrants from Rimwards Howondaland. A game between the Bokkies and the Fourecksian Wallabies is discussed in detail. Other Ankh-Morpork teams mentioned are the Harlequins (Fools' Guild senior XV),note  the Wasps (Guild of Assassins),note  the Barbarians (Young Men's Pagan Association),note  and a representative team from the Foggy Islands that plays all in black. The sort of rousing songs players might give voice to are also discussed. One little ditty about Auntie Tina is quoted, with hand-gestures to get the point across to those who cannot speak Vondalaans. note 

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.