Football may be the main opiate of the masses as far as sport is concerned but rugby union is not far behind. The traditional code of the game, rugby union has been played in the UK for around 200 years and remains one of the leading professional team sports to catch live.
No matter whether you’ve only caught a glimpse of rugby on television or whether you’ve never even seen a game before, there are plenty of reasons why it’s worth considering getting into rugby union. Here is our beginners’ guide to rugby union and how you can catch a glimpse of the action.
How does Rugby Union work?
Rugby union features two teams of 15 players using an oval-shaped ball. The teams try to score more points than their opposition and the team that has most points at the end of the game wins!
There are three ways teams can score points: a try (5 points, followed by an extra 2 points if it is followed up with a successful ‘conversion kick’); a successful penalty kick (3 points) or a drop goal (also 3 points).
Games are divided into 40-minute halves, with a break in the middle. Unlike football, the referee stops the clock when the ball goes out of play so when you pay to watch 80 minutes of rugby, 80 minutes is what you actually get!
In knock-out matches, two 10-minute periods of extra time are played if the game is tied after full-time. If scores are level after 100 minutes then 20 minutes of sudden-death extra time are played, with a kicking competition used to decide the winner if the deadlock still can’t be broken.
At the highest level, deadlocks are extremely rare – no match in the history of the Rugby World Cup has ever gone to sudden-death extra time. The 2003 Rugby World Cup final between England and Australia came close to that until England’s fly-half Jonny Wilkinson scored a last minute drop goal to win the match with seconds left in normal extra-time.
What competitions are there in rugby union?
Like football, rugby is divided into domestic and international competition, with many countries hosting their own competition for domestic rugby clubs.
England’s top-level rugby division, the Premiership, features twelve teams with one team being relegated and another promoted at the end of each season. The division runs from September to May with all twelve teams playing each other twice. The top four teams enter the end-of-season play-off, with the winner being crowned Premiership Champions.
Top-level clubs also compete in domestic and European knock-out competition. Premiership clubs also challenge for the domestic Premiership Rugby Cup, while top English sides compete in the European Rugby Champions Cup or the European Rugby Challenge Cup, the second-tier continental competition.
On the international scene, perhaps the two largest tournaments are the Six Nations – contested between England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy – and the biggest competition of all, the Rugby World Cup, which only takes place quadrennially (every four years).
What are the biggest rugby union matches and where can I catch them?
While you can catch most Premiership games at teams’ home grounds, the biggest games of the season tend to take place at Twickenham, the 82,000 capacity stadium in London that serves as the sport’s national stadium and the home of the English national rugby union team.
The Premiership season traditionally opens at Twickenham with the London Double Header, two games back-to-back featuring at least two London sides. Throughout the season Twickenham is also the site of other huge games including The Big Game – a game hosted by Harlequins at Christmas time – and The Clash, a game featuring Bath Rugby which takes place over the Easter weekend.
Just some of the famous club grounds include Allianz Park, home of Saracens; Ashton Gate, home of Bristol Bears; and Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers. These grounds often host derby matches between teams from the same region so some of these games will be spicy!
Who are the biggest teams?
Since the Premiership’s inception in 1987, Leicester Tigers boast the most Premiership wins, having lifted the trophy 10 times. Below Leicester, Bath and Exeter Chiefs have both won the title 6 times. In the 2010s, Saracens have been an emerging force – the Londoners have won four of the last eight Premierships and three of the last four.
Internationally, the top ten teams in the World Rugby Rankings at the time of writing are New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, England, South Africa, Scotland, Australia, France, Argentina and Fiji. Italy are the only Six Nations team not to feature in the top ten so it just goes to show the high level of Six Nations rugby.
How much does it cost?
Tickets for Premiership matches depend on the club. According to Ruck, average adult matchday ticket prices vary between £12 at Newcastle Falcons to £36 at Bath. As you’d expect, tickets to watch England play at Twickenham are the most sought after and the most expensive.
Of course, everyone knows that catching live sport is an even better experience when you can get the beers in. In 2014 research by Seatwave found that the average price of a pint of beer at rugby stadiums across the UK was £3.92 – not bad considering that rugby union is a mainly southern sport.
That sounds great. How can I buy a ticket?