New Zealand plays South Africa in our home base of Paris this weekend for the Rugby World Cup. To many, rugby is incomprehensible. Here’s all you need to know.

Players scrum during the Rugby World Cup semifinal match between England and South Africa at the Stade de France in October 2023.

Players scrum during the Rugby World Cup semifinal match between England and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, 21 October 2023. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in advance of the 2015 Rugby World Cup match. In that game, played on 31 October 2015, New Zealand’s All Blacks beat Australia’s Wallabies. This weekend, New Zealand will take on South Africa’s Springboks, a rematch of the historic game played in 1995 that gave the new post-apartheid South Africa the cup. We felt this the perfect time to launch our new feature, Decoder Replay, to help readers better understand current world events by seeing how our correspondents decoded similar events in the past. Note that where the author identifies current rankings, the references are to the 2015 standings.

This article was produced exclusively for News Decoder’s global news service. It is through articles like this that News Decoder strives to provide context to complex global events and issues and teach global awareness through the lens of journalism. Learn how you can incorporate our resources and services into your classroom or educational program. 

Q: When did rugby begin and where?

The official account of rugby’s origins is literally set in stone on a wall by a playing field at Rugby School in England’s west midlands.

The inscription immortalizes William Webb Ellis “who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. AD 1823.”

As with many deceptively simple sporting legends, the reality is more complicated. Records exist from Roman times of teams competing to carry a large ball into an opposing goal, and there are accounts of similar games involving an inflated pig’s bladder in medieval Ireland and later in England, Wales and Scotland.

What is certain is that Rugby School took the lead among the public schools in establishing the rules, gave its name to the new game and retrospectively credited Webb Ellis for its invention.

Plaque commemorating the beginning of Rugby.

William Webb Ellis commemorative plaque at Warwickshire, England. The inscription says: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Q: How did the game evolve and spread?

The first international game was staged between England and Scotland in Edinburgh on March 27, 1871.

In both these countries the game was played predominantly, if not exclusively, in the public schools and in associated clubs for former pupils where grass fields were available, essential to cushion the impact of bodies crashing to the ground in an often brutal contact sport.

Soccer, by contrast, could be played by anybody on any surface, including the streets in the expanding industrial cities, and it quickly became the national sport in the British Isles, apart from Wales where rugby was embraced by all sectors of society.

Rugby spread to Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa, where it became the game of choice for the Afrikaners.

British residents introduced rugby to France, and it subsequently established itself as the primary winter sport in the south.

Q: What is the difference between rugby union and rugby league?

Rugby union is the major world sport, played by 15 players a side. The rival rugby league code originated in 1895 after a dispute over clubs’ demands for player payments, which were resisted by the resolutely amateur rugby union authorities.

As a result of the impasse, several of the powerful northern England clubs broke away and formed professional rugby league with 13 players a side and rules which encouraged running with the ball rather than kicking.

Rugby league is still popular in the north of England but barely features internationally apart from Australia, where it is the dominant sport in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, and in New Zealand where it is played primarily in the country’s largest city of Auckland.

Rugby union authorities in Australia also have to contend with the attraction of Australian Rules Football, a spectacular running and kicking game that is the predominant winter sport in the states of Victoria and South Australia.

Q: What are the main rugby union tournaments?

The annual Six Nations championship features the teams of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France and Italy who play each other once at the start of the calendar year.

Ireland are the current champions while England and Wales are the joint record holders for the number of outright top places in all three versions of the tournament.

Its southern hemisphere equivalent is the Rugby Championship in which New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina play each other annually both at home and away. Australia were the 2015 champions.

Q: What is the World Cup?

The first World Cup to decide an official world champion was staged in New Zealand and Australia in 1987 with four pools of four teams playing for the Webb Ellis Cup.

South Africa, who had vied with New Zealand for world supremacy during most of the 20th century, were excluded because of an international sporting boycott as a result of apartheid, their racial separation policies. New Zealand beat France 29-9 in the final at Auckland’s Eden Park.

Six further tournaments have been staged at four-yearly intervals with Australia winning in 1991 and 1999, South Africa in 1995 and 2007, England in 2003 and New Zealand again in 2011.

The 2015 tournament, which is being played throughout England with five games at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, comprises four pools of five teams each.

The first two in each pool advance to the quarter-finals on Oct. 17-18 and the winners will play in the semi-finals on Oct. 24-25 at Twickenham in southwest London, where the final will be staged on Oct. 31.

Q: Who are the favorites?

New Zealand, known as the All Blacks because of their black uniforms, have dominated international rugby since the game went professional in 1995.

The All Blacks start favorites again, but they and their prospective opponents know that if New Zealand have an indifferent game and the opposition raise their levels accordingly, anything can happen in the knockout stages.

France have been a particular threat, recording a wonderful comeback after appearing down and out at halftime to win their semi-final at Twickenham in 1999 and then beating New Zealand again in the quarter-finals in Cardiff in 2007.

Q: What to look for?

Rugby’s enduring problem is the endlessly complicated rules which can depend on the referee’s interpretation of whether or not a player has infringed.

Consequently games can degenerate into a sequence of penalties that puzzle spectators and players alike.

Happily the refereeing appears to have been consistent in the 2015 tournament. There has been plenty of open play in the group matches, most notably in Japan’s 34-32 win over South Africa in arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history.

Japan, who will host the 2019 tournament, have played in each World Cup so far but prior to the South Africa game had won once only and drawn twice.

They were beaten 145-17 by New Zealand in 1995.

questions to consider:

  1. How did rugby evolve into an international sport?
  2. How does rugby differ from American or world football?
  3. International sports are so competitive. Do you think they divide peoples of different nations more than they bring them together?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

John Mehaffey has worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.

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SportsDecoder Replay: Let’s demystify rugby
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