Rugby: When the ball goes into touch, a “line out” takes place, a little like a soccer throw in. Santa Monica Rugby Club


And while rugby might not have the razzamatazz of football or the en masse appeal of soccer, it is without a doubt one of the most thrilling team games to enjoy as a spectator.

In the first of a two part feature, we introduce you to the glorious game of rugby and give you a cheat-sheet of-sorts so you can impress your friends and colleagues by becoming an overnight wealth of information.

Even if you haven’t watched a game of rugby or know much about the sport, chances are you’ve at least heard of the New Zealand All Blacks and maybe even seen a clip of them performing the legendary Haka. And while rugby might not have the razzamatazz of football or the en masse appeal of soccer, it is without a doubt one of the most thrilling games to enjoy as a spectator.

Much like soccer, the Rugby World Cup is held every four years and the popularity of the sport is steadily growing worldwide. Yes, the USA has an international team, the Eagles and even a professional league. Sadly however, the sport is still fledgling and the Eagles didn’t qualify for this year’s World Cup. That said, the USA is set to host the tournament in 2031.

Meanwhile, the 2023 Rugby World Cup kicks off this coming Friday in Paris, France and frankly, we’re being treated to a sensational sports event as the opening game is between the two best teams in the world — France, the host nation and New Zealand.

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The New Zealand All Blacks are almost always the Best Team in The World, but change is inevitable and right now, they’re not the Best Team in The World. However, they are still the All Blacks, which means they will always be a formidable side. A little like the New England Patriots, the New York Yankees or Manchester United.

France, or Les Bleus, are looking the strongest they’ve been for quite a while. Not only do they have some of the best players, but they’re peaking at exactly the right time. As such, they’re actually the favorites going into the tournament and as the host nation they’ll want to stamp their authority on the competition early on. However, the chance to throw a spanner in the works is like a red flag to a bull for the All Blacks and they will equally want to upset proceedings.

The basics of rugby

While the shape of the ball may look a little bit like a football, that’s about where the similarities end. Rugby is played for two halves of 40 minutes with two teams, each consisting of 15 players. Eight substitute players are allowed and they can be brought on at any time.

With the exception of when a ball goes out of bounds – or “into touch” — and interaction by the referee for any number of reasons — the ball is live and can be competed for. So, for example, after a tackle and the ball is placed on the ground, both teams can and will compete for it, typically in what’s called a ruck.

Over the last two decades as rugby has grown in popularity, tweaks have been made to the rules, just like in most other sports, to make it even quicker. As such, with the exception of a few minutes spent setting up scrums, or penalty kicks or dealing with injured players, each half is more or less non-stop.

The other major difference to any other similar contact sport is that the ball cannot travel forward, unless it’s kicked: every pass must be backwards. In order to score, the ball must be grounded on or over the try line. If the ball is carried into the try zone, but not grounded, it is not a score. A try is worth five points and the subsequent conversion is worth two points.

The conversion kick is taken from a set distance away from the posts, in a line (perpendicular to the try line) that reflects where the player grounded the ball. This is why you’ll often see a player who has room to maneuver make an effort to ground the ball directly under the posts, to give the kicker the best chance possible. If an opposing, defending player manages to get a hand under the ball and thus prevents it from touching the grass, a try is not awarded.

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Penalties are common in rugby, but they are of a wide-ranging nature. An accidental knock forward of the ball will result in a penalty, albeit not a very severe one. An offside player will result in a penalty and also usually not a very severe one. A referee can and will also “play advantage” in an instance where he deems that the team currently defending has caused an infringement so the team with forward momentum is given a “free” opportunity to advance further, usually a distance of about 10 meters. Of course this varies from referee to referee.

One of the many wonderful things about the game of rugby is that no matter how tall or short, or large or small you might be, there is a position you can play. The starting team of 15 is divided into two subsets, forwards and backs. The forwards are typically the bigger, stronger and stockier players who compete for the ball when it’s on the ground. The backs are the speedier players that the forwards try to rifle the ball out to, once they’ve secured, or stolen possession.

Oh yes, rugby players don’t wear pads or helmets. These guys are carved out of wood. Eben Etzebeth for example, the South African number 4 (or “lock”) is a 6′ 8″, 258 lbs oak tree. He could run through the best defensive line the NFL has to offer and it would be like trying to stop a freight train with a barricade made of dental floss.

And within the game of rugby there are a number of set pieces, one of the most unique — and possibly most unusual — being the scrum. This is where all the forwards mesh together, in a 3-4-1 formation and basically just try to drive over the ball and push the other team out of the way. In old school rugby, this was much, much more of a significant set piece, but as the game has had to cater for both speed and player safety, the importance of the scrum has been downgraded just a little bit.

Every position has a role to play and one of the most important is that of Scrum Half, who wears the number 9 jersey. Every single ruck is formed after a tackle, the Scrum Half acts like a quarterback and must improvise, innovate and create opportunities, deciding on a course of action in just seconds based on where his players are on the pitch at that particular moment. Every ruck is like a line of scrimmage and it happens in quick succession time and time and time again throughout the course of the game.

Where to watch

Thankfully, most of the games are being played at weekends, although a few of them aren’t terribly conducive to Pacific Time. The three best places to watch are Ye Olde King’s Head (116 Santa Monica Blvd), O’Briens Irish Pub (2226 Wilshire Blvd) and Sonny McLean’s Irish Pub (2615 Wilshire Blvd). The King’s Head is showing every game that starts at 12 noon PT, but as Manager Lisa Powers says, the games that start at 4am might be a little trickier.

“Sadly, we won’t be showing the early morning games, because nobody really wants to eat at that time and obviously, we can’t serve alcohol. But we open at 10am and every game that starts after that, we’ll be showing. We’ll be serving breakfast and the beer will be cold,” Powers laughs. “We’ll be updating everything on Facebook and on our website, so that’s always the best place to check information.”

Grant Woods, owner of Sonny McLean’s Irish Pub, originally hails from New Zealand, so he’s happy if either the All Blacks or the Irish do well.

“We’re excited to have a Rugby World Cup that has a lot of hospitable viewing times – not like 2019 in Japan,” says Woods. “We’ll be showing everything we can and between my Irish Staff and myself a Kiwi, we should have some great rivalry. The Irish lads are pretty convinced they can pull this off being rated number one and all. On the other hand I do have to remind them that the All Black’s are the winningest sports team in the world with roughly a 75% win rate since 1904. All things considered, it’s going to be an incredible competition.”

Willy O’Sullivan, owner of O’Briens Pub, says he’ll be open for all the Ireland games. “Obviously I may not be opening for Fiji versus Japan or something like that, but I am opening for all of the Irish games, the first is against Romania at 6:30 in the morning, that’s on September 9. Plus two England games kick off at 8:45 am, so I suspect I’ll open for those.”

O’Briens is also the official home pub for Santa Monica’s mighty rugby club, the Dolphins and we look at their illustrious history in part two of this feature, on Tuesday. So, you can expect to find plenty of rugby fanatics there.

“And you know, if I get enough demand, if I get any phone calls asking about any of the earlier games, then I will open for them,” O’Sullivan says, adding, “I open the bar early for a lot of soccer matches at the weekend, so if there’s one then I’ll be open anyway.”

None of the pubs are charging door fees, thankfully, and each one offers quite a number of TV and projector screens. And in fact, over the whole of next weekend, there’s a wealth of World Cup rugby on. France v New Zealand kicks off at 12 noon on Friday, September 8. And the next day, Saturday 9, there are four matches on: Australia v Georgia, Ireland v Romania, Italy v Namibia and perhaps the biggest confrontation, England v Argentina.

Then on Sunday, September 10, Japan v Chile, the mighty South Africa take on underdogs Scotland while Wales will challenge the physical Fiji.

In the second part of this feature, out on Tuesday, we talk about the teams and players to watch out for…and look the already significant rugby presence in Santa Monica that you probably didn’t know was there.

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.