Women’s rugby union is an exciting and inclusive sport to get involved with. It’s also growing in popularity, with more women than ever before stepping onto the pitch and experiencing it at a grassroots level. The professional game also continues to go from strength to strength. That’s thanks to the visibility and representation shown in the women’s Premiership and on the international stage. If you’re feeling inspired, I’ll explore how to play women’s rugby in more detail in this post.
I first got involved with women’s rugby a few years ago, and since then it’s become a big part of my life. As a complete beginner back then, one of my main worries was not understanding how to play the game. I also feared getting injured, but I’ve since learned how to avoid and manage that.
Playing rugby isn’t as complicated as it might look, once you’ve got your head around it. You’ll want to make sure you get the right kit for training and potentially games. However, if you’re new to team sports or simply haven’t played since school, you might want to get up to speed on the fundamentals of the game first.
How to play women’s rugby
To understand how to play women’s rugby, a few basic concepts need to be hardwired into your thinking. I’ll try to keep this as concise as possible because really, you just need to go and give it a go.
For that reason, I’m not going to break down the rules in their entirety either. This guide will just tell you what you need to know as a beginner, alongside some advice I’ve gathered from my coaches and teammates over the years. Don’t worry too much about the rules of the game at this point. The most important thing is to see if you enjoy the nuts and bolts of the gameplay.
Overthinking the details of how to play might create more worries or reasons for you to put off turning up at your local club. So, with that in mind, take the advice here and don’t worry too much about the fine print. Just head down there and see how you get on, regardless. To find your nearest team, check out how to get involved in the following countries in the UK and Ireland.
In rugby, you play by carrying the ball and running with it. You work together as a team to score points in the opposition’s goal area. There’s some kicking involved, but it’s fairly minimal compared to football, for example. As a beginner, you mainly need to understand these fundamental concepts to become more confident.
Run forwards, pass backwards
This is the game at its core. You need to be running forward, preferably at a decent speed, when you’ve got hold of the ball. However, you can only pass it to someone who is running behind you. So, “run forwards, pass backwards” doesn’t mean you have to turn around and launch it back through the air. It simply means you can’t pass it to anyone who’s running in front of you.
What you’ll end up learning to do is a kind of sideways but backward pass to your teammate who’ll be following closely behind you. It’ll take a bit of practice, but passing laterally like this will soon become second nature. If you pass the ball forward, the referee will stop the game and your team will have to give the ball to the opposition.
You don’t need to be looking over your shoulder the whole time that you’re running forward. With training and teamwork, you’ll learn to listen out for your teammates as they follow behind you while you’re running. The name for this is “support players” – basically some of your teammates who are there to provide support for when you need to pass the ball to them.
Stay behind the ball
When you’re not used to playing rugby, it’s very easy to run so fast that you end up in front of the person with the ball. You’ll need to practice running without overtaking the ball carrier. If you’re in front of the ball, the person carrying it can’t pass it to you. If they did, it’d be a “forward pass” and the referee would give the ball to the other team.
Learning to time and control your running speed so that you stay behind the ball is a key skill. It’s one you’ll practice a lot in training though, so don’t worry too much. Just try and remember to stay behind the ball carrier and not overtake them.
Look in the direction of your pass
When you pass the ball, make sure you look exactly in the direction of where you want it to go. Look at the person you’re passing to and fix your eyes on their hands. Try to pass cleanly and efficiently in that direction, whilst you continue to run forwards.
You want to try and direct the ball to where you want it to end up as much as possible. There’s a nack to lateral passing in rugby that’s different from netball or basketball, for example. Passing with direction and purpose is always better than throwing it as hard as you can and hoping for the best.
Eyes on the ball, hands ready
When I first started playing, I was absolutely horrendous at catching the ball. If it’s not something you’ve practised for a long time, it might be worth brushing up on your catching technique.
When playing rugby, you want to learn to keep your eyes on the ball at all times. If you can see it, you can go and get it. If you’re watching it coming straight at you, you’ll have a better chance of catching it cleanly. Get your hands ready to catch it as soon as you know it’s coming your way.
Keeping your eyes on the ball is really important, but so is scanning the pitch to see where you can exploit gaps in the other team’s defence. Look around when you can, but to begin with, keep an eye on where the ball is and make sure you’re hands are up and ready if it starts heading to you.
Tackle below the waist
All players must learn how to tackle, regardless of their position on the field. The strangest part about learning how to play rugby for me was getting used to being so physically close to other women in terms of tackling. You’re essentially getting very up close and personal with them when you learn how to tackle them, but you get over any awkwardness really quickly.
To start with, I kept saying “sorry!” every time I touched or tagged someone! You get over that fast though, so don’t worry about it. Everyone’s there to learn, have fun and play the game, so there are no real inhibitions after a while.
What matters is that you put your all into your tackle technique. Drop your body as low as you can and wrap your arms tightly around your opponent’s legs to bring them to the ground. It’s basically a really strong waist-and-below-level cuddle. You’ll work on it a lot but the most important thing is not to do it half-heartedly. Commit to the tackle and you’re far less likely to injure yourself by holding back.
You’ll practice tackling loads during training and your coach will know when you’re ready to go for it for real, so just give it a try.
Training and teamwork
You’ll really learn how to play women’s rugby in your training sessions. That’s the best time to get to know your teammates. This is vitally important because teamwork is a crucial part of playing rugby.
Ultimately, rugby is a team sport. The game simply doesn’t work well and isn’t as enjoyable if you’re not all working together. You’ll need to learn how to trust and rely on your teammates as you develop your rugby skills during training. They’re the people who will protect you physically during games and who you’ll need to learn how to communicate effectively with.
You’ll meet women from all different walks of life and you’ll get to know how they play the game alongside you. Training is brilliant for developing your teamwork skills as well as forming new friendships.
Don’t worry if you’re naturally introverted. Rugby’s a really inclusive sport that has a role for all sorts of personalities, so give training a go with an open mind.
There are fifteen positions in a rugby team. These are divided into two groups; the “forwards” and the “backs”. To begin with, don’t worry too much about specific positions. Getting your head around the roles that forwards and backs play on the pitch is the main thing. The rest of the positional stuff will come later.
The forwards make up the first eight numbered positions in the team. Their job is to carry the ball forward using strength and momentum to gain possession and score tries. They do a great deal of defensive work too, and enjoy tackling and protecting the ball with their physicality. Forwards can drive the game ahead through raw strength but can be less inclined towards running and passing across long distances than backs are.
The forwards are the group of players who form the scrum and lineout, rugby’s main set pieces. Don’t worry about that as a beginner though, you’ll learn how to do them both if you decide to play as a forward.
The backs make up the remaining numbered positions in the team. Their job is to use speed, agility and kicking to co-ordinate different passing moves and score tries at pace.
Backs are often players who enjoy running with the ball and covering large distances quickly. They also use their skills to scan the field for weaknesses in the opposition’s defence and control the game with strong communication and leadership. For now, though, all you need to really know is that backs are more inclined to run and pass across longer distances to score tries.
You’ll have an opportunity to try out whichever position you think is right for you when your coach feels you’re ready for it.
Set pieces in rugby are just specific sets of moves that you’ll do as part of the game. They happen when the game restarts after any kind of stoppage. This is usually when the game starts at each half and after points have been scored, or when the ball is kicked into touch (outside the lines of the pitch).
They also take place when there’s been an infringement such as a forward pass or if the ball’s been dropped or knocked forward.
The three set pieces you’ll learn are as follows.
- Kickoff – the ball is kicked towards the opposite team at the beginning of each half of the game to start play. A kickoff also happens after a team scores points with a try and a conversion (a kick through the posts) attempt.
- Lineout – this happens when the ball lands outside the boundaries of the pitch. Both teams will form a line at the point where the ball went out of bounds, and it’ll be thrown back in by a player from the team who wasn’t responsible for it going out. At this point, players in both lines will jump up in the air and try to catch the ball. Whoever wins the lineout then gains possession of the ball and play continues.
- Scrum – this happens when there’s a forward pass, knocked forward ball or other infringement that the referee decides has occurred. Both sets of forwards link together to form a pack over the ball, which is fed in for them to contest over.
In rugby, you score points primarily by bringing the ball to your opposition’s in-goal area and touching it down onto the grass. This is called a try. You have to ground the ball with downward pressure on the grass in order to score a try; you cannot just drop it down. If you do, it won’t count and your teammates won’t be too happy!
A try is scored as long as the ball is grounded on or over the try line. A try is worth five points.
After a try is scored, it can be “converted” with a kick at goal. If the ball is kicked through the centre of the posts, this is called a conversion and will add another two points to the score, to make seven total points. If the conversion is missed, the try will still count and your team will keep the five points.
Etiquette and sportsmanship
You can’t research how to play women’s rugby without understanding the game’s etiquette. Rugby has a strict code of discipline and values that apply at all levels of the sport. From the grassroots to the professional game, these values are deeply ingrained into rugby culture. Respect and good sportsmanship are expected at all times. Aside from following the rules of the game, rugby demands certain standards of behaviour.
Check out this recent video from the women’s team at the University of Manchester to get an idea about the benefits of playing as a team and the core rugby values.
Match officials, and in particular the referee in rugby must be spoken to politely and shown respect at all times. In fact, there’s usually only one player on the team allowed to speak to the referee at all during a game. Equally, rugby players show good sportsmanship towards their opposition. Games usually end with handshakes, three cheers for the opposition team and a walkthrough tunnel for each team to congratulate their opponents for the match.
Regardless of results, rugby players cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect, good discipline and enjoyment of the sport.
Fitness and injuries
If you’re worried about how to play women’s rugby at your current fitness level, try to relax. You don’t know how fit you really are until you give it a go! It’s true that rugby is physically demanding. However, you’ll find that your fitness level improves naturally through regular training.
Different players have different strengths and areas for improvement. Your coach will work with you to help you understand the kind of fitness training you’ll benefit from.
There’s plenty you can do to improve your fitness for rugby outside of training. Staying as active as possible is key, especially with the sedentary lifestyles most of us lead these days. Making time for a regular jog or run will make a big difference. You could also do some basic strength and conditioning exercises to help your muscles get used to their new rugby-playing lifestyle!
What’s important is that you stay consistent with your fitness efforts. It can be a lot for your body to go from one game to the next without any kind of exercise in between. Keeping on top of things with stretching and yoga is also useful.
Training your body to understand how to play women’s rugby is one of the best ways to avoid injuries. That means regular practice of core skills such as running, passing, catching and tackling, plus stretching and strengthening where possible.
Ready to give it a try?
Hopefully, this guide has given you a better idea of how to play women’s rugby. The best thing to do is to give it a go and see how you like it, and not get too caught up on the rules and details. If you decide it’s something you enjoy, you can stick with it and develop further.
If you’ve got any questions about playing rugby or joining a women’s team, let me know in the comments below. I’ll try to answer them as best I can. Also, if you’ve found this post helpful then please give it a share and help the women’s game keep growing.