Few readers caught up in the wild ribaldry of Author Clive Gammon's account of a Welsh rugby team invading Paris (page 58) will pause to worry much about the rules of the game they were there to play. Yet there is a persistent confusion in the minds of many Americans—to whom football is a simple matter of 50-yard lines and half-time bands—over just what the game of rugby consists of and just how it differs from American football, from soccer, from Irish football, from something called Australian rules and from all the other versions of kick-the-can played with an inflated bladder.
To clear up this confusion in my own mind, I asked Associate Editor Gwilym Brown, our London correspondent, to cable a concise explanation. "In the first place," he answered, "there is not one but two forms of rugby: rugby league is a professional sport. It was the game played by Richard Harris in the brawling, drinking, wenching movie This Sporting Life, and it is played mostly in the northern English counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland by and for working men.
"Rugby union, on the other hand, is an amateur game, the game played with such manly gentility by Army Quarterback Pete Dawkins when he came to Oxford back in 1960. Except in Wales, where it ranks well ahead of soccer as the national sport, rugby union is pretty much of 'an upper-and middle-class' game. Outside of using an oblate ball, which bears a vague resemblance to the kind used in the U.S., neither rugby has much in common—besides ancestry—with the game Pete Dawkins played at West Point. Both of them had their beginnings at Rugby School when (one afternoon in 1823, according to accepted legend) a senior named William Ellis got tired of just kicking a football and decided to pick it up and run with it.
"Today one descendant of that iconoclastic moment, rugby union, is played with 15 men on a side. Its sibling, rugby league, uses 13 men. There are other differences as well. In union when a ballcarrier is tackled, he must release the ball onto the ground, where it becomes a fair target for possession by either side. The result is usually one of those scrums or line-outs that American football fans watching rugby find so bewildering.
"In rugby league, however, a team can retain possession of the ball through four consecutive tackles (cf. the four downs of American football). At each tackle, the ballcarrier leaves the ball on the ground but after getting up he scuffs it back to a teammate racing behind. The result is less stoppage of play and more back-and-forth flow as in soccer or hockey.
"Rugby league revolves around 30 pro clubs that, from August through April, play an elaborate schedule of 34 regular-season games, an elimination tournament of the top 16 finishers and another tournament involving all 30 teams plus two outside teams that culminates in the Challenge Cup.
"Rugby union play covers roughly the same season, but its organization is a complex and informal honeycomb of teams on the school, club, county and national levels. Unlike fiercely competitive rugby league, rugby union is played mostly for the fun of it, for the fun of the play and the fun of the rowdy companionship before and after the game. The bitter rivalries of rugby league are as much an object of unionist disdain as its professionalism, and there are some cases of former union stars being banned from their clubs after signing on to play league.
"The best union club players will sometimes play for their county, and the best county players will also play for their country (meaning England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) in test matches against each other or foreign teams. This is the highest level of play for all rugby union players. Such a match was that between France and Wales."