Rugby football originated at the English school of Rugby in the 19th century. There are two main varieties: rugby union and rugby league. The two varieties have different rules and different numbers of players; rugby union has 15 players a side (with a 7-a-side variant), and rugby league has 13 players a side (with 7-a-side and 9-a-side variants). Vestiges of the split can still be seen in England today, where the majority of rugby league teams are based in the north, and the majority of rugby union teams are based in the south.
These sports are mostly played and popular in countries that have been under strong British influence, but some other countries (notably France, Argentina and Italy) have also taken to one or both of them. While the sports are growing and there are leagues in many non-traditional rugby nations, the best players, national sides and leagues are still found in the countries discussed below.
Keen fans travel the world to watch Test matches (two national teams playing each other). Very keen fans travel even just to visit famous rugby stadiums when no games are being played.
In the 15-a-side version of rugby union, the New Zealand All Blacks have been the dominant national team for more than 100 years. Since 1987, England, the South African Springboks and Australian Wallabies have increasingly challenged their supremacy. The worldwide governing body for rugby union is World Rugby (WR), known as the International Rugby Board (IRB) between 1998 and November 2014.
Rugby union is generally played by 15 players a side, with two 40-minute halves. The goal is to advance the ball towards the in-goal area to score a try. Players may run with or kick the ball in any direction, but may only pass the ball backwards or horizontally.
A try is scored when a player enters the in-goal area with the ball and places it on the ground, or when a player catches the ball in the in-goal area and places it on the ground, and is worth five points. Unlike in American football, the ball must be placed on the ground in order for a try to be scored (dropping the ball does not count). The team that scored the try may then attempt to kick the ball through the goal posts for a conversion, which is worth an additional two points. Alternatively, players may kick the ball through the goal posts during open play, which is known as a drop goal, or from a penalty, which is known as a penalty goal, both of which are worth 3 points.
- Rugby World Cup: A WR event held every four years with 20 countries competing each time. The next World Cup will be in Japan in 2019.
- Six Nations Championship: Annual event involving national teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Not directly operated by WR, but is sanctioned by that body.
- The Rugby Championship: The Southern Hemisphere's equivalent to the Six Nations. Founded as the Tri Nations Series in 1996 and originally involving the national teams of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it adopted its current name in 2012 when Argentina joined the competition. Like the Six Nations, sanctioned by WR but not directly operated by it; it is instead run by a body known as SANZAAR, consisting of the national federations of the competition's participating countries.
- World Rugby Sevens Series: An annual series, expanding from nine events to 10 for the 2015–16 season, sanctioned by WR for national teams in the sevens variant of rugby union, with 7 players per side on a full-sized field and halves of 7 minutes (10 minutes in championship finals). The season starts in October and ends in May. Due to the greater spacing of players, game play is very fast-paced.
- European Rugby Champions Cup: Europe's top club competition, featuring 20 teams from the Six Nations countries. The organisation that runs this competition also operates the second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup, featuring 20 teams from both within and outside the Six Nations (but mostly within).
- Super Rugby: The top Southern Hemisphere club competition, operated by SANZAAR and involving franchised regional/provincial sides from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, plus franchised national sides from Argentina (playing in Buenos Aires) and Japan (splitting its home matches between Tokyo and Singapore).
- British and Irish Lions tours: A combined side from the four "Home Nations" of rugby union—England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales—assembles every four years, in the year after the Summer Olympics (also the middle year of a Rugby World Cup cycle), to tour one of the three traditional Southern Hemisphere powers, rotating in order between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The Lions will typically play two or three warm-up matches against invitational or international teams before arriving in the host country. While there, they play three matches against the host's full national team, always on a weekend, and several "mid-week" matches against regional or other specialty teams from that country (such as Super Rugby sides, or when in New Zealand the Māori All Blacks, a side made up of players from the country's indigenous Māori people). The last tour was to Australia in 2013, and the next one will be to New Zealand in 2017.
Argentina does not have a dedicated national stadium; the Pumas play at venues around the country. Several stadiums, all built for soccer, see frequent use:
- Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires. Normally home to the soccer club Vélez Sarsfield, but for many years was the unofficial home of the Pumas. Now full-time home to the Jaguares, the country's new entry in Super Rugby.
- Estadio Ciudad de La Plata. A considerably more modern stadium that has hosted most of the Pumas' highest-profile home matches in recent years.
- Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza.
- Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena in Salta.
- Estadio Monumental José Fierro in Tucumán. The city is notable as one of the heartlands of Argentine rugby union, along with Buenos Aires.
Australia does not have a dedicated national stadium; the Wallabies play at venues around the country. The most frequently used stadiums include the following:
- Stadium Australia (commercially known as ANZ Stadium) in Sydney Olympic Park. The main stadium of the 2000 Summer Olympics, it features movable seating that allows it to convert from an oval stadium for cricket and Australian rules football to a rectangular one for the rugby codes and soccer.
- Docklands Stadium (commercially Etihad Stadium) in the Melbourne Docklands, just west of the city centre. A retractable-roof stadium built mainly for Australian rules, but like Stadium Australia has movable seating to accommodate rectangular-field sports.
- Lang Park (commercially Suncorp Stadium) in Brisbane. The largest rectangular stadium in the country.
- Sydney Football Stadium (commercially Allianz Stadium) in Sydney's Moore Park about 3 km/2 miles southeast of the city centre. Starting with the 2015–16 series, this will become home to the Australia event in the World Rugby Sevens Series for international men's rugby sevens teams.
- Subiaco Oval (commercially Domain Stadium) in Perth.
- Canberra Stadium (commercially GIO Stadium Canberra) in the neighbourhood of Bruce.
- Robina Stadium (commercially cbus Super Stadium) in Gold Coast.
One less frequently used stadium of note is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, located just east of the city centre. It's the country's largest stadium, the country's cricket mecca, and the spiritual home of Australian rules football.
Australia has five franchises in Super Rugby:
- Brumbies, representing Canberra and southern New South Wales, playing at Canberra Stadium.
- Melbourne Rebels, representing Victoria and playing at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (commercially AAMI Park).
- New South Wales Waratahs, representing the rest of New South Wales. The primary home is Sydney Football Stadium, with Stadium Australia as a secondary home.
- Queensland Reds, representing that state and playing at Lang Park.
- Western Force, representing Perth and Western Australia, with home games at the Perth Oval (commercially nib Stadium).
The main domestic competition is the National Rugby Championship, with nine teams in all. Sydney hosts three teams, and Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Canberra each host single teams. The ninth team is branded as "New South Wales Country", representing NSW outside Sydney, and takes its home matches to several venues around the state.
- Twickenham in South West London has the country's largest rugby stadium and hosts many international events.
- The country's top club league is the Premiership (not to be confused with the Premier League of association football), known for sponsorship reasons as the Aviva Premiership. It consists of 12 clubs, most of them located in the southern two-thirds of the country.
- Stade de France (French for "Stadium of France") in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis is the main home for the French rugby team. The country's governing body takes the team around the country to host visiting national teams in November, but all Six Nations home matches are held at Stade de France.
- France's top club competition, the Top 14, is the world's richest professional league in either rugby code, slightly ahead of Australia's National Rugby League in rugby league. Most of the clubs are located in the southern half of the country; the only current exceptions are two clubs in Paris and its immediate area.
- There is one national side for the whole island of Ireland, with players from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. The home stadium is the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin.
- Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Italy share one single professional league, known as Pro12 (from the number of teams). Ireland has four teams in the league, each representing and named after one of the traditional provinces of Ireland—Leinster (Dublin), Munster (most games in Limerick, with some in Cork), Ulster (Belfast), and Connacht (Galway).
- The Italian national team has usually been at the bottom of the Six Nations since entering that competition in 2000, but has steadily become more competitive. Similarly to France, the country's governing body takes the team around the country to host visiting national teams in November, but all Six Nations home matches are held at Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
- Italy has two teams in Pro12—Benetton Treviso and Zebre, playing in Parma.
New Zealand does not have a dedicated national stadium; the All Blacks play at venues around the country.
- The top stadium is Eden Park in Auckland. The All Blacks are almost unbeatable there (as of the end of 2014, they have not lost a game at Eden Park since 1994).
- The biggest seven-a-side tournament in New Zealand is held at Wellington Regional Stadium, commercially known as Westpac Stadium and nicknamed the "Cake Tin", in Wellington – it is also the main Wellington venue for 15-a-side games.
Other regularly used stadiums include:
- Waikato Stadium, commercially known as FMG Stadium Waikato, in Hamilton
- Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin
- Rugby League Park, commercially known as AMI Stadium, in Christchurch. It's not to be confused with the former AMI stadium, historically known as Lancaster Park, which was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake.
New Zealand has five franchises in Super Rugby:
- Blues, representing Auckland and points to the north; most matches are held at Eden Park.
- Chiefs, representing the central North Island, including the Waikato. Most matches are at Waikato Stadium.
- Crusaders, representing the northern two-thirds of the South Island, playing mostly at Rugby League Park.
- Highlanders, representing the Otago and Southland regions and playing mainly at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
- Hurricanes, representing the greater Wellington region, with most home games at Westpac Stadium.
The main domestic competition is the Mitre 10 Cup, which is split into the top-level Premier Division and second-level Championship Division.
- The New Zealand Rugby Museum is in Palmerston North.
- Murrayfield Stadium in West Edinburgh, commercially known as BT Murrayfield but almost always called just "Murrayfield", is home to the Scottish rugby team.
- Scotland has two teams in Pro12—Edinburgh Rugby and the Glasgow Warriors.
Like most Southern Hemisphere countries, South Africa has no national rugby stadium. The Springboks play home matches, both in The Rugby Championship and against other touring national teams, at several stadiums around the country. The most frequently used stadiums include:
- Ellis Park Stadium (commercially known as Emirates Airline Park) in Johannesburg
- Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria
- Newlands (commercially DHL Newlands) in Cape Town
- Kings Park Stadium (commercially Growthpoint Kings Park) in Durban
- Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth
- Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein
As of the current 2016 Super Rugby season, South Africa has six franchises in that competition.
- Bulls, representing Pretoria and points north, playing at Loftus Versfeld.
- Cheetahs, representing Free State and playing at Free State Stadium.
- Kings, representing the Eastern Cape, became a permanent part of Super Rugby in 2016. They play at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
- Lions, representing most of the Johannesburg area and playing at Ellis Park.
- Sharks, representing KwaZulu–Natal and playing at Kings Park.
- Stormers, representing the Western and Northern Cape, but mostly Cape Town, and playing at Newlands.
The major domestic competition is the Currie Cup, which is split into two divisions. The top level is known as the Premier Division.
- The Millennium Stadium (commercially known as Principality Stadium) in Cardiff is home to the Welsh rugby team.
- Wales has four teams in Pro12—the Cardiff Blues, the Newport Gwent Dragons, the Ospreys (playing in Swansea), and the Scarlets (from Llanelli).
Rugby league enjoys less popularity worldwide than rugby union, but is a popular code (rule variant) in some countries:
The rules for rugby league are, for the most part, very similar to those of rugby union. However, there are several significant differences, which makes it much faster paced and arguably more exciting to watch than rugby union. Each team consists of 13 players on the field, and each game is divided into two 40-minute halves. Each team is allowed to be tackled up to five times before they are required to score, failing which the ball is turned over to the opposing team on the sixth tackle. In this, it is arguably somewhat similar to American football, but unlike that sport, Rugby League disallows any forward passes and has less specialized positions.
Where rugby league truly differs from rugby union, though, is in its scoring system. In rugby league, a try is worth four points, a conversion is worth two points, a penalty goal is worth two points, and a drop goal is only worth one point.
Australia is probably the only major country in which rugby league is more popular than rugby union. After Aussie rules football and cricket, this is probably the game that's most attended by crowds of spectators, and it is the most popular spectator sport in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. The National Rugby League (NRL) administers the most popular annual competition, the Telstra Premiership. For the past few years, there have been 15 Australian teams and a sole New Zealand team, the Warriors, based in Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, competing for this cup. After a league season of 26 rounds, with each team playing 24 matches, the top eight teams advance to a playoff (known locally as a "finals series") that culminates in the NRL Grand Final at Stadium Australia in Sydney. The World Club Challenge is an annual match played between the champion club of the Australian National Rugby League and the top club of the European Super League competitions, where it usually ends up with an English side battling the Aussies.
However, arguably the biggest event in Australian rugby league is the State of Origin series, an annual series of three matches between teams representing rugby league's two leading states of New South Wales and Queensland. Player eligibility depends mainly on the state in which each player first played senior rugby league, with the state of birth being a secondary factor. Additionally, State of Origin players must be eligible to represent Australia internationally. Matches are usually held in Sydney and Brisbane, and sometimes in Melbourne; sellouts are a virtual certainty, and the series draws some of the biggest TV ratings for any Australian sporting event. Many observers consider State of Origin matches even more competitive than international matches.
The Australian Women's Rugby League is quite successful internationally where they're known as the Jillaroos.
Most support tends to be concentrated in Northern England with some of the most successful teams concentrated within the old boundaries of the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire and coming from Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Salford, St Helens, Wakefield, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan.
The top competition is Super League, consisting of 12 teams. Currently, 11 of the teams are in the English game's heartland of Northern England; the other is from Perpignan in France. The league's championship match, the Super League Grand Final, is held at Old Trafford in Manchester, better known as the home of the storied association football club Manchester United.
Papua New Guinea
Here it's the national game and attracts highly partisan crowds with fierce fights sometimes erupting amongst spectators. The death and injury rate has dissuaded overseas clubs from playing here despite the obvious local enthusiasm.
Rugby league was only introduced into Tonga in 1986 with the staging of the Pacific Cup in Rarotonga. In 1988 the national side played its first Test match against Western Samoa in Apia. Since then Tonga has played regularly against Pacific Islands nations and, on a less regular basis, against top nations such as England, France and New Zealand.