Gridiron is a game of short periods of frenetic action, all of which is, at least in theory, carefully planned. Rugby, however, hardly ever stops, except when the ball goes out of play, a penalty is called, or someone scores. It is normal to see play continuing while medical staff are on the pitch tending to an injured player. There is no time for players to catch their breath, and tactical decisions have to be made on the fly. This makes for a much faster, more exciting game, but also a lot more errors and turnovers.
In gridiron the main source of flowing movement is the forward pass. In rugby forward passes are forbidden, and the main source of movement is the lateral pass. How come, you may ask, isn’t that dangerous? Don’t they keep losing the ball? Well sometimes, but rugby players have much better ball handling skills than gridiron players (who don’t need to use them so much). Everyone has to be able to pass and catch. Also, blocking is illegal in open play (see The Scrum and Rucks & Mauls for when it is sort of legal). The idea is that the ball carrier attracts tacklers, and his colleagues running off the ball create space by luring markers away. If the ball can be offloaded safely, preferably at the moment of the tackle when defenders are committed, the new ball carrier may be able to burst through the defensive lines. Of course with no way of blocking the ball carrier from being tackled there are lots of hits. It can get a bit violent.
Because rugby doesn’t stop, it is difficult to define a down, and impossible to measure whether a team has made 10 yards. Therefore a team may keep the ball as long as it likes. However, if it is obvious that no progress is being made the team with the ball may elect to punt. Getting good field position is often more important than retaining possession. The ball stays live after the punt, so you can try to recover it and play on.
With so few stoppages, you can’t keep changing personnel. In rugby the same 15 players do everything: offence, defence and kicking. A few substitutes are allowed in case of injuries, exhaustion or changes in overall strategy, but the total squad for a game is only 22. Well it does help keep the salary bill down.
The game is played in two halves of 40 minutes each, with the teams changing ends between halves.
There are three officials: one referee, who follows the play, and two touch judges who patrol the sidelines and watch for off-the-ball incidents. They don’t get to throw flags. The touch judges may have a flag to wave, but in major games they keep in touch with the referee by radio.
The pitch is marked only with a half way line, the end zones, and two lines to mark the boundaries of the red zones. The sidelines are called “touchlines” and a ball that has gone out of play is said to have gone “into touch”. The goal posts are on the goal line, not at the back of the end zone, so they can and do get in the way. Normally they are well padded.
Oh, and all of the field distances are in metres, not yards. Don’t worry, they are almost the same, you’ll get used to it. The red zone is 22 meters wide. Yes, I know it is a silly number. It used to be 25 yards.
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