There are two basic grades of penalty in rugby. Minor penalties, including forward passes, knock-ons and not feeding the ball straight at a scrum or lineout, are penalised with a scrum to the other side. Major penalties, which are mostly for dangerous play or intentional fouls, are penalized with a penalty kick. A small number of offences are penalized with a free kick. There are two instances of distance penalties that will be described later.

(By the way, intentional fouls are called “professional fouls” in rugby. This is because the game used to be restricted to amateur players only and they liked to pretend that only people who got paid to play would commit intentional fouls.)

The main difference between a penalty kick and a free kick is that penalty kicks may be used for attempts at field goals. If a team gets a penalty kick within field goal range then it will generally go for the points. However, it is not obligatory. A team with good forwards, or that is desperate for points, may choose to punt to the sideline as close as possible to the corner and hope that their forwards can drive over the goal line from the lineout. This is smart because a kick from a penalty may go directly out of play, and your side will not lose possession at the lineout as they would with a normal punt.

A common option from both penalties and free kicks is for the kicker to punt gently up in front of his body, catch the ball, and head off running. You will see scrum halves do this a lot after ruck penalties because the opposition forwards are still picking themselves up and catching their breath. A team that is in desperate need of points that gets a penalty close to the goal line may use this sort of kick to set up a pre-arranged running play, or to simply hand the ball into a charging wedge of forwards.

When a penalty is awarded the opposition is supposed to retire 10 meters. If the attacking team takes a quick kick and runs they may not have had time to do so. That is OK, as long as they do not interfere with play. If they forget and tackle the ball carrier a further penalty is awarded 10 meters forward from the original one. Scrum halves have become adept at catching the opposition off guard like this. Fortunately, after a side has infringed in this way, the referee will delay the next kick until they have retired the correct distance, otherwise a smart offence could make a lot of distance with this trick.

The only other example of a distance penalty in rugby is for dissent. If a team complains too loudly over a call the referee may penalise them 10 meters. There is no option for coaches to ask for a video review of a call. However, in important matches there may be a fourth official who can adjudicate video replays if the referee asks for one.

One major difference between rugby and gridiron is that the game does not stop to allow a team to decide whether to decline a penalty. Instead the referee makes the decision for them. If, in the referee’s opinion, an offence resulted in an advantage for the other side he may allow play to go on. The most obvious example of this is where a runner knocks on and the ball is recovered by the opposition. A turnover has already occurred so there is little point in calling for a scrum; the game can be kept moving.

When a referee decides to play this advantage rule he holds out his arm to signal what is going on. He will then let play develop for a while to ensure that the advantage gained is in keeping with the seriousness of the offence. If the advantage does occur he will lower his arm and let play continue. If it does not he will whistle for the penalty. Smart players can sometimes take advantage of this. For example, an aware fly half, knowing that he has a penalty kick on offer, may attempt a drop goal as it provides an extra chance to make the kick with nothing to lose.

A major problem in rugby is intentional fouls close to the goal line. It is very easy for defending players to fall on the ball in a ruck and prevent fair release, thereby stopping a certain try. Equally there may be equivalents of pass interference, where a punt has been sent way up field and two players are racing after the ball. If the defender pushes the attacker over or pulls him back the foul play may have prevented a try. In such cases the referee is allowed to award a penalty try, worth 5 points just like a real try, with the conversion to be taken from directly in front of the posts.

In cases of extreme violent conduct or persistent intentional fouls a referee may send a player to the sin bin for 10 minutes. This is a similar system to that in ice hockey. The side of the offending player has to continue short-handed during the penalty. If the offending player is a front row forward the team is allowed to make a temporary substitution to bring on a replacement specialist, otherwise the scrum may be dangerous.

Talking of violent conduct, rugby has fairly similar rules to gridiron in this respect. There is no face mask to grab, so penalties are given for a “high tackle” (defined as above the neck). Penalties can also be called for roughing the punter after the kick, for tackling a man after he has passed the ball, or for undue violence in a ruck. Rugby referees are generally fairly lenient with punch-ups that erupt during rucks because there is a lot of legal rough stuff going on, but they will penalize an obviously premeditated punch.


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