Here’s everything you need to know about rugby

Image: Reuters/Ross Land
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Starting today (Sept. 18), 20 international teams battle it out to be named the world’s best rugby team as England hosts the 2015 World Cup.

The event is expected to sell 2.4 million tickets and bring in £2.2 billion ($3.3 billion) to the British economy. Yet despite rugby becoming increasingly popular across the world, the historically-posh sport doesn’t yet have the reach of soccer nor the financial clout of the NFL.

How does the game work? Let Quartz be your guide.

The basics

There are two main types of rugby: rugby league and rugby union.  The one that’ll be played at the World Cup is rugby union.

Two teams play in an 80-minute match and use an oval ball to try to score more points than the other team. A team is made up of 15 players, which are divided into forwards, who tend to be the bigger and stronger players that fight for possession of the ball, and the backs, who are the faster and more agile players that usually are the ones to score tries.

Players can run and kick the ball, but can only pass it backwards. There are three ways to score:

  • A team gets five points for scoring a try, where the ball is grounded over the opponent’s in-goal area.
  • Two points are awarded to a team for a successful conversion. This is where a team can add further points after scoring a try by kicking the ball through the goal post.
  • A team can get three points if a penalty is awarded and they successfully kick the ball through the goal post.
  • Three points are also given if a team does what’s known as a drop kick, where a player drops the ball on the ground and kicks it through the goal post.

The most famous drop kick ever is probably Jonny Wilkinson’s in the final against Australia, which won England the World Cup in 2003:

The scrum is what rugby is most famous for. A scrum is usually called after a minor infringement and the game needs to be restarted. This is where the forwards of both teams interlock, a ball is fed into the scrum, and it has to be kicked back while both teams drive against each other.

An example of a great player begins and ends with Jonah Lomu, known as rugby’s Muhammad Ali, who dominated the sport when he played for New Zealand in the 1990s and early 2000s—despite never actually picking up a winner’s medal himself. Witness this display from the 1995 World Cup:

Players to watch out for in this World Cup are Australia’s Israel Folau, Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, and Wales’ George North. And basically every player in New Zealand. The BBC has picked six to watch.

Haven’t I seen this before?

Rugby is similar to both American football, or NFL, and Aussie-rules football, but there are some notable differences. There are no pads or helmets, there are different ways of scoring and passing, and the pitch is rectangular—not oval.

You could say the similarities between all three sports begins and ends with the egg-shaped ball.

Is it safer than the NFL?

The NFL has been gripped with a concussion crisis, where it’s been forced to fork out $1 billion to retired players. Several studies have highlighted the negative impacts that develop as a result of routine hits to the head. Previous research has shown that NFL players are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Rugby, like NFL or America football, is a contact sport, but there are a few rules to make sure players tackle safely.

A player can only tackle the ball carrier, and must do so below the shoulders and after the tackle, he must immediately release the player and roll away. Those who break these rules risk giving their opponents a penalty or could expect a yellow card for dangerous play. When a player has been “brought to ground” (tackled), he must release the ball and once he does, the ball is up for grabs.

Who’s going to win the World Cup?

New Zealand, nicknamed the All Blacks, has been dominating the game since the start of test rugby.  New Zealand have won the most games of any team in rugby history—more than 70% of its matches since the team first played in 1884. The team is the current champion and the firm favorite to win this year’s cup for a record third time.

England, who last won the World Cup in 2003, had drawn the what some have described as the “group of death.” They will have to face off against Australia and their rivals Wales, among others.

As for the US, let’s just say the odds are not in its favor.

If you tune in for anything, tune in for this

One thing to watch out for is New Zealand’s haka, a traditional Maori war dance intended to intimidate the opposing team. There are strict rules to how a team can respond to a haka, many have been warned against turning their backs or encroaching on the team performing the haka.