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Cameron Smith passes during a rugby league match

Like most forms of modern football, rugby league football is played outdoors on a rectangular grass field with goals at each end that are attacked and defended by two opposing teams. The rules of rugby league have changed significantly over the decades since rugby football split into the league and union codes. This article details the modern form of the game and how it is generally played today, although rules do vary slightly between specific competitions.


Typical markings for a rugby league field


Main article: Rugby league playing field

A game of rugby league consists of two forty-minute halves, played by two teams on a rectangular grass field 120 metres long and 58–68 metres wide, depending on the individual ground. In the middle of the field is the 50-metre "halfway" line. Each side of the field, on either side of the 50-metre line, is identical. 10 metres from the 50-metre line is the 40-metre line, followed by the 30, 20, 10-metre and goal or "try" lines. This makes up 100 metres of field that is used for general play.

At the middle of each goal line is a set of goal posts in the shape of the letter "H", used for point scoring from kicks (drop goals, penalty goals, and conversions). Six to twelve metres beyond each goal-line is the dead ball line. The area between these two lines is called the in-goal area, and varies from field to field.

The dead ball lines and the touch-lines (side lines) make up the boundary of the field of play. If the ball (or any part of the body of a player in possession of the ball) touches the ground on or beyond any of these lines, the ball is said to be dead, and play must be restarted. This is done by one of two ways. If the ball goes dead, play restarts at the 20 metre line closer to where it went dead. If it goes into touch, a scrum is played.


Main article: Rugby league positions

All rugby league players must be particularly physically fit and tough because of the game's fast pace and the expansive size of the playing-field as well as the inherently rough physical contact involved. Depending on his exact role or position, a player's size, strength and/or speed can provide different advantages (or disadvantages). Effective teamwork is also extremely important.

Mode of play

After a coin toss with the two captains and referee, the winner elects either to kick off or to receive the kick off and chooses which end of the field to attack for the first half. The ends change over after the half-time break.

Players chase the ball after a kick-off. They must be behind or in line with the kicker when his foot hits the ball.

Play commences once the ball has been kicked off from the ground in the centre of the field by one team to the other. The longer and higher the kick, the more advantageous, as this forces the team receiving the ball to return it from deeper within their own territory. If a long or misdirected kick goes out of the field of play without first bouncing, a penalty is awarded to the non-kicking team from the halfway line, but if a kicked ball lands in the field of play and then bounces out, the kicking team receives possession at the point of entry. A short kick off may be employed to regain possession, but it must travel at least beyond the 10 metre line; they are usually attempted towards the end of closely fought matches when time is scarce and points are needed.

Each team is responsible for defending their end of the field, and they take turns throughout a game at defending and attacking. At half-time (the 40th minute of the game), the teams have a 10-minute break, then swap ends before resuming play.

The team with possession of the football is the team in attack. The primary aim of this team is to "work" the ball out from their own end of the field, into a more favourable position towards the opposition's end, and score a try by grounding the ball in the opposition's in-goal area or on the goal line. In some circumstances, the team in attack may opt to kick a one-point drop goal instead of attempting to score a try. Scoring will at least involve first gaining field position and, in the case of scoring a try, will almost certainly involve breaking the opposition's defensive line.

The objective of the defensive side is to prevent the team in possession from scoring and obtaining their shorter term objectives. The defensive team carries out these objectives by:

Favourable field position is an important aim in rugby league, a goal present in the minds of players at almost all times. Possession of the ball is the primary aim of each team. When in possession the aim is to maintain possession and score by running in packs and trying to minimise ball-handling errors and penalties conceded (which always result in a changeover of possession). When not in possession the aim is to prevent the opposition from scoring, prevent or reduce the incidence of the opposition carrying the ball forward, and ultimately to gain possession of the ball.

Point scoring

A player attempting to score a try

There are four ways to score in rugby league: tries, conversions, penalty goals, and drop goals.

Change in scoring values over time[2][3]
Period Try Conversion Penalty Drop goal Goal from mark
1895–1897 3 2 3 4 4
1897–1922 3 2 2 2 2
1922–1950 3 2 2 2
1950–1971 3 2 2 2
1971–1983 3 2 2 1
1983–2021 4 2 2 1
2021-present 4 2 2 1 (2) -

Points scored differ from rugby union, where a try, conversion, penalty, and drop goal score 5, 2, 3, and 3 points respectively.


As a halfback, Stacey Jones is relied on to direct the ball to his players by passing.

Players on the team with possession may pass the ball to one another while trying to reach the opposition's end of the field. A player may only pass the ball behind himself, or pass the ball sideways parallel to the trylines. Therefore, the rest of the players on the team in possession must ensure that they are "on-side", and in a position to legally receive the ball by staying behind or in-line with the passer. A pass deemed to have propelled the ball forward is called a "forward pass" and results in an immediate halt to play. A scrum will restart play, as "head and feed" of the scrum will be to the team who did not make the forward pass, a forward pass normally means that possession of the ball is ceded to the opposing side. Passes are also susceptible to interception by enterprising players on the defensive team who anticipate the pass and rush up to catch it, winning possession for their team.


Further information: Tackle (football move) § Rugby league

A player being tackled

The defensive team tries to stop the attacking team from scoring by tackling the player with the ball as quickly as possible to prevent him gaining more ground. A tackle forces a halt in play for as long as it takes the tackled player to return to his feet and play the ball. In that time, the defending team, with the exception of two markers, must move back a minimum of 10 metres towards their end of the field. The attacking team restarts play and continues with its next chance to score via the play-the-ball. After each tackle the attacking team should be closer to their opposition's end of the field. A 2012 New Zealand study found that over 659 tackles are made per game in professional rugby league.[4] Of all the rugby league positions, second-row averages the most tackles.[5]

Six tackle rule

Since 1972, an attacking team has a set of six chances to score, often referred to as six tackles. The referee keeps track of how many tackles have been performed in each set of six. Some referees choose to shout the number of tackles (to avoid any players' confusion as to what point in the tackle count it is); however, this is not a requirement. When a side has used five tackles, the referee signals "fifth tackle" by raising an arm above his head with fingers spread, indicating that five of the tackles in the set have taken place and the next tackle will be the last.

If a sixth tackle is made, a change-over takes place. The defending and attacking teams switch roles, and the new attacking team starts its own set of six by playing the ball at the point on the field where the last tackle was made. Usually the attacking team kicks the ball onwards after the fifth tackle in either a last-ditch attempt to score, or to force the opposition to start their next set of six tackles as far back as possible.

An attacking team may also have seven chances to score in a special circumstance, governed by the zero tackle rule.


A player about to play the ball.

Play-the-ball is used to restart play in various instances during a game, most commonly immediately following a tackle. The act of the play-the-ball is sometimes referred to simply as "playing the ball". To return the ball to play correctly, the tackled player must:

  1. have stopped forward progress (i.e., been tackled);
  2. have both feet on the ground;
  3. place the ball on the ground in front of one foot and;
  4. roll the ball backwards by use of the boot.

From the moment the ball is rolled back by the tackled player's boot, the next phase of play begins. The "dummy half" is the term used to refer to the player who then picks up the ball and resumes his team's attack.

The ruck is located between the player playing-the-ball and the defending marker.[6] The ruck exists during the time between a tackle being completed and the subsequent play-the-ball being completed.[7] The ball cannot be interfered with by a defending player whilst it is in the ruck, otherwise a penalty will be issued against that player's team. A penalty is also issued against the attacking team if the player responsible for playing the ball, does not play it correctly. Many penalties in rugby league occur in and around the ruck.

Part way though the 2020 seasons in both Australia and Europe penalties for defensive infringements at the ruck were replaced by the "six again" rule which gives the attacking team an immediate new set of six tackles.[8][9]


Following a completed tackle, all but two of the defending team (the markers) must retreat at least ten metres from the point at which the tackle is made. This distance is marked by the referee. Following the play-the-ball, defenders are permitted to advance to try to put pressure on the attackers and to reduce the distance they can make with the ball. If a defender who has failed to retreat 10 metres interferes with play, then he will be deemed to have been offside and this will result in a penalty to the attacking team. Equally, if a defender advances too quickly before the ball is played, then this will also result in a penalty to the attackers. When a player kicks the ball, his teammates must be behind him, or they will be called for offside if they interfere with the play.


During the play-the-ball it is customary for a player from the defending team, called a marker, to stand directly in front of the player playing the ball. If no marker is present, the tackled player may "tap" the ball on his boot to start the next play, instead of the normally required play-the-ball. As the tap is faster to perform than the play-the-ball, giving great advantage to the attack, there is almost always a marker. Usually the person who tackled the player becomes a marker because he is the closest to the tackled player. There may be a maximum of two markers for each play-the-ball, the second standing behind the first.

The marker(s) must stand directly in front of the tackled player; not doing so will result in a penalty. A marker must also not move towards the ball until the play-the-ball has been completed, otherwise he will be penalised.

Miscellaneous rules

Knock on

If the ball is dropped forwards by an attacker and hits the ground or another player, this constitutes a knock on and possession will be turned over. If the ball is dropped in a backwards motion, it will not be ruled as a knock-on. Equally, if a player fumbles the ball but manages to regather it before it hits the ground or another player then play will be allowed to continue. This rule does not apply if a player is performing a drop-kick.

Zero tackle rule

If the defending team knocks on or touches the ball when it is in the air, and the ball is immediately regathered by the attacking team, the referee may elect to restart the tackle count in lieu of awarding a scrum; known as the zero tackle rule because the next tackle is counted as 'tackle zero' and not the usual 'tackle one'. The zero tackle rule cannot be used in a set that was started by the zero tackle rule. On awarding the zero tackle rule, the referee will shout "Back to zero!" or "Six again", and wave one arm over his head with fingers clenched into a fist, indicating the attacking side's next tackle is tackle zero. If a player collects the ball directly from an opposition kick in general play, the first time he is tackled does not register on the tackle count. If the receiving player kicks or passes the ball prior to being tackled then this does not apply.


Further information: Scrum (rugby) § Rugby league

A rugby league scrum

The scrum is formed by the front row forwards of each side locking together, and packing down to push against each other. The second row forwards pack in behind the front rows, and each team's loose forward joins the scrum at the back. The ball is fed through the legs of one of the props by the halfback, who normally then retrieves it from the back of the scrum.

The scrum was traditionally used as a mechanism where the two teams competed for possession of the ball. This has since changed with the introduction of fair, but uncontested[10] scrums, where the ball is fed into the second row, instead of the front row, all but eliminating an effective competition for the ball. Because of these changes the scrum serves to simply remove the forwards from the play for a period, thus creating more space for the backs to attack the depleted defensive line. This is intended to give advantage to the side that is awarded the scrum. It is very rare for a team to win possession of the ball, despite not having the feed, though in such situations the referee may restart the scrum.

A scrum can be awarded following a forward pass, knock on or the ball going over the sideline and into touch.

40–20 kick

An illustration of the 40–20 rule

The 40–20 rule was introduced by the ARL in Australia in 1997 to further reward accurate kicking in general play. It has since been adopted in Britain as well, at all levels. A 40–20 kick must be both accurate and long. For a successful 40–20:

The team that kicked is awarded a tap-kick restart from the point that the ball left the field. Before the 40–20 rule, the non-kicking team would have otherwise been awarded the scrum feed. Until recent years, a successful 40-20 kick resulted in a scrum for the kicking team. This was changed and now the attacking team is awarded a tap restart in line from where the ball went out of bounds.

20–40 kick

The 20–40 rule was introduced by the NRL in Australia in 2020[11] and the Super League in 2021[12] to further reward accurate kicking in general play. A 20–40 kick must be both accurate and long. For a successful 20–40:[13][14]

The team that kicked is awarded a tap-kick restart from the point that the ball left the field. Before the 20–40 rule, the non-kicking team would have otherwise been awarded the scrum feed.

Goal-line drop-outs

If the player in possession of the ball is tackled behind his own goal line, plays the ball over his own dead-ball line, or grounds the ball in his own in-goal area, his team is obliged to perform a drop-kick from between their own goal posts. This kick must travel over the 10-metre line before it is touched by either team. The goal line drop-out usually gives possession back to the opposing team.

The drop-kicking team might attempt to gain possession by executing a short kick and have their players attempt to reach the ball before the other team does; but this carries the risk that the other team could gain possession very close to the try-line. The drop-kicking team might also attempt to gain possession by kicking the ball so that it bounces before going into touch; in that event they would be awarded head and feed at the resulting scrum.

Disciplinary sanctions

A rugby league referee giving a "sin bin" ruling, signifying the ten minutes that the offender must spend off the field.

The standard disciplinary sanction in rugby league is the penalty. The referee may also award a penalty try, which is described in the section on scoring.

If a team that has been penalised commits another offence (often by expressing dissent against the referee's decision), the referee may advance the position of the penalty 10 metres towards the offending team's goal line, and may also sin bin (temporary expulsion) or send off (permanent expulsion) the offending player(s). A rarely known law of Rugby League however is that a player may receive multiple yellow cards in a game and not receive a red card.[15] The maximum possible number of yellows therefore are 7 yellow cards in a game for one player over different scenarios. Generally however two yellow card offences for the same reason will equal a red card even though it is not written into the laws of the game.

In the United Kingdom, the referee uses penalty cards to signal a sin-binning (yellow card) and a sending-off (red card). In games played in the southern hemisphere, the referee raises both arms straight out with fingers spread (to indicate 10 minutes) for a temporary expulsion and simply points sent-off players from the field of play.


The defensive team and attacking team carry out any number of tactics, within the rules, to achieve their short term and ultimately long-term objectives. The tactics below are a basic guide to how the game is typically played. On occasions, enterprising teams may choose to deviate from the typical tactics to surprise their opponents.

Attacking tactics

Improving field position

Field position is crucial in rugby league.[16]

Ball running

Usually when inside their own half of the field, an attacking team will use low-risk plays to attempt to gain metres while avoiding turning over possession.


Australia's Joel Clinton "hitting the ball up", i.e. running with it straight at the defence.

Also known as a drive, this is the act of taking a pass from the dummy half and running straight into the opposition's defensive line without looking to pass. Hit-ups are usually employed to gain low-risk metres early in the tackle-count, but a good hit-up can also result in a breach of the defensive line. It also tires defenders, who have to stop an on-rushing opponent by putting their bodies on the line. Defending players may be drawn in towards the player hitting the ball up in an effort to make a tackle, possibly leaving other parts of the defensive line weakened for other attackers should the ball-carrier manage to off-load the ball to a teammate. Forwards are usually used for taking hit-ups because of their greater size (often over 100 kg) and strength, although most players on a team will take some hit-ups during a match. Most sets of 6 usually involve at least one hit-up to build a position from which to attack. A set of five hit-ups and a kick is known as one-out rugby,

Dummy-half Scoot An alternative to a hit-up is for the player in the dummy half (acting-halfback) position to run the ball himself, without passing. This is often performed by quicker players as they are able to round the markers and make ground for their side. Some teams use repeated dummy half scoots with the intention of playing the ball quickly and catching defenders before they are able to properly position themselves. This is known as quick ball or 'getting a roll on'.


Breaching the defence

In addition to trying to break the defensive line with the sheer force of a hit-up, players attempt to breach the opposing team's defence through combinations of plays, using speed, passing and/or kicking.

Ball Running
Lance Hohaia attempts to breach the defence.
Benji Marshall performing an attacking kick in general play.

Defensive tactics

When a side is defending they must prevent metres lost. They must defend against ball runners and kickers.

Defending against ball running

Preventing metres lost
Preventing line breaks

Defending players aim to spread across the field in a single line and stop the attacking players from breaking this line. The 'Slide Defence' and the 'Umbrella Defence' tactics aim to curb the number of breaks in the line.

Defending against kicks

An attacking side may kick the ball through or over the defensive line of players. The defence must defend against kicks in the normal field of play and in the in-goal area.

Defending the field of play
Defending the in-goal area

Turning defence into attack

It is commonly said that the best form of defence is attack. A defensive team in rugby league can gain possession of the ball at any stage during an attacking teams set.


Late in the tackle count the attacking side will start to think defensively in anticipation of a handover,[17] also known as a changeover or turnover. That is, whilst most kicks performed at this time will be primarily for attacking purposes, there is always a defensive element to consider. The attacking team uses these tactics to put themselves in the better defensive position when their set of six ends at the 'change over'.

The attacking team uses the bomb in attack, but this attack can quickly turn to defensive if the bomb is fielded by the opposition team. Therefore, there is a defensive element in deciding whether to kick a bomb. A bomb is useful defensively because even if it is fielded by the opposition, it is still useful in giving the kicking team ample time to get as close as possible to the player with the ball which allows the kicking team to prevent the opposing team from making too much ground towards their in goal area.

At the end of an attacking team's set of six, the attacking team may wish to kick (grubber or chip kick) the ball in to touch and give the opposition a scrum feed. This is aimed at slowing down play, which gives the players a rest and allows them to set up a good defensive position.

See also



  1. ^ "International Laws of the Game" (PDF). Rugby League International Federation. October 2017. p. 15. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  2. ^ Fagan, Sean (2007). Dixon, Kim (ed.). The rugby rebellion centenary edition: Pioneers of rugby league. Australia: RL1908. p. 393. ISBN 978-0-9757563-0-0.
  3. ^ Collins, Tony (4 September 2010). "Field goals redux: the pedants are revolting..." Rugby Reloaded. Tony Collins. Archived from the original on 26 August 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
  4. ^ King D, Hume PA, Clark T (2012). "Nature of tackles that result in injury in professional rugby league". Hutt Valley District Health Board. 20 (2): 86–104. doi:10.1080/15438627.2012.660824. PMID 22458826. S2CID 46483040.
  5. ^ Tim Rogers & Richard Beesley (2006). Fitness for Rugby League (PDF). Australia: Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 October 2012.
  6. ^ RLIF, 2004: 7
  7. ^ "Glossary of RL terms". Play. Rugby Football League. Archived from the original on 8 October 2007. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  8. ^ Keoghan, Sarah (4 June 2020). "How controversial new rules have changed the way the game is played". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 17 July 2020.
  9. ^ "RFL confirms rule changes for rugby league's restart". Sky Sports. 7 July 2020. Retrieved 17 July 2020.
  10. ^ "The RFL". Archived from the original on 9 November 2010.
  11. ^ McAllister, Josh (6 December 2019). "20/40 kick to be introduced in the NRL". Love Rugby League. Retrieved 25 September 2021.
  12. ^ "New season to begin without scrums as 20/40 rule introduced". Love Rugby League. 3 February 2021. Retrieved 25 September 2021.
  13. ^ Snape, Jack (21 August 2020). "A rugby league trailblazer explains the rule the NRL forgot". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 25 September 2021.
  14. ^ "NRL announces rule changes for scrums, challenge system, trainers, 20/40 kick". National Rugby League. 6 December 2019. Retrieved 25 September 2021.
  15. ^ Clarke, Phil. "Should two yellows equal a red in rugby league, asks Phil Clarke". Sky Sports. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  16. ^ "Stats Insider: Grand Final by the numbers". Australia: NRL.COM and Telstra Corporation Pty Ltd. 28 September 2010. Archived from the original on 30 September 2010. Retrieved 21 September 2010.
  17. ^ RLIF, 2004: 5


Further reading