As it is Rugby World Cup semi-final weekend here in the UK, it seems like a great time to introduce the game itself for those who may not be so aware of it.

Rugby is often known as “a hooligans game played by gentlemen” and originated in 1820 at Rugby public school. A football match was taking place when a player called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it.

By the end of the century rugby was a recognised sport with a governing body – the Rugby Football Union or RFU for short.


There are a number of variations of the game of rugby which makes this sport very accessible…

Rugby Union

With 15 players a side, rugby union is the version most people are familiar with. The ball must always be passed backwards but can be kicked forwards and possession can be won or lost in tackles, scrums or line outs.

Rugby League

13 players per side and quite similar to rugby union. League is popular in the North of England as well as the Southern Hemisphere and Pacific regions. League rules differ from union in a number of ways; the most obvious being that the ball is played back after tackles rather than contested on the ground. If the attacking team does not score within six tackles, the ball is awarded to the opposing team although the ball is normally kicked ahead to gain territory before this occurs.


Featuring seven players a side and seven minutes per half, sevens is a fast paced game. Loosely following union rules. Sevens is commonly played in knockout tournaments where numerous matches are played in a single day. The final of such tournaments is usually played ten minutes per half. Played on a standard sized pitch, sevens is very demanding and  there are numerous popular international tournaments contested each year.

Mini Rugby

Also known as New Image Rugby, mini rugby is a form of rugby union designed to introduce the sport to children. It is played on a smaller pitch, uses a smaller child-friendly ball than standard rugby and has nine to thirteen players a side. Depending on the age of the players, mini rugby can be non-contact, semi-contact or full contact. Mini rugby has been the springboard that has launched many senior rugby players’ international careers.

Touch Rugby

Originally a non-contact training tool for regular rugby players, touch rugby has become a sport in its own right. Instead of tackling, a player loses possession if the ball if he is touched on any part of his body or clothing. Touch rugby provides many of the fitness benefits of regular rugby but with a much lower risk of injury.

Women’s Rugby

Union, league, sevens and touch rugby are also played by women. Women’s rugby is a rapidly growing sport and there are local, national, international and world level competitions.

Understanding Fitness Rugby_3


Rugby, the full contact versions specifically, is a very tough sport which requires a broad spectrum of fitness attributes. Players of the modern game must possess high levels of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, be very strong, powerful and quick and able to withstand lots of physical punishment; I’ve yet to meet a player who doesn’t train or play while injured!

The significance of size

Generally rugby players tend to be big with some players being over two meters/six feet six inches tall and weighing in excess of 115kg. This was not always the case. Up until the last twenty five or so years, rugby (the union version of the game at least) was a strictly amateur affair and players had to hold down full time jobs even if they played for high ranking clubs or even their country.

This factor, combined with less scientific sports training meant that players were big and highly fit but  not necessarily the giants we see playing rugby today.

In general, the bigger than average players ended up playing in the forwards (the guys in the scrum) whereas the smaller, faster players went into the backs and were the players more likely to score tries.

This has all changed and quite often it is hard to identify the forwards from the backs simply by looking at the players physical characteristics, as most professional players are huge physical specimens irrespective of their playing position.

In addition to their size, the general fitness level of the modern rugby player is far superior to his predecessor. Strength and conditioning coaches work hard with their players to ensure that each man (and women) can keep up a furious pace of play for the entire duration of a match.

Understanding Fitness Rugby_2

Equipment has changed too. In the middle to late 20th century, players had nothing more than a strong cotton jersey with a reinforced collar to protect them from the potentially injurious impacts experienced throughout the game, but  today’s players are allowed to wear soft helmets, a lightly padded torso protector and gum shields – no bad thing considering the speed, size and strength of the opposing players!

Rugby players tend to spend their training time divided between gym-based strength and power training and pitch-based skill and conditioning training.

Strength training tends to revolve around compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses and power cleans. Core work is also a priority because of the need for spinal stability for injury protection. Players will also perform specialist power exercises called plyometrics designed to increase explosiveness which is important for acceleration and jumping.

For cardiovascular conditioning, many rowers favour indoor rowing and some rugby players have gone onto enjoy success at the BIRC – British Indoor Rowing Championships.

Being tall and strong is a great benefit for rowing and rugby alike!

Outside of the gym, players will work hard  to develop their sprinting speed, agility and ball handling skills. Full contact tackling drills and also using tackle bags and dummies will help prepare the players for the numerous impacts experienced in a game of rugby.

While rugby is undeniably a tough and demanding sport there are clubs for almost any level of player and many teams offer introductory sessions to bring new players into the sport at grass roots level. With the rise in popularity of touch rugby, a whole new generation of players are getting to enjoy the taste of competition without risking life and limb. Rugby is well worth considering if you want a sport that will challenge virtually every aspect of your fitness; not to mention your courage!

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