Seven rugby questions you were too embarrassed to ask

The stage is set. Japan stages this year's Rugby World Cup, with 20 teams assembling for a tournament which will see one nation crowned the winner on November 2. The All Blacks have won the past two tournaments for New Zealand, can they make it three in a row?

The ins and outs of the competition will grip us as we follow our favoured team through the various stages, but not all of us are experts when it comes to the ins and outs of rugby itself. If you’ve ever wondered why teams of 15 grown adults chase an oddly shaped ball around a field and want to blag your way through a match, read on.

Was rugby created in Rugby, England?

Although rugby in various forms was played as far back as the Middle Ages, it is generally accepted that the modern game did indeed begin in the 1820s at Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire.

The statue of William Webb Ellis in Rugby.

It was here, in 1823, that pupil William Webb Ellis was said to have run with the ball in his hands thus introducing the form of play we see today. The incident is considered romantic myth by some experts but what is true is that pupils from the school wrote down the rules of the game in 1845. Terms such as ‘try’, ‘offside’, ‘knock on’, ‘touch’ and ‘goal line’ were all coined at Rugby, as was the concept of half-time. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) was formed in 1871, with its first five presidents all Rugby School old boys.

Regardless of historical fact, William Webb Ellis is guaranteed to be associated with the sport forever as the Rugby World Cup trophy bears his name.

Why is the ball that shape?

Casual observers may describe a rugby ball as egg-shaped but the correct term is ‘elongated ellipsoid’ which is basically a pointy oval form.

In the 19th century, rugby balls were made from inflated pigs’ bladders encased in leather. The shape of the bladder determined the shape of the ball although the originals didn’t taper at the ends as much as today’s equivalents and were more spherical.

The Rugby Football Union decreed in 1892 that the ball should be oval and the shape gradually became flatter. It’s believed the shape became more elongated to meet the dual needs of kicking and carrying the ball throughout a match.

Preparing to give an elongated ellipsoid a boot.

What’s the difference between rugby league and union?

Make sure you get this one right. The ‘schism’, as it’s known in rugby circles, started with a row over money. The RFU rules, written in 1871, forbade rugby being a professional game, but by the 1890s some players in Yorkshire were being paid to appear at matches to compensate for missing a day’s wage.

This led to a split between the RFU and clubs in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The Northern Rugby Football Union was formed to incorporate these breakaway clubs and over time they developed their own style of play - which became known as rugby league.

Rugby league teams London Skolars and Wigan Warriors in action.

There are several differences between the two games. Whereas union has 15 players to a team, league has 13. In league, each team can make 10 substitutions during a game as opposed to a maximum of eight in union.

Scoring is different too. A try in union is worth five points, it’s four in league although a conversion will earn you an extra two points in either code.

In league, a drop goal earns you one point, a penalty is two. In union they are both worth three.

The Rugby World Cup is the major tournament for union teams around the world, but the Six Nations is a pretty big deal too. Here's a few things you may not know about that particular competition.

Why is it ‘Six’ Nations?

The tournament has been known as the Six Nations since 2000, when Italy joined - before that it was the ‘Five’ Nations of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England and France.

The format of the competition goes back to 1883 and the first Home International Championship between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. France joined in 1910, leading to the creation of the Five Nations title. The competition was suspended during both World Wars and France didn’t take part between 1931 and 1947.

Who has won the Six Nations the most?

England is just in the lead on the roll of honour with 28 outright wins in the competition in all its forms since 1883 and 10 shared wins. Wales has 26 wins and 12 shared titles.

This puts both countries level pegging on titles although England has a whisker in front when you rank it Olympic Games-style on outright victories. Italy has yet to win the tournament in 19 appearances.

The 1973 Five Nations tournament is notable in that it ended with all five competitors: France, Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, sharing the title as joint winners.

The Six Nations trophy. What everyone is playing for.

What is the Wooden Spoon?

It’s the prize nobody wants, the award given to the team at the bottom of the table when the tournament’s over.

Since 1883, every nation has taken home the wooden spoon. Ireland has ‘spooned’ the most, finishing last on 29 occasions, the most recent being 1998. Scotland is next on 21, then England on 19, Wales on 16 and France on 12. Neither Ireland nor England have finished last since the tournament became the Six Nations.

The same can’t be said for poor Italy. They’ve earned that wooden spoon 13 times in just 19 appearances, including the last three Six Nations competitions. They'll know by March 16 if they're continuing the trend for a fourth successive year.

When did the women's Six Nations start?

Launched in 1996, the women's competition was initially between the four home nations. France joined in 1999 to make it a Five Nations then Spain took part in 2000 to bring the competitors up to six.

In 2007, the women's competition became part of the official Six Nations programme, seeing Spain drop out of the tournament and Italy take its place. England have an impressive record in this competition with 15 outright wins in the 24 tournaments held so far, and are the reigning champions. France have taken the trophy six times with Ireland winning it twice and Scotland securing one victory. Wales and Italy are patiently awaiting their maiden title.

The Women's Rugby World Cup began in 1991, hosted by Wales and won by the United States. New Zealand has dominated the competition, however, winning five of the eight tournaments thus far, with England taking the title on two occasions. It's New Zealand who currently hold the title - and are hosts of the next competition in 2021.

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