Rugby at the Tokyo Olympics: What to Know for 2021

Team USA goes for rugby sevens gold at the Tokyo Games after subpar outings in 2016

After a year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Olympics are finally here. One of the most physical contact sports contested in Tokyo will be rugby.

Derived from a game of school football in the town of Rugby, England, in 1823, rugby has evolved and taken the world by storm over the past two centuries. Men’s rugby (in its typical format of 15 players on each team) was first played at the 1900 Paris Olympics and lasted three more Games before being removed in 1924. 

Rugby finally returned to the Olympics in a seven-a-side format for both men and women in the 2016 Rio Games, where the aggressive and energetic sport captivated fans from around the world.

Here’s everything you need to know about rugby for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:

What are the rules of Olympic rugby?

The variation of rugby featured in the Olympics is referred to as rugby sevens, which is played on a full size pitch between two teams of seven players, rather than the typical 15 (called rugby 15s).

The game is also shorter in duration -- matches feature seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 40-minute halves in rugby 15s. Each team is typically made up of three forwards and four backs. Because it features fewer players and less time on the same size field, rugby sevens tend to be much faster-paced games than 15s.

The objective of the game is to carry the rugby ball -- shaped like an American football, but with no seams and flatter ends -- over an opponent’s goal line and touch it to the ground to score.

For the ball to be exchanged between players in rugby, it must be passed either directly across the field or backward. The ball is allowed to be kicked forward, but the kicker’s teammates must be behind the ball when it is kicked.

This past year, athletes had to virtually reveal their lifelong dream of making the Olympic team had finally come true. Watch as their families react to the news and prove that despite the circumstances, the emotion and excitement are still real.

How is score kept in rugby?

There are four ways to score points in the game of rugby:

  • A try (5 points): When the ball is touched to the ground over the opponents’ goal line in the in-goal area.
  • A penalty (3 points): When a team chooses to kick at the goal for points when they are awarded a penalty within range of the posts.
  • A conversion (2 points): When a team attempts to add points after scoring a try by kicking the ball over the crossbar and between the posts. The kick will come from a place on the pitch in line with where the try was scored.
  • A drop goal (3 points): When a player drops the ball onto the ground and kicks it on the half-volley between the posts and over the crossbar.

What are the three main types of contact in rugby?

Rugby players often use various contact situations to create space to move the ball forward. There are three main types of contact:

  • Tackle: In rugby, only the ball carrier is allowed to be tackled by the opposing team. However, a tackle does not end play. Instead, the tackled ball carrier will release the ball, and then the tackler must release the ball carrier. Both players have to roll away from the loose ball, which allows other players to start a new phase of play by contesting for it.
  • Ruck: When the rugby ball is on the ground and players from each team are close around it, a ruck is formed. Players have to use their feet to move the ball, or drive over it, before picking it up and carrying on with the play.
  • Maul: When a ball carrier is held, but not tackled to the ground, a maul may form. The ball carrier stays standing, is held back by at least one defender and is being protected by at least one of their teammates. Once formed, a maul must move toward a goal line, and the ball must stay off the ground.
Perry Baker grew up in a football family and even made it to the NFL. But when an injury forced him to quit football, he decided to take up rugby.

What is a scrum in rugby?

When a penalty is awarded to a team within range of the posts, they may opt to kick for the aforementioned penalty goal to score three points.

Another option when awarded a penalty is a scrum. A scrum is a means of restarting the play after a minor penalty, like a forward pass or a knock-on -- when a player mishandles the ball by dropping or allowing it to rebound off their hand or arm, causing it to travel forward.

A scrum is set up when three players from each team form a tunnel that the ball is then thrown into. Two players in the front row can then compete for the ball, attempting to hook it back toward teammates.

Once a team has possession of the ball, they can choose to keep it in the scrum formation in an attempt to drive the opposition down the field or they can pass the ball out of the scrum to resume open play. 

Referees use a rule known as the “advantage law” to allow a non-offending team to continue with open play and attempt to score, rather than award a penalty.

When will the men’s and women’s Olympic rugby tournaments take place?

All of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic rugby matches will take place in Tokyo Stadium, which holds 48,000 fans. 

The men’s rugby tournament begins on Sunday, July 25, at 8 p.m. ET. The semifinals take place Tuesday, July 27. The men’s bronze medal and gold medal matches will take place at 3:30 a.m. ET and 6 a.m. ET on Wednesday, July 28.

The women’s rugby tournament begins on Wednesday, July 28, at 8 p.m. ET. Semifinal games will be played Friday, July 30. The women’s tournament concludes with the bronze medal and gold medal matches at 3:30 a.m. ET and 6 a.m. ET, respectively, on Saturday, July 31.

Naya Tapper says she still runs into people who say women shouldn't be playing rugby.

Which country is best at rugby?

In rugby sevens, Fiji’s men’s team currently stands at the top after winning the gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and last season’s World Rugby Sevens Series. During the 2016 Olympics, Great Britain won silver and South Africa came away with the bronze medal.

For women’s rugby sevens, New Zealand and Australia are the best teams in the world. New Zealand won last season’s World Rugby Sevens Series but lost to Australia in the gold medal game at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

What are the groups for the men’s and women’s Olympic rugby tournaments?

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic rugby tournament will feature 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams. Each tournament will have three groups of four clubs. The top eight teams will advance to the quarterfinals, followed by semifinals and then final match for the gold and silver medals. The losing semi-finalists will compete for the bronze medal.

Here is a look at the men’s tournament:

Group A:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Australia
  3. Argentina
  4. South Korea

Group B:

  1. Fiji
  2. Great Britain
  3. Canada
  4. Japan

Group C:

  1. South Africa
  2. United States
  3. Kenya
  4. Ireland

And here are what the groups look like for the women:

Group A:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Russian Olympic Committee
  3. Great Britain
  4. Kenya

Group B:

  1. Canada
  2. France
  3. Fiji
  4. Brazil

Group C:

  1. Australia
  2. United States
  3. China
  4. Japan
Teammates can find connections in all sorts of expected ways in their sport, but you might not expect two of the fastest men on the U.S. Olympic Rugby squad to form a bond over how slow they like to take life off the pitch.
Contact Us