Rugby Penalties Explained: A Comprehensive Guide for Fans

Rugby is a complex and dynamic sport that often leaves newcomers and even seasoned fans with questions about its rules and intricacies. One aspect of the game that frequently raises questions is penalties. Penalties are a crucial part of rugby, serving to maintain fair play, enforce the rules, and penalize infractions. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore and answer the most common questions that rugby fans might have about penalties, including what they are, how they occur, the impact on the game, and the roles of referees and teams.

  1. What Is a Penalty in Rugby?

A penalty in rugby is a formal sanction imposed by the match referee when a player or team violates the laws of the game. It is a key mechanism to maintain discipline and ensure fair competition. Penalties are awarded to the opposing team of the offender and come with the option to either kick for goal, opt for a scrum, or tap and go.

  1. What Causes a Penalty in Rugby?

Penalties can occur for a variety of reasons, and each is associated with specific infractions. Common actions that result in penalties include:

  • Offside: Players must be behind the last foot of their team’s ruck, maul, or scrum. Being in front of these positions can lead to a penalty.
  • High Tackles: Tackles that make contact with the opponent’s head or neck area are penalized. Player safety is paramount in rugby, and high tackles are considered dangerous play.
  • Not Releasing the Ball: After a tackle or breakdown, players must release the ball carrier and allow for a fair contest for possession. Failing to do so can result in a penalty.
  • Dangerous Play: Actions like spear tackles, tip tackles, late charges, and reckless play that endanger opponents can lead to penalties.
  1. How Does the Referee Award a Penalty?

When the match referee observes an infringement, they use a whistle to stop play, signal the direction in which the penalty is awarded (typically by pointing to the offending team), and identify the specific offense using hand signals.

The referee’s hand signals vary based on the nature of the infringement, such as a high tackle, offside position, or not releasing the ball. These signals make it clear to players, fans, and officials what the penalty is for.

  1. What Options Does the Fouled Team Have After a Penalty Is Awarded?

The team that is fouled has several options after a penalty is awarded:

  • Scrum: The fouled team can choose to have a scrum at the location where the penalty was awarded. This is a common choice when the fouled team is in a strong attacking position and wants to maintain possession.
  • Kick for Goal: The team may decide to kick for goal, attempting to earn three points by kicking the ball through the uprights and between the posts. This is a strategic choice when the penalty is within kicking range.
  • Tap and Go: Instead of kicking for goal or opting for a scrum, the fouled team can tap the ball with their foot and continue play quickly, aiming to catch the opposing team off guard.
  • Kick to Touch: Teams can also choose to kick the ball out of bounds, gaining territorial advantage and setting up a lineout in the opposition’s half.
  1. How Does the Referee Determine the Severity of a Penalty?

The severity of a penalty is typically based on the referee’s assessment of the offense’s nature, the intent of the player, and the potential impact on the game and player safety. Referees use their judgment and experience to determine the level of the infringement.

Serious offenses or those that pose a significant risk to player safety, such as high tackles or dangerous play, often result in more severe penalties, including potential yellow cards for the offender.

  1. What Are Advantage Laws in Rugby?

Advantage laws allow the referee to play on without stopping the game when an infringement occurs. Instead of awarding a penalty, the referee allows the non-offending team to take advantage of the situation. If the fouled team can gain a favorable outcome from the play, the referee does not stop the game. If not, the referee can come back to the original infringement and award a penalty.

Advantage laws are designed to keep the game flowing and to avoid unnecessary stoppages. They provide an incentive for teams to take calculated risks and continue playing in pursuit of an advantageous situation.

  1. What Is a Penalty Try?

A penalty try is a rare occurrence in rugby, awarded when a team is prevented from scoring a try due to foul play by the opposing team. The referee can award a penalty try when they believe that, without the foul play, a try would have been scored.

In the case of a penalty try, the referee awards seven points (the equivalent of a converted try) to the fouled team, placing the ball between the posts. The team does not need to attempt a conversion kick. The offending player who committed the foul play may also receive a yellow card or red card, depending on the severity of the offense.

  1. Can Penalties Be Reviewed or Challenged?

In rugby, the match referee’s decisions, including those related to penalties, are typically considered final and are not subject to review or challenge. The use of video technology, such as the Television Match Official (TMO), is limited to specific incidents, like grounding the ball for a try, and does not extend to the referee’s judgment regarding penalties.

  1. How Do Penalties Impact the Flow of the Game?

Penalties have a significant impact on the flow of a rugby match:

  • Momentum Shifts: A penalty can lead to a significant shift in momentum. For the fouled team, it provides an opportunity to gain territory, secure possession, or score points.
  • Tactical Decisions: The team awarded the penalty has to make strategic decisions based on the location of the penalty. They may choose to kick for goal, set up a scrum, or tap and go.
  • Scoring Opportunities: Penalties often result in scoring opportunities, especially when the fouled team is within kicking range of the posts.
  • Discipline: Penalties serve as a deterrent against foul play, reinforcing the importance of adhering to the laws of the game and maintaining discipline.
  1. What Is the Role of the TMO in Deciding Penalties?

The Television Match Official (TMO) is primarily involved in decisions related to the grounding of the ball for a try. While the TMO may review incidents that led to the awarding of penalties, their primary role is to assist the referee with try-scoring decisions, foul play, and in-goal situations.

In some cases, the TMO may be asked to review incidents to provide additional information to the referee regarding high tackles, dangerous play, or offside positions. However, the final decision still rests with the on-field referee.


Understanding rugby penalties is essential for both new and experienced fans of the sport. Penalties are a critical part of rugby’s disciplinary system, ensuring that players adhere to the laws of the game, maintain discipline, and prioritize player safety. By exploring the various aspects of penalties, including their causes, consequences, and strategic implications, fans can gain a deeper appreciation of the game and its intricacies. Penalties play a crucial role in shaping the flow and outcomes of rugby matches, making them an integral part of the sport’s rich heritage.

Recent Posts