So you are off to your first rugby match. Good for you.

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It is likely that this visit will be as a result of your child, perhaps playing in the under 11s, dragging you along as he or she wants to watch the first XV in full flow. Wouldn’t we all like to see that. You will wonder whether your child will still look up to you if your tales of playing at the Stoop are exposed as no more than kicking a tin can across the stands when you should have been cleaning them. 

You will be worried you will make a fool of yourself because you will have no idea what is going on. Do not worry. Firstly, everyone plays their best rugby from the touchline (excluding touch judges of course) so don’t be taken in by stories from others watching of having played for county, or even going to away matches. For spectators there are only two rules: do not stand so far into the pitch that there’s a player between you and the nearer touch-line and secondly, never, but never, take your own beer to an away match. Other than that you have a free hand. There is a third rule: don’t get involved in the scrums, but as this applies to half the players, well more than half as it includes the flankers as well, it is more one for those on the pitch. 

Opposing rugby fans do not tend to oppose in rugby. They normally mix. This can be confusing if you are unsure of which side your are supporting. You may well have bought your club’s regalia, but unless you are following a team in the top five levels, it is probable that the players won’t have. Also, there are environmental difficulties. For instance, my team play in blue and are called, with the inventiveness apparent in all things rugby, The Blues. Can you pick them out in the picture below?

Muddy too

The good thing is, it doesn’t matter that you don’t know who are your players as in the above example you can see that neither do they.

It is not difficult to fit in and look as if you’ve been a fan all your life. You might be in fear of missing the more subtle points of spectating, but feel reassured; subtle isn’t a major factor in rugby.

Clapping, on the other hand, is big. Very big in fact. You will be surprised to find that most spectators, regardless of team affiliation, will applaud when a player does something rather special or, lower down the leagues, does something. It is best to follow suit. The reasons for this are often obscure and might amount to nothing more than the chap on the end trying to warm his hands and everyone thinking they have missed something. Missing something is even bigger in rugby; ask any referee.

If a player with numbers 1, 2 or 3 on his back actually runs with the ball or, towards the end of the match, actually runs, then this always causes a sharp intake of breath from spectators. And deep breaths from the player as well. All that clapping will tend to keep you warm during the period the physio is on the pitch treating one of the front row silly enough to experiment with moving. Applaud again as they regain their feet. You might wonder why you should clap an aspiring athlete just for being able to stand. This is rugby. Being able to stand after a tackle is optional.

Much is made in the press of the fact that barracking of the referee is frowned upon. This is a cherished aspect of the sport and in ball games is unique to rugby. However, a little gentle advice is often encouraged but you must not go over the invisible line in the sand. Or rather, mud. For instance, you might feel that the referee’s influence has been largely negative. Calling the chap an offensive name will generate tutts from the crowd. If, however, you point out: ‘Hey, ref. You’re missing a good game here.” you will normally earn a few nods. Nothing is ever ‘blatantly offside, ref’, it is more ‘was that player in front of the kicker blocking your view, sir?’

If the referee is hit by the ball or, much better, knocked to the ground during play, everyone laughs, apart from the players of course. He might even laugh himself and raise an arm in acknowledgement of how silly it must have looked. This should not be taken as an invitation to throw things at him after the match, and certainly not knock him to the ground. I cannot emphasise this enough. After all, he might officiate at a match for your club later in the season and referees have long memories.

Some more stricter clubs believe telling the referee that you know where he parked his car is rather against the spirit of the sport. Most clubs regard actually setting fire to it as a step too far unless the circumstances merit such action. Waiting for him to get into it before doing so can lead to sharp criticism from a committee member.

You might want to appear, for credibility in the eyes of your offspring as much as yourself, as if you have been around for a few years and know what you are talking about despite never having read anything of the laws of rugby. Feel reassured that it does not stop the chap next to you, who will know nothing of the laws either, from voicing an opinion. Nor the players after the match. Indeed, ignorance has never stopped a referee during one either.

Knowing the laws is optional for everyone. The only necessity is not calling them rules. Oh, no. Bad form. They are laws.

To appear experienced mention the ’20 yard line’. The fact that it no longer exists will add to your mystique. Once into the mood you can talk about ‘kicking away advantage’. This will generate knowing nods, especially from those who were in your state of ignorance a couple of matches ago. If you manage to catch a ball kicked into touch, shout ‘mark’ and dig your heel into the ground. All spectators will laugh, especially if both front rows suddenly drop on you.

Do not be too frightened of saying something that might be seen as totally out of context and nothing to do with the match you are watching. Television commentators do this all the time, and get paid for doing so. Why should you keep quiet? If someone spills their beer, a sure sign that your suggestion was ill judged, just say: ‘Well, that’s what Stuart Barnes said.’

Feel reassured that he probably has.

Once you have been to a few matches you will be able to tell which side you should be supporting and know that it is a good thing when they walk or even stagger towards the other side’s try line. Now is the time to become more sophisticated in your pronouncements.

Take the line-out. That’s when a few members of both teams line up at 90 degrees to the touchline. Or 80, let us not be too particular. If your side catches the ball, it is passed to one of their own team and he throws it to another of his side who catches it, you should come in with: ‘That’s a set piece straight off the training pitch.’

You would never have been to a training session of the first fifteen of course. Let’s face it, nor will some of the first fifteen. However, such comments give the impression that in the past you have supported a team that can afford more than one pitch. That will impress the other spectators.

Rugby has other features that can be mentioned for effect, dropped into conversation at strategic times, or when you fear someone has seen through your carefully created façade of knowledge. Try fractions. They are not unique to rugby. Many other sports have halves and some even quarters as well but only rugby has five eighths. Not only one but two five eighths, luxury indeed, but don’t make the mistake of calling the pair of them the one and a quarter. Similarly, it is unfortunate that many an cornered spectator has been panicked into throwing ‘seventeen thirty-seconds’ into the conversation. Too silly by half.

Even once the match has ended clapping rears its head again. When the opposing team and officials, a common grouping when criticisms flow, leave the pitch you should applaud them but in a manner where it is obvious to everyone you do not mean it. This takes great self control but is good practice. When your own side limps off, you should clap with exactly the same level of volume and at the same speed but it must sound that you appreciate their efforts. 

Then it is time for the post-match debrief when everyone discusses the game. Tactics will be dissected and the relative merits of the players will be argued over. Once that two minutes is over you can relax and have a drink.

Things to avoid saying:

Does that mean it’s a goal?

The ref’s blown up early. It’s only been 40 minutes. (Or, when it is rather cold, 35 minutes.)

Isn’t that hand ball.

I think the referee was spot on there.

It’s only a game after all.

Things to avoid asking:

Explain the offside law to me. (This is because no one, not experienced spectators, players, coaches or referees, understands the offside law.)

Unless you like standing on your own, avoid asking questions such as: Shouldn’t that have been a 5-metre scrum rather than a 22 drop out?

It is best not to speak with the hooker (the number 2) after the match. Or before the match come to that. Many suggest not approaching one at any time. They are not noted for their intellect, even in comparison to props. Or your ten-year-old come to that.

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How to spectate at a rugby match
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