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The Laws in Plain English

Carl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy

The story of how a very junior referee lay his hands on the Holy Grail of Rugby, the Laws of the Game, framed by the International Rugby Football Board (as it was then known) and helped generations of players and referees learn how to play the game.

Manhattan USA - An unlikely place to start

Rugby in the US in the early 1960s was starting to expand up and down the East Coast although in spring 1961, there were only 15 college or club teams in existence in the entire east. Most of the new players entering the game had only a vague idea of the laws.

During this period the author Derek Robinson was playing loose-head prop at Manhattan RFC, and in response to confusion stemming from with the myriad of rugby laws, he wrote a 40 page booklet entitled ‘Rugger – How To Play the Game’. This cost just 50 cents (the cost of a beer in those days) and provided a brisk and short gallop through the law book, aimed especially at Americans. For instance, he pointed out that American football and rugby both developed from the same game, which explains why a touchdown is so named, since a rugby player who scores has, in fact, to touch the ball to the field. And so on.

In those days Derek worked as an advertising copywriter on Madison Avenue, so he was ideal to handle the text. He had a pal at the agency, Wally Lawrence, a talented photographer, who took a stack of action shots during Manhattan’s games - tackles, lineouts, and kicks at goal, wingers in full flight – to illustrate the text. The booklet was duly completed and sold twelve hundred copies at $.50 each in its first season. Derek says "That says a lot about its appeal to American players, or not much about the quality of the beer. Or, possibly, both."

Manhattan improved. In April 1963, they broke with tradition and won a game. Soon after, they were fielding three XVs a week. Maybe it could have happened without the booklet. Who can say? But demand for the booklet was steady, and new editions regularly rolled off the press.

Here's the story as told by Derek:

"Manhattan RFC was the child of conflict. In 1960, there was a rebellion inside the New York RFC (oldest club in the US) and a few malcontents decided the city needed a new rugby club. The rebellious group met in McCorkin’s Bar (now defunct) on West 45th Street and Eighth Avenue and argued over crucial factors; such as the colour of the socks .Drinking quietly nearby was a man called Al Simms, who knew nothing about rugby but recognized bullcrap when he heard it.

“That’s no way to organize anything,” he said. Before the night was over, Simms had become Manhattan’s RFC’s Secretary. It was that sort of club: spontaneous, unpredictable, erratic, and often weird.

I joined in 1961, played my first game away at Dartmouth College where I received a police escort to the hospital and five stitches in my lower lip, which had swelled to the size of a banana. I was obliged to drink the students’ bourbon by chucking it past the lip damage and into the back of my throat. That way, I felt no pain. I woke up Sunday afternoon after the car had crossed the Triboro Bridge. I mention this only because it typified the Manhattan club’s USP (Unique Selling Proposition): one hell of a good party.

Manhattan may not have won many games (in fact, we lost nearly everyone my first year).We may have been short of a regular fifteen (sometimes we recruited soccer players to fill out the scrum). We may have played on fields of dirt instead of grass. (I recall the pre-match ritual at Van Cortlandt Park, when both teams joined the “Glass Pickup Parade” to remove broken soda and beer bottles.)

But we never lacked opponents; because after rugby, Manhattan always threw a terrific party, often back at 417 East 84th Street, where several of us lived. It was regularly awash with beer, literally…awash. I woke up one Sunday morning, got out of bed, and my feet stuck to the floor. Those post-match parties were always conducted on a heroic scale.

Manhattan had many memorable characters but few victories. The question was: How to attract better players? That was our challenge. We decided to advertise but we had no money for this. Instead, we published a small booklet on how to play the game and featuring exciting pictures of our matches."

- Derek Robinson

Oh, to be published in England

A copy of 'Rugger – How To Play the Game' found its way to England, where the Rugby Football Union (RFU) liked it so much that it published its own edition in March 1966, complete with a new set of photos, and in similar fashion the New Zealand RFU followed suit.

rugger-how to play the game
Rugger-How to Play the Game (2nd Edition March 1969)

By 1968 Derek was living in Portugal and refereeing the occasional match in Lisbon. The official rugby lawbook was such a mess – too long, too stuffy – that translation was almost impossible. The Portuguese players read it (if ever) in English. This was not a happy set-up for explaining the laws to non-English reading ruggers.

The success of the booklet published in New York meant that Derek had made some contacts at Twickenham. So, he offered to revise the traditional law book and by coincidence, the IRFB (who were the ultimate authority) also felt the same need, and so the RFU accepted his offer, ordering, “Do what you like, but do not alter the meaning of the laws.”

Obviously it was recognized that the assistance of a professional writer would be extremely useful to make the laws accessible to the average grassroots coach, player or referee. So, acting as a kind of consultant, Derek started re-writing the laws and submitted section after section to the RFU for review.

He then carried out a massive cut and paste job, which reduced the number of laws by 25-percent and tried to knock some common sense into them. For instance, He created an Advantage Law. In the old law book, advantage was an obscure paragraph, hidden away and almost lost.The RFU ultimately had editorial control, deciding how to incorporate the re-writes into wider proposals it eventually made to the IRFB.
The IRFB’s 1969 law book eventually benefited from a number of these suggested improvements.

1969 “Rugby: Success Starts Here”

Fresh from this success, Derek wrote his first commercial hardback, an idiot’s guide to the laws of rugby, cunningly disguised under the title, 'Rugby - Success Starts Here'. Thirty-seven years later, it’s still in print, now a paperback, called, more honestly, "Rugby: A Player’s Guide To the Laws."

Rugby success starts here
Rugby: Success starts here (2nd Edition March 1975)

1991 – The Genesis of ‘The laws in Plain English’

By 1991, Derek was an established novelist with a dozen books under his belt, and living in Bristol, a rugby hotbed in the west of England with a strong referees’ society (The Bristol Referees Society was founded in 1893, and it has produced a crop of top men, including two international referees, Mike Titcomb and Ed Morrison, the referee of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final).

To understand the story of ‘The Laws in Plain English’ you need to go back to the middle of the winter of 1990-91 and one of the monthly general meetings of that  rugby referee society. 

Derek by his own admission was strictly a grassroots ref. The Society coached its members well, and one point that it hammered home was the importance of the Law book. "If you can't back up your decisions with what the Law book says,"  the Society told its referees, "you're in trouble."
'Points of Law' was always an interesting part of the monthly meetings, and on one particular night someone asked a question about an unusual event when the ball went into an In-goal.  Everyone agreed on the correct decision but when the questioner said: "Where does it say so in the Law book?” nobody could tell him. It wasn't there. 

That incident stuck in Derek’s mind, it reminded him of the confusion of Americans learning the game back in the 1960s. If a bunch of experienced referees had trouble with the Law book, how could anyone expect players to understand it?  The more he looked at the Law book, the more of a mess it seemed.

So what was wrong with the Law book at that time?


Down through the years, the Laws had been written, and endlessly updated, by lawyers.  A lawyer's instinct is to be bulletproof and fireproof and idiotproof.  Their first instinct is not to be user-friendly.  Simplicity worries them.  They are happier in a world of paragraphs and sub-paragraphs, a sort of intricate jungle. It used to be said, by veteran refs, that  unless you already understood a Law, reading about it in the Lawbook  was no help.  Some truth in that. 

As part of the re-write process they got rid of the device beloved of lawyers  -  the numeral followed by letters, as in: Section 3, Sub-section (a), (b), (c) etc.   They used numbers alone.  If a Law was long, they broke it down into chunks headed by capital letters with short headings.  For example, for Law 27, Penalty Kick, they used the letter A headed THE KICK AND THE KICKER, followed by sections 1,2,3 etc. Each number had a thumbnail title. If you wanted to refer to the Law about penalty kicks at goal, you went to (A)  and then to 5, headed 'Kick at goal'.  This may sound like nitpicking,  but it cleaned up the look of the Lawbook wonderfully well.  Readers could then find their way around 'The Laws in Plain English' at a glance, which was a big improvement. 

Long Words

The Lawbook's language was not always helpful.  The Law about the front rows of the scrum used the phrase "Before commencing engagement"  and then "prior to engagement".  Nobody talks like that, and nowadays nobody calls it 'the scrummage'.  Nor do many people use the word 'wilfully', as the Lawbook did when it wasn't using 'deliberately'.  But 'deliberately' is ambiguous  -  it can also mean 'carefully planned in advance'. The word most rugby people would use is 'intentionally'. In the real game, nobody gets 'ordered off'; they get 'sent off'. Nobody 'propels the ball with his hand'; they hit it.  Nobody is 'debarred';  they are stopped.  Nobody 'participates';  they take part.  Nobody says 'endeavouring';  they say 'trying'.  And many, many more.

No Pictures

At the start of the rewrite, Derek talked to a lot of rugby people, especially in the US, about what they wanted in a better Lawbook.  On one point they were unanimous:  they wanted a lot of good pictures to illustrate the Laws.  The Lawbook had just one picture:  a plan of the ground.  But rugby is a dynamic game,  and rugby players are not in love with words.  However, when you show them words and pictures, they get the message fast. The re-write began with two pictures (scrum and line-out), it ended up with 40.

These had to be pen-and-ink drawings - photographs wouldn't capture the exact moment of, for example, the charge-down of a kick (an exception to the knock-on Law).  So a lot of matchstick figures got sketched in their sessions. Then they added the captions.            

Too many hangers-on

The 1991 Lawbook ran to 261 pages  -   but the actual Laws took up only 105 pages.  The rest was full of odds and ends,  bits and pieces that had been tacked on  -  some relevant, most not.  For example, the Laws were followed by 9 pages of Directives from the International Board and then 3 pages of RFU Rulings and 4 pages of advice about Under-19 rugby.  Then came 37 pages of Administrative Notes for the Guidance of Referees, most of it taken up by lists of names and addresses,  and 13 pages of Extracts from RFU Handbook, followed by 36 pages of Referee Signals and a 24-page Directive about Mini-Rugby,  plus odd pages  advertising video tapes. Some of all this might have been useful to the referee, in which case it should have been in the Laws.  If it wasn't useful, it had no place in the Lawbook .

...and so to action

So he wrote to his contact at Twickenham, Don Rutherford (14 caps for England in the 1960s), then Technical Director at the Rugby Football Union, and offered to rewrite the whole thing in simple, easily understandable English.

Don put the proposal to the Laws Sub-Committee and early in 1991 they said go ahead - but, sensibly, they added: ‘Rewrite three Laws and we'll see how you've handled it.'

The initial re-write of the three laws was duly submitted and they liked what they saw, so they set up a three-man working party consisting of:

  • R. A. B. Crowe, known universally as Jim, a Past President of the London Society of Referees and at that time an RFU referee assessor; 
  • Peter Hughes, formerly an international referee, a member of the RFU Laws Committee and active with the Manchester Referees' Society; 
  • and Derek Robinson, Author.

This was a blend of top experience, pragmatism, insight and writing skills. 

“ I remember especially Jim's invaluable input  -  he not only had an expert knowledge of how the Laws developed but also a rare understanding of why each Law existed in the first place, and what it was meant to achieve. The Law book says much about what a player must or must not do, but it leaves unspoken the large areas of what a player may do if he wishes.  Jim understood both very well. “ - Derek Robinson

Their first meeting was in a crowded bar off Regent Street in London  -  good enough for getting to know each other but hopeless for work.  After that they met at the East India Club, near Piccadilly.  The RFU had rooms there and they could get meals or stay overnight if necessary. So they met there, at intervals of two months, for the next three years. 

With the expert help of Jim and Peter, Derek did the writing and briefed the illustrator. Derek's former Manhattan scrumhalf, Robin Hall, was running an ad agency in England and he redesigned the book and handled the printing, the pricing, and the logistics, in short, everything. This was key to the whole operation.

Derek settled on  three basic aims for a rewritten Lawbook. 

1) It should be written in a user-friendly style, using simple, everyday language that was easily understandable by any player from a schoolboy to an international. 

2) It should be easy to translate the Lawbook into any language  (this is complementary to the first aim).

3) The book should be designed to help the reader find any aspect of Law swiftly, since most people use it mainly for reference. 

And as the rewrite went on, he added a fourth aim: 

4)Wherever a point of Law could be  helped by an illustration, then an illustration would appear. 

They followed the same routine, over and over again: 

"We took a Law, or part of a Law, and argued about exactly what it meant  -  not only to the top players but also to the grassroots individuals whose skill levels might be low. (The Laws are for everybody.)  I had prepared a draft of what I thought the rewrite should look like.  We pulled the Law to bits, often rearranged the parts, occasionally dropped an obsolete item, and then reassembled the whole in simple English. Often this was the most interesting part of the job.
I remember the day we worked on Law 17, Knock-On or Throw-Forward.  Here's how the old Law book defined a throw-forward:  
 'A throw-forward occurs when a player carrying the ball throw or passes it in the direction of his opponents' dead-ball line.' 
That seemed longwinded.  Why say 'occurs'?  Players never say something occurs, they say it 'happens'.  Why say a player is 'carrying the ball'?  If he throws it, he must be carrying it. Why say 'or passes it'?  If he passes it, he must throw it. Why say 'in the direction of' when 'towards' means the same thing?  So we trimmed the fat from the definition, and ended with this:   

 'A throw-forward happens when a player throws the ball forward.
 'Forward' means towards his opponents' dead-ball line.' 

- Derek Robinson

The resulting book ‘The Laws in Plain English’ was not seen as an abbreviated version of the old law book, it actually replaced the old law book.  The working party made every effort to ensure that everything the old law book covered was equally covered in 'The Laws in Plain English’.
The IRFB started to publish the two books alongside each other. 'The Laws in Plain English’ soon became very popular with international players and referees warmly welcoming the new book worldwide. However, rather than drop the old law book in favour of the new re-write they continued to publish both for a total of three years. Each year, the working party updated it and each year it sold out. 

Since this occurred during the amateur days the production team were not paid for their efforts, so the new lawbook cost the IRFB nothing and in fact made them a small profit. Then, abruptly, the IRFB dumped ‘The Laws in Plain English’. It sent the team a cold fax saying the booklet must never be published again under any circumstances. There were no additional explanations, and most definitely, not even a token thank you.

Was the IRFB upset that the ‘The Laws in Plain English’ was so successful? Or were they embarrassed that this small team had achieved what many others had failed to do for many years?

What is clear is that for the next few years, the IRFB kept churning out the same old law book, with all its faults, while it worked on a new, simplified, all-singing, all-dancing law book.  And when it was finally published it looked a lot like ‘The Laws in Plain English’, with similar layout and similar brief headings within each law for quick reference. Also the language was quite comparable: short words, short sentences, and nothing legalistic. Finally, the illustrations seemed so similar it was hard to believe someone had not traced over the original illustrations.


It is clear that ‘The Laws in Plain English’ is an unsung hero to Rugby players everywhere. It blazed a trail on behalf of the common man, common sense and that uncommon breed, the rugby player.


1. Derek Robinson (for his extensive help and contribution to the text above).




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