SUP Ultimate Rugby – a fun and unique aquatic rugby variation

I coach High School rugby and each year we try to come up with a fun team-building event during the pre-season.

Myself and another of our coaches are big fans of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), and we thought it might make a cool adventure for the team.

There is a great paddleboard rental shop here in Wisconsin on Peewaukee Lake called Koha Yoga and Paddleboard. So we contacted them to discuss the details of our outing.

As luck would have it, one of the owners of the paddleboard shop — Whakapaingia Luke — is a rugger from New Zealand. After a few chats we decided to try rugby on paddleboards!

Whakapaingia Luke of Koha Yoga and Paddleboard in Peewaukee, Wisconsin (USA).

After some trial and error, we found that the team had the most fun when we combined touch rugby with SUP and ultimate frisbee. In short, we played ultimate rugby on paddleboards using two inexpensive floating pool chairs secured to the lake bed as goals.

Sup Rugby 1

We even got to include rugby concepts like possession, offsides, obstruction, restarts and foul play (see details below). It was a great way to explain some of these basic concepts for the new recruits who were out with the team for the first time.

We also go to see both the physical and tactical strategies that the players preferred. Competitive spirits were also high as players dove and raced to get possession of loose balls in the water.

Sup Rugby 2

We also had a grill out and a team yoga session to make for a pretty incredible team outing.

Sup Yoga 1
Sup Bbq 1

The event was a great success, and one we plan to repeat.

Sup Rugby Team

If you’d like to try SUP Ultimate Rugby, I’ve done my best to formalize some rules below. If you have any suggestions, drop a note in the comments below.

Laws of SUP Ultimate Rugby

Overview

SUP Ultimate Rugby is a fun mashup of ultimate frisbee, touch rugby, and standup paddle boarding (SUP).

It is played on water and the goal is to throw the a rugby ball into one of two floating goals to score. The team scoring the most points wins.

Equipment & playing surface

The following equipment is needed to play:

  • 1 rugby ball
  • 1 SUP board and paddle per player
  • 1 life jacket per player (optional) 
  • Pinnies to indicate teams (use matching life jacket colors if available)
  • Two floating goals (i.e. inflatable pool loungers with handles)
  • Two 10 lb weights with rope
  • Large body of water

The easiest way to get started is to contact your local SUP shop and negotiate a good SUP group rental rate. Most of the equipment will be available from them and you’ll only need the ball and goals.

Playing area & setup

Unlike a typical rugby field, the playing area for SUP Ultimate Rugby is a lake or any similar shallow body of water. The nature of the  game tends to keep the action close to the goals (see below) so setting up touch lines is not necessary.  

To set up the goals, tie a weight to each of the inflated pool loungers and separate them by 50 to 100 meters depending on the SUP experience level of participants. Make sure there is enough rope connecting the weight to the goal to keep it in place but not to drag it below the surface. A little movement in the goal is fine as this makes it harder to score as the action gets close. 

Additionally, using a pool lounger with one end higher than the other (see link in the equipment list above) will increase the accuracy needed to score.

Before beginning the match, make sure each player has a colored pinnie and/or colored life jacket to indicate their team.

Match time & team size

The match time is dependent on the SUP experience of the group: 15 minute halves for SUP beginners and 30 minute halves for intermediate/advanced SUP boarders. 

Team size can be anywhere between 4 and 10 players per team. Too few players means not much competition for possession while too many players results in too few opportunities with the ball for each player.

Starting the game

The match starts with each team behind their goal. The referee places the ball between the goals and the whistles for the match to start. Teams then race on their boards to get the ball.

The first team to collect the ball has possession. 

General play (moving the ball & scoring)

Once a team has possession, the ball may be passed in any direction. The passer cannot be blocked while making the pass, but defenders can cover players without the ball and attempt to intercept the pass. 

In addition to passing, the ball can be may be carried in any direction by a player on a board.

Commonly, the ball is placed between the knees to free the hands to paddle. Defenders can stop this type of attack by touching the ball carrier in one of two ways:

  1. Tagging the ball carrier with one hand
  2. Tagging the ball carriers SUP board with their own SUP board. 

A ball carrier who is touched by an opponent or their opponents SUP board must pass the ball immediately.  

Importantly, swimming with the ball is not allowed.

When in range, any player on a SUP board can throw the ball into the opponents goal to score. Leaping off the SUP board to dunk the ball or throwing/dunking when not on the SUP board (i.e. in the water) is not allowed. 

Turn overs/possession

The ball can change possession in the following situations:

  1. Score. When a goal is scored. The team who was scored on will have possession
  2. Interception. When a pass is intercepted. The team that intercepts the pass will have possession.
  3. Loose ball. When the ball is in the water (i.e. a “loose” ball). The first player to touch the loose ball will be awarded possession, even if they are unable to pick it up/gather it immediately. Players may leave their boards to race for the ball but once touched, no wrestling or competing for possession is permitted. The player who touched the ball first can pass from the water to another player on a SUP board, or get back on their board and pass/carry the ball until they are touched.
  4. Foul Play (see details below). The team that did not commit foul play will have possession.

Restarts and offsides

After scoring each team must retreat behind their own goal. Players in front of their goal remain offside until their entire team has retreated and cannot participate in any way. 

Typically, the team that scores will be further from their own goal than their opponents. This difference has two effects:

  1. The team that has been scored upon can retreat more quickly than their opponents. Once the full team is retreated, they may begin moving the ball as described above. 
  2. Since the entire team must retreat after a goal is scored, there is usually a disadvantage for teams to keep one player at the opposition goal all the time hoping for a really long pass (for example).  

Once one team has fully retreated, they may rejoin the match even when the other team is still retreating.

Restarts and foul play (see below) are the only time during a match when a player can be offside. 

Foul play

Foul play results in a turnover of the ball. Additionally, the player committing foul play must retreat behind their own goal before participating again. 

Foul play results from any of the following infractions:

  1. Paddle misuse. Using a paddle for anything other than moving the SUP board. For example, blocking a pass/scoring attempt, striking or tagging another player, throwing a paddle, etc.
  2. Dangerous play. Including but not limited to dunking another player, knocking a player off their board, tacking, colliding with another board at high speed, and intentionally hitting a player with a board. 
  3. Obstruction. Preventing the ball carrier from passing the ball.
  4. Misconduct. A player must not do anything that is against the spirit of good sportsmanship including disrespecting the referee. 

Referee role

Referees may or may not be needed depending on the SUP experience level of the boarders. However, we recommend a referee if one is available. 

Referees are strongly recommended under the following conditions:

  1. When the players are minors.
  2. When players of any age are not wearing a life jacket or other personal flotation device.
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