Are players allowed to grab the ball in rugby from their opponent’s hands? Yes, in many circumstances, but it’s often not a good defensive tactic. But when it works, it can be spectacularly effective (we’ll show you an example).
You’ll also see plenty of times in a rugby match where defenders are staring at the ball on the ground. Why don’t they bend down and grab it? You’ll learn a little about rucks.
And if you’re looking for some tips for grabbing or ripping the ball, we’ve got some pointers from the great Ritchie McCaw.
Can You Grab The Ball In Rugby From An Opponent?
You can grab the ball in rugby from the hands or under the arm of the carrier if you are standing on your feet in an onside position.
If you are grappling for the ball and successfully grab it, this is usually known as a “rip” or a “steal”. It’s a rare enough occurrence, but here’s a quick clip from an international match between France and Ireland.
Irish prop Tadhg Furlong is one of the best in the game. He’s not just an Ireland international, he started for the British & Irish Lions in 2017. Furlong is from a farming background and is a very strong guy. I doubt he’s ever had the ball ripped from him before this fateful day in the six nations in 2018.
Furlong trucks the ball up from a ruck near the French try line. It’s almost guaranteed safe ball for green. He’s tackled by two French players, one of whom is his opposing prop. While one French player wraps his arms around the Irishman to bring him down, the other player in blue attacks the ball.
Poirot and the incredible case of grand larceny
Amazingly, the French prop comes away with the ball! Even more astonishing, his name is Poirot, Jefferson Poirot.
Doesn’t Poirot usually solve cases of spectacular heists and thefts? This time he’s the perpetrator (and this time he’s not Belgian).
When Is It Illegal To Grab The Ball In Rugby?
Jefferson Poirot was legal because he was on his feet. If he’d been on the ground with Furlong, he would have given away a penalty.
You will occasionally see players fall foul of the referee in this regard. They know they are going to ground, and they rip the ball as they’re falling. It can be a split second, but if the referee decides they were off their feet when the ball leaves their opponent’s grasp, it will be judged as an infringement.
The consequence is a penalty kick.
Why Don’t Players Grab The Ball In Rugby?
When you see the great success that the French had against Ireland in our example, you may be wondering why defenders don’t always try to grab the ball.
The reason is that completing a tackle is far more important. The point of a tackle is to wrap your arms around your opponent, kill their forward momentum, and bring them to the ground.
Suppose you decide not to affect a tackle, but to go for the rip instead. And let’s say you’re on your own i.e. this is not a two-person tackle.
If you don’t succeed in grabbing the ball, the attacker will likely shoulder past you still in glorious possession. That is a missed tackle, and you’ve put your team into a bad defensive position.
Now, let’s say there are two of you going in for the tackle. Surely, one of you should always go for the ball? The problem is that rugby players train to hold onto the ball! Unless you get a sudden rip, you’ll likely end up grappling with the player’s grip.
You are now not part of the attempt to bring the player to the ground. If a strong forward can stay on his or her feet for a few seconds longer, they have bought precious time for their teammates to support them.
The other disadvantage is when you successfully grab the ball from the barrier but it falls to the ground. This is often given as a knock-on by the player who ripped the ball.
That may seem a little unfair. Referees must judge who last touched the ball, and that must be difficult in a rip situation. From my experience, they seem to favor the ball carrier.
Why Don’t Players Grab The Ball In Rucks?
This picture shows the ball nestled between the feet of the player in yellow (Exeter Chiefs of England).
The blue prop (Leinster of Ireland) is looking longingly at the ball. He would dearly love to bend down and grab it. So, why doesn’t he?
The point is that this is a ruck. The ball is still in front of the hindmost yellow sock of the team in possession. It is illegal for the defender to touch the ball in that position.
In fact, prop Cian Healy is probably more interested in the hands of the opposing scrum half. They are hovering around the ball but he is a split second from picking it up. The moment the nine lifts the ball, he’s fair game to be tackled.
By the way, it’s not a great quality picture – but I can tell you that the loosehead prop at the bottom of the picture is none other than Tadhg Furlong, the guy who got his pocket picked in the earlier clip!
Can Players Be Coached To Grab The Ball In Rugby?
Here’s a short coaching video with all-time great Ritchie McCaw. There’s a lot of Kiwi humor in the clip, but there’s some great advice too.
You’ll get a few tips based on how to change your approach based on whether you’re smaller or taller than your opponent.e
Other Less Common Tackles
If you can’t grab the ball, what happens if you get hold of your opponent’s jersey instead? Check out our article on whether you can grab shirts in rugby – we’ll explain why you see this less often in the modern game.
And what about resorting to a solid heave in the back? Have a look at what happens if you push your opponent in rugby: this can lead to a penalty against you.