Rugby is well known as a sport where players must pass the ball backward to each other.
But what if a player tossed the ball up and over a defender and ran forward and caught it? Can you forward pass to yourself in rugby?
Rugby players are not allowed to intentionally pass the ball forward. However, they are allowed to regather a ball if they accidentally fumbled it forward. The referee must judge whether the action was intentional. If the referee rules a forward pass, the team is penalized with a penalty kick.
In the case of our sneaky player tossing the ball forward, the referee would quickly blow the whistle. The opposition gets a penalty from the place where the player was positioned when the ball left his hand.
Were Rugby Players Ever Allowed Forward Pass To Themselves?
I’ve heard stories about players in older times getting away lobbing the ball forward and catching it. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to dig up any footage so I can’t swear that any are true.
But the old legend who crops up most frequently in this regard is Dally Messenger. The Australian played in the early 20th century and was famed as a mesmeric center.
The story goes that Dally would charge toward the defensive line with the ball in hand and throw it up and over the defenders. The pacy back would sprint through a gap and catch the ball unimpeded.
Apparently, he would give a running commentary as he did so – for the benefit of both the referee and the opposition.
He’d shout “no fumble!” to clarify that his actions were intentional. This was to ensure that the referee didn’t whistle for a knock-on.
Even more cheekily, he’d yell “no ball” to the defenders. His point was that as he didn’t have the ball, the defenders weren’t allowed to tackle him!
Was Messenger right that he couldn’t be tackled?
Let’s “tackle” one of Messenger’s claims before the other. One of the fundamentals of rugby is that you can’t tackle a player without the ball.
If he had chipped the ball over the defenders’ heads with his foot, they wouldn’t be allowed to tackle him. That was both then and now. But throwing the ball?
We’ve got an article on tackling without the ball that has an example of a player being tackled after he had tipped the ball up in the air. It’s in the section on juggling the ball. The referee was very clear in his decision.
Changing the passing laws
There’s a law in Rugby Union that says this:
A player must not do anything that is against the spirit of good sportsmanship.Rugby Union Laws
This comes under the heading of “Misconduct”.
It’s a great catch-all that is rarely needed. But it’s there for referees if they see an incident on the field that they know is wrong but isn’t covered by the current laws.
One of the main principles of rugby is that the ball must be passed backward.
Before a law was explicitly written to prevent players from forward passes to themselves, any referee could penalize the action as against the spirit of rugby.
However, there is now an explicit instruction to assist referees.
Is Juggling An Intercept Not Passing The Ball Forwards?
This is what aggrieved Welsh fans were asking themselves back in 201 when French fly half Trinh-Duc intercepted the ball and raced down the touchline to score a try.
Because Trinh-Duc didn’t intercept the ball cleanly. He had to tap or juggle the ball twice to get it under control and into his hands.
The officials were right beside him and didn’t see anything wrong. The try was awarded.
Why isn’t this an example of intentionally throwing the ball forward? As a general rule, players are given the benefit of the doubt with an intercept.
Fumbling an intercept is common, so referees assume that the action isn’t intentional.
What About Juggling A Bad Pass?
Every now and then, your teammates don’t deliver that perfect pass.
Sometimes it’s so far above your head, you’d need a step ladder. Sometimes, it’s so far in front of you, you’d need a fishing net.
Sometimes you can lunge forward and block the ball with your outside hand. If the ball goes forward, with luck you’ll gather it before it hits the ground.
Is that not a forward pass to yourself? Referees will usually judge your actions to be unintentional. If the ball hits the floor, it’ll be a knock-on and scrum to the opposition.
If you catch it, happy days. You’ll play on (and your teammate should be grateful).
Can You Pass To Yourself In Rugby At All?
You’re not allowed to pass the ball forward to yourself, but there’s no law against throwing it backward and catching it.
Take a look at this example that was much discussed at the time.
It’s an Irish derby match between neighbors Leinster and Ulster in 2007. Renowned Ireland center Brian O’Driscoll lobs the ball sideways and catches it.
What was the point? Well, the point is deception. The defender thinks that O’Driscoll is about to short pass to his teammate running a short line. The Ulster man sets himself to tackle the Leinster winger.
O’Driscoll doesn’t pass the ball forward over the head of the defender. Instead, he passes it over the head of his own player.
When he catches it, he’s wrong-footed one defender and has given himself enough space to arc around the outside man. The only pity (from the point of view of Leinster fans) is that he was tackled before he crossed the try line.
Some of the debate around this move was whether it was a forward pass or not. The officials were happy that it was either backward or flat. It certainly looks backward to me.
However, the actions of O’Driscoll’s teammate are more suspect. He runs into the defender. Isn’t that obstruction? It’s a fine line between a dummy run and obstruction, and this one was fine with the officials.