Players can run backwards with the ball in rugby but it’s usually a bad tactic.
Rugby is a game of gaining territory so running toward your own try line is putting your team at a disadvantage. However, there are times when it’s the right play!
I’ve graded different scenarios from good to bad – or from coaches shouting “well done!” to the dreaded “you’re off the team!”.
Running Backwards With The Ball Is Perfectly Legal
There’s nothing in the laws of rugby that prohibit players from running backwards with the ball in hand.
The goal is always to advance toward the opposition try line, so running backwards means the team is conceding territory. This is why you don’t see players do this very often.
Now the laws are out of the way, let’s look at the typical situations when players do run backwards with the ball.
Running Backwards When Catching The Ball
This is the most likely scenario you’ll see happening during a rugby match.
It often happens when the attacking team is turned over. Their wingers have pushed up for an attacking move, and there’s suddenly a lot of space behind them.
The opposition scrumhalf or flyhalf may kick the ball high and long, making the wingers turn to race backwards to reach the ball.
If they catch the ball on the run, their momentum will keep them running back towards their own try line.
The catcher doesn’t have any choice but to run backwards a few steps, so this can’t be considered poor play.
Usually, the catcher will arc their run in a wide U-turn to get an angle to kick the ball back up the field.
What’s vital is that the catcher isn’t himself caught in a tackle by the pursuing opposition. You’ll sometimes see the ball carrier run more than just a few steps backwards to get away from a would-be tackler.
If the catcher is chased backwards and laterally across the field, the opposition supporters will be on their feet and baying for blood. The opposition will be pressing forward to take advantage of this vulnerable position.
Running Backwards To Reach Support
The worst thing that the attacking ball carrier can do is to get tackled and turned over i.e. the opposition come away with the ball. This can happen if the player has run too far from supporting teammates to protect the ball at a ruck.
Sometimes you’ll see players realize they’ve got isolated from their teammates. They may stop dead, and arc a run backwards and laterally to reach support.
The problem is that the ball carrier has now retreated and lost territory. This is better than turning over possession.
But a coach would usually say that the player shouldn’t have put himself into that position in the first place!
Running Backwards To Find An Attacking Opportunity
Occasionally you’ll see a backline player reverse their direction and run slightly backwards in a lateral arc. They are looking for an opening to dart forward and break the defensive line.
This was more common in older periods when defences weren’t so well organized. Now, it rarely works. It just gives the opposition more time to press forward, and the attacking team end up losing ground.
So if it doesn’t work, this will be considered poor play!
I see it more at amateur level, particularly with a player who is more used to playing Sevens. It’s a reasonable tactic in Sevens rugby, but not in the fifteen-player game.
Running The Ball Backwards Out Of Play When Time Is Up
Here’s a classic scenario. The match is Wales against Ireland in 2009. Ireland are two points ahead in the final seconds.
They are on the cusp of winning not just the Six Nations tournament but a Grand Slam. A Grand Slam means beating every opponent in the tournament. The team in green hadn’t achieved this since 1948.
And then, calamity! A hapless sub gives away a penalty in kicking range. Up steps Welsh sharp-shooter Steven Jones to kick Wales to a win. The game is in the red so this is the final action.
Jones kicks strong and straight, and the ball sails toward the posts. But it’s a long-distance kick and the ball is dropping steeply. Ireland fullback Geordan Murphy is stood on the try line and the ball falls into his hands.
What’s happened? Did it go over or under the posts? Most of the watching supporters couldn’t tell. But Murphy knew it had gone under the posts. A miss!
What should have happened
Time was up before Jones took his kick. This means that Murphy just had to touch the ball down or get it out of play immediately.
A good option here was to catch the ball, turn, and run backwards over the end goal area as if the hounds of hell were chasing.
What really happened
My hazy memory was that Murphy id as I described above. But then I went looking for a clip on YouTube.
It turns out that I’d forgotten that Murphy was the kind of silky-footed fullback who jinked to his own drum. Take a look for yourself.
He nonchalantly turns his back to the onrushing Welsh chasers and jogs on a slightly backwards but more lateral run toward the sideline. He eventually dots the ball down after taking his own sweet time.
To be fair, he probably wasn’t immediately aware that time was up.
Could Murphy have kicked the ball backwards?
Murphy ended up grounding the ball to stop play. This was after he’d sauntered on a little run!
But he also had the option to kick the ball over his try line. This is perfectly legal.
You can check out our article on whether rugby players can kick the ball backwards. The answer is yes, and sometimes it’s a very good tactic.