Are there really eleven types of passes in rugby? Maybe not! Some of the types we’ll describe in this article are close variations.
However, you’ll hear these passing terms being used by coaches and commentators. You’ll enjoy the sport better if you’re familiar with the variety of passes in rugby.
Types Of Passes In Rugby
Here are the main types of passing in rugby. I’ve listed them roughly in descending order of how common they are in the sport. There are some that you may not see in a full season.
- Basic pass
- Spin pass (also known as a spiral pass)
- Pop pass
- Off-the-ground pass
- One-handed pass
- Reverse pass
- Inside pass
- Dive pass
- Slap pass
- Through-the-legs pass
The Basic Pass In Rugby
We’ll explain the spin pass in the next section. You may be surprised to learn that it’s not the most basic rugby pass.
The basic pass is a simple pass without extra spin. The player throws their hands across their body and releases the ball.
The disadvantage is that it’s slower and shorter due to the lack of spin. Players can use some rotation in their hips to get some extra power in the pass.
The big advantage is that the basic pass is easier to catch! This makes fumbles and knock-ons less likely.
If a centre makes a break and realizes that the only teammate who can take a pass is the tight-head prop – then the basic pass is a safer option!
Spin Or Spiral Pass
A rotating rugby ball travels faster and longer in the air. This is why the spin pass is so important.
It lets the attacking players stand wide and receive the ball further away from where the defense may have bunched up around a ruck.
Take the classic scenario of a scrum that leads to a flowing wide move through the backline. The outhalf will typically send a long spin pass to the inside centre. The centers in turn may spiral the ball out to the wing.
How do players execute a spin pass?
The key to the spiral is when the player is releasing the ball. The fingers on the back hand give a little upward flick to add spin.
It’s actually quite easy to execute when standing still and under no pressure. This is one of the first rugby passing drills!
It’s probably easier to deliver a spin pass than it is to catch it. But every player in the backline must be able to take a spin pass arriving with some force.
They should also be able to catch it when the ball is dropping towards their feet or is above their head. They’re entitled to a glare at the passer when the move is over!
The pop pass is a very short pass to a nearby teammate.
It’s usually executed when the ball carrier is about to be tackled and their supporting teammate is rushing up from behind. The carrier pops the ball up into space.
This can lead to a spectacular break through the defensive line.
You could say that all passes are the ball carrier offloading the ball to someone else!
But in rugby union, the offload refers to a pass when the player has been tackled or grappled by a defender. The goal of the offload is to avoid a ruck and keep the attack moving.
They may be falling in the tackle or they may be fending off a defender who has their hands on the player.
This is often a one-handed pass. The carrier holds the ball in one hand away from the grasp of the defender and chucks it to a supporting teammate.
Sometimes you’ll see the offload when the carrier still has the ball in both hands. Commentators may shout “he’s got his hands free!” as the ball is transferred to a teammate.
Passing/Popping The Ball From The Ground
When a player is tackled to the ground, the laws of rugby say that they must release the ball immediately.
There’s a bit of leeway for a half roll to place or pass the ball. We discuss this in our article on whether you can roll in rugby.
The player can place the ball behind them and hope that their teammates will set up a ruck before it’s grabbed by the opposition.
Alternatively, the player on the ground can pop the ball up to an onrushing teammate.
This is a variation of the pop pass. The difference here is that the passer is not on their feet.
Players usually hold the ball in both hands before they pass it. This gives maximum control on strength, direction, and spin.
I’ve already mentioned that the offload in a tackle may be executed with one hand.
But sometimes you’ll see a one-handed pass when the ball-carrier is running at the defensive line but hasn’t been tackled.
The goal is to catch the defenders by surprise. They’re not expecting a pass when the ball is in one hand!
This is a move beloved of Fijian players. It looks spectacular when executed well, and can be devastating to the defense.
The basic or spiral pass involves throwing your hands across the body and releasing the ball. The defenders know whether the ball is going right-to-left or left-to-right.
The reverse pass catches them by surprise. The carrier feints to pass in one direction. Then they swiftly pull their hands back and release the ball in the other direction.
They usually add to the trickery by slightly turning their body and looking in the fake direction.
This means that the player is passing “blind”. They’re not looking at the receiver. This is a tough skill to execute well.
When it goes badly, it can lead to a fumble or the ball simply hitting the ground without being caught. Worse still, it can lead to a knock-on.
Players usually pass the ball away from the direction that they received it. This is passing on the outside. I don’t mention a category of an outside pass because that’s the standard.
The inside pass involves sending the ball back in the direction from whence it came!
It’s often a short pop-up pass with little power.
Let’s describe a typical move off a ruck. The scrum-half sends the ball long to the ten who has the option of passing it long again to a center outside him.
Instead, he flicks the ball inside to an onrushing flanker.
Here’s a video example, in this case it’s a forward to a centre.
If you watch old footage of rugby matches from the 20th century, you’ll see the dive pass executed by scrumhalves getting the ball away from the scrum or ruck.
The ball is on the ground. The passer crouches low, scoops the ball up, and dives forward. This lets them release the ball with strength.
It used to be an iconic move in rugby. But it fell out of favor because coaches realized that it takes the scrum-half out of the game for an extra second!
They now want the nines to stay on their feet so they can move fast to the next ruck.
However, you’ll still see it the odd time. Usually, the ball has rolled unexpectedly out of a ruck. This makes it fair game for the defenders to pounce.
With no time, the scrumhalf may dive-pass to get the ball away.
The slap pass involves slapping a ball away instead of the usual catch-pass action.
It’s rare in the sport because players have so little control over the direction of the ball. They have to hope that it will go backward and not be intercepted.
Players will only execute this risky play when they know they will be tackled at the same point as they receive the pass. If their teammate is unmarked outside them, then it can result in a spectacular break down the line.
Through The Legs Pass
This is another rare but spectacular move, usually reserved for outside backs who like to look flashy!
The player receives the ball while facing in the direction of the first passer. He doesn’t have time to adjust his body to give the usual outside pass.
Instead, he bends over and throws it between his legs. Needless to say, this is very difficult to execute. And when it doesn’t come off, the player looks very stupid indeed!
Some players will go through their careers and never execute this kind of pass. I’ve seen Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll pull it off several times.
Here’s a video example in a big club European match.