When Do Lineouts Happen In Rugby? (7 Reasons)

Lineouts happen in rugby when the ball goes out of play over the sideline.

This can be due to tactical kicking from penalties or open play.

But lineouts can also happen when a player makes mistakes that send the ball into touch. This usually leads to raucous cheers from opposing supporters!

This article runs through seven scenarios when you get a lineout in a rugby match.

Kicking The Ball Over The Sideline From A Penalty

This is a very common reason for a lineout.

When the referee awards a penalty, the team captain usually chooses to kick for goal (three points) or to kick to the sideline. There’s a third option to tap and run the ball, but it’s less common.

Often, the penalty kick is too far for the kicker to reach the goalposts. So, the decision is a no-brainer.

But sometimes the captain will make a tactical choice to kick for touch instead of trying to secure the points.

The big advantage with kicking a penalty over the sideline is that the kicking team retains possession. In other words, they get to throw the ball into the lineout. (We have a separate article that looks at who gets the lineout in different situations).

This is different from kicking the ball from open play or from a free kick. Let’s look at those next.

Tactical Kicking From Open Play

When a player kicks the ball over the sideline in open play, the opposition gets the possession.

However, the tactical goal is to gain territory. A good tactical kick will ensure that the opposition is pushed into their own half.

Tactical kicking in rugby is usually the role of the flyhalf, the scrumhalf, and the back three. (The back three are the fullback and two wingers).

The kicker aims to kick the ball at an angle so it crosses the line as far upfield as possible.

Outside the 22

The key to watch out for is whether the kicker is inside or outside their own 22 when they kick the ball.

The diagram below shows the lines on a rugby pitch, including the 22 meter lines.

Taken from our article on lines on rugby pitches

If kickers are outside the 22 meter line, the ball has to bounce before it goes over the sideline.

This is a difficult skill to master, and it’s usually only attempted by players in the backline.

If the ball goes straight out of play without bouncing, then this is a big mistake. The opposition gets the lineout at the point where the player kicked the ball.

Bringing the ball back into the 22

When a player is in their 22 and is shaping to kick the ball, you may hear the referee yell that the ball was “brought back into the 22”.

This means that player’s team gained possession of the ball outside the 22 and brought it back past the 22 line.

In this scenario, the rules of kicking the ball outside the 22 still apply. If the player kicks directly to touch, the opposition gets the lineout where the player was standing.

One of the big changes in rugby over the years is the reduction in kicking to touch (i.e. kicking the ball out of play).

For example, the laws around bringing the ball into the 22 were introduced in 2008. You can read more details in our article on the number of lineouts in a rugby match.

Carrying The Ball Over The Sideline

When a ball carrier is tackled near the sideline, you’ll often see opposition players trying to drag them over the sideline.

As the ball is now out of play, a lineout happens from that position and the opposition gets to throw in the ball.

Running the ball out of play

This happens less often than it used to, but you’ll occasionally see a ball-carrier deliberately run across the sideline. This means that a lineout is awarded to the opposition at that point.

So, it is rarely desirable. Why would a player do so? It should only happen if the ball-carrier is deep in their own twenty-two and thinks they’ll get tackled and will turn over the ball.

If the opposition can grab the ball, they could have a great opportunity to score a try.

But ball carriers are more inclined now to take the tackle. This is because modern defensive play means that players are less likely to get isolated without any teammates near them.

Three Mistakes That Lead To Lineouts

We’ve already discussed kicking the ball directly into touch when the kicker is outside the 22. This is a big mistake.

There are other mistakes that lead to lineouts that put the team that had possession at a disadvantage.

Passing the ball into touch

This scenario is when a player passes to an invisible teammate. They expected a teammate to be there to take the pass but the ball flies over the sideline.

Opposition supporters find this hilarious.

Note that this has to be a genuine mistake for a lineout to be awarded. Throwing or batting the ball deliberately into touch is a penalty offense.

Knocking on over the line

We’re referring here to when a player fumbles the ball close to the sideline and it bobbles into touch.

This is less embarrassing but it can still result in a lineout.

Actually, the opposing captain has the choice of a lineout or a scrum. (We have a separate article on when scrums happen in rugby).

Kicking directly into touch from a restart

This is another big blooper that delights the opposition crowd.

The laws say that kick-offs and restarts in rugby should not go directly into touch. Otherwise, the opposition get a scrum or a lineout at the halfway line.

This seems to happen mostly to young flyhalves from sheer nerves. But even international flyhalves can do it.

I watched Finn Russell do so in Scotland’s match against Wales in the Six Nations. This guy is one of the highest-paid players in the world (check out the details in our article on how much Scottish rugby players earn).

Messing Up At The Lineout

We’ve covered mistakes in open play and from kicks that lead to lineouts.

But messing up at a lineout can also lead to another lineout – but handing possession to the opposition.

Incorrect throws

If the referee decides that a hooker has made an incorrect throw deliberately, the opposition is awarded a penalty.

But the incorrect throw may be clearly a mistake.

One law is that the ball must travel five meters to be a correct throw.

Let’s say the rain is teeming down and the ball is like a bar of soap. An inexperienced thrower may let the ball slip out of the hands and hit the ground after a miserable few meters.

A sympathetic referee won’t award a penalty. They’ll simply give the lineout to the opposition. Amidst laughter from the stand behind the unfortunate hooker.

More About Lineouts

This article also touches upon when possession is retained or handed over to the oppostion. We spell this out in detail in our article on who gets the lineout in rugby.

We’ve also written on which position is most often lifted to catch lineout ball. If you guessed that was the locks forwards, you’d be right. But only just!

Here is a link to the official list of rules for lineouts. I think the layout is quite confusing, as many of the circumstances are very similar. So, I’ve grouped them in an easier-to-understand way in this article.