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Is it legal to back heel a conversion in rugby?

By Ian Cameron
George Kruis kicking one of three conversion against England /PA

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Rugby has a funny relationship with the back of the heel. To kick a ball with that part of the body is an outlaw practice in the game, which in many instances explicitly forbids it.

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On Sunday former England second row George Kruis delighted the crowd and neatrals alike when he back heeled one of three conversions over the posts at Twickenham. It was the lumbering Barbarians’ lock’s last professional game of rugby and the moment of playfulness against his old side was a joy to watch for all baring maybe Eddie Jones and his England team.

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Eddie Jones reacts to big loss to Barbarians | England vs Barbarians | Press Conference
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Eddie Jones reacts to big loss to Barbarians | England vs Barbarians | Press Conference

It might seem like a moot point given it’s a non-Test Baabaas’ game – but the nagging question remains: was it legal?

The definition of a kick in rugby is: An act made by intentionally hitting the ball with any part of the leg or foot, except the heel, from the toe to the knee but not including the knee. A kick must move the ball a visible distance out of the hand, or along the ground.

So from a defintion point of view, hitting the ball with your heel is not a kick.

It crops again in the rules on kicking penalties: Law 21.3 (a) How Penalty and Free Kicks are taken. Any player may take a penalty or free kick awarded for an infringement with any type of kick, punt, drop kick, or place kick. The ball may be kicked with any part of the lower leg from knee to the foot excluding the knee and the heel.

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This Law clearly states that it’s illegal to kick a ball with a heel over the posts when taking a penalty. There’s no argument there.

However, it’s a little bit less clear when it comes to conversions, as in the protocols for conversion taking it does not explicitly mention the use of the heel.

However, it does say: “When a try is scored, it gives that team the right to attempt a conversion, which may be a place-kick or drop-kick” and “For any goal to be successful, the ball must be kicked over the crossbar and between the goal posts without first touching a team-mate or the ground.”

The key word here is kick and how rugby defines it. So if a back heel doesn’t meet the definition of a kick in rugby and is specifically forbidden during penalties or free kicks, it would seem tha Kruis’ kick was sadly not technically legal.

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A pedant might also argue that back heeling a conversion could also be said to go againsst the spirit of the game, although clearly Kruis’ effort was very much in the spirit of this Baabaas game. Back in the day Cardiff’s Mark Ring was told to write a letter of apology when he attempted and missed a back heeled conversion against London Welsh.

With all that said there are obvious exceptions to this Law or rather occasions when referee tend to turn a blind eye to it. The classic trick play [as demonstrated below by Brian O’Driscoll] – in which a player drops a ball on their heel as they are running, only to regather the ball moments later after evading oncoming defenders, is technically illegal.

It could be argued that another example might be at scrumtime. Back in the days when hookers actually hooked, they would course use their heel and sole to direct the ball backwards at a scrum, although that may not qualify as a kick.

Refereeing is also about intereptation and of course you would have to be pretty mean spiritied not to think Italian offical Andrea Piardi made the right to allow – or turn a blind eye – to Kruis to heeling it over.

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