Direct numerical simulation of open-channel flow over a bed of spheres arranged in a regular pattern has been carried out at bulk Reynolds number and roughness Reynolds number (based on sphere diameter) of approximately 6900 and 120, respectively, for which the flow regime is fully rough. The open-channel height was approximately 5.5 times the diameter of the spheres. Extending the results obtained by Chan-Braun et al. (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 684, 2011, pp. 441–474) for an open-channel flow in the transitionally rough regime, the present purpose is to show how the flow structure changes as the fully rough regime is attained and, for the first time, to enable a direct comparison with experimental observations. Different statistical tools were used to investigate the flow field in the roughness sublayer and in the logarithmic region. The results indicate that, in the vicinity of the roughness elements, the average flow field is affected both by Reynolds number effects and by the geometrical features of the roughness, while at larger wall distances this is not the case, and roughness concepts can be applied. Thus, the roughness function is computed which in the present set-up can be expected to depend on the relative submergence. The flow–roughness interaction occurs mostly in the region above the virtual origin of the velocity profile, and the effect of form-induced velocity fluctuations is maximum at the level of sphere crests. In particular, the root mean square of fluctuations about the streamwise component of the average velocity field reflects the geometry of the spheres in the roughness sublayer and attains a maximum value just above the roughness elements. The latter is significantly weakened and shifted towards larger wall distances as compared to the transitionally rough regime or the case of a smooth wall. The spanwise length scale of turbulent velocity fluctuations in the vicinity of the sphere crests shows the same dependence on the distance from the wall as that observed over a smooth wall, and both vary with Reynolds number in a similar fashion. Moreover, the hydrodynamic force and torque experienced by the roughness elements are investigated and the footprint left by vortex structures on the stress acting on the sphere surface is observed. Finally, the possibility either to adopt an analogy between the hydrodynamic forces associated with the interaction of turbulent structures with a flat smooth wall or with the surface of the spheres is also discussed, distinguishing the skin-friction from the form-drag contributions both in the transitionally rough and in the fully rough regimes.