This is our first ever guest publication, kindly written by serial comments-section gasbag HenryFitz. After a recent comment on our Santa Baby piece, we felt his understanding of the perpetually grey area of the breakdown and how it can be addressed merited a post in itself, and he has duly obliged. You can tweet at him @HenryFitz1 or read his in-utero blog at polarnews.net.
The first and most influential law in rugby union is the law of unintended consequences. In the game’s staccato evolution from hobby to entertainment product, this law has been the primary catalyst of change. Every rewriting or reinterpretation of rugby’s lawbook has been inspired by the unintended consequences of the last. Nowhere has this been more obvious than at the ruck, or breakdown.
Watch a rugby match today, and you can see the latest unintended consequences played out at every tackle. In search of an ideal game for Antipodean TV, a recent reinterpretation of the lawbook judged the tackle to be a mini-contest and gave the tackler licence to attack the ball from any angle he chose. The tackler was uniquely privileged. Everyone else had to describe the tiresome arc of running back around the fence and through the gate. Like a ghost or a JCB, the tackler could enter from anywhere.
The rationale behind this reinterpretation was twofold. First, it increased the likelihood of a turnover (which is the best attacking possession), and second, it increased the speed of the contest. In theory, the tackler would either win possession immediately or be blown out by supporting players. In practice, it worked out that way for about a month, and then the unintended consequences took hold.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that allowing the tackler to loiter offside at the tackle area might not be the best idea. What was to stop the tackler from getting to his feet to trip or otherwise impede the supporting players while his team-mates scrabbled for the ball on the ground? Nothing, it transpired. What was to stop the participants in a double or triple tackle from obstructing the clearers ahead of the ball while one of the other tacklers made off with the egg? Again, nothing. The tackler could come in from the side of the ruck and steal the ball unless there were two clearers on either side of it to look after him. One man (the tackler) could easily outmatch two. In fact, the only methods of stopping any of this previously illegal play were for referees to arbitrarily penalise the most blatant examples, or for the supporting players to take matters into their own hands.
Wherever You Rest Your Head, That’s Not Home
The subject of sealing-off at rucks is a sore one. Or at least, he used to be. In the days of genuine, bona fide rucks – what the dictionary remembers as a play in which a mass of players gather around a ball dropped by the ball-carrier and each tries to win the ball by kicking it to his team-mates – any player who found himself on the ground could expect painful encouragement to move out of harm’s way. The referee’s call of ‘ruck’ was not so much a legal distinction as an exhortation – a starter’s gun. When the ruck was a brutal, dynamic battle between opposing phalanxes, only the foolhardy or the unconscious sealed off in an attempt to protect possession.
But, as Schopenhauer enjoins us to consider the problem of unequal happiness by imagining the respective feelings of two animals, one in the process of being eaten by the other, so the lawmakers and the litigious forced us to consider the feelings of the players on the ground, and how their unhappiness might outweigh the sadistic joy of the forwards trampling on them.
When the ground became a safer place to rest your body, the game evolved to include sealing-off as a primary tactic, with the Brumbies of 2003 and Munster of 2008 being the most famous exponents. By the beginning of the 2008-09 season, lawmakers and spectators had grown tired of the game’s reduction to a long exhibition of the pick and synchronised dive, and a new directive about supporting the body-weight came into force. Players would be penalised for using their arms or shoulders to support themselves at a ruck.
The results were not pretty. No leniency or common sense was allowed, and with the jackal move in vogue (a manoeuvre where the tackler got to his feet by pinning the ball-carrier to the ground, preventing the release of the ball), bringing the ball into a ruck in your own half became a low-percentage play. Kickathons ensued.
Then minds changed. From 2009 to the present, the directive against sealing-off has been relaxed and the jackal move has been hunted to virtual extinction, but the lese-tackler privileges have brought all the old, unintended consequences back.
Mutually Assured Destruction
As referees are unable, under the laws, to deal with the tackler obstructing or disrupting possession from an offside position, it has fallen to the players themselves. There has been an arms race. The most effective counter-measure against the tackler is to neutralise him immediately in the ruck. As the tackler is generally in a prone position, that means the supporting players dive straight to ground, and then either reef the tackler out of the ruck or pin him to the turf. An unintended consequence of the tackler’s expanded rights therefore is that the first movement of clearers at a ruck is to go to ground and seal off possession. Depending on how the referee feels that week about sealing-off, this may cause penalties, or it may not.
The consequences of not sealing-off and ignoring the tackler are random and referee-dependent. In the following video, we see John Barclay stealing the laid egg at the back of a French ‘ruck’ and running away with it for an eventual try, a try which could have won Scotland the game. An oddity of the laws is that the two players who stepped over the ball to protect at the tackle do not constitute a ruck (as there were no opposition players bound), and Barclay was perfectly free to run away with the ball from an apparently offside position.
[Starts at 0.47 in below]
Then in the 3rd test of Ireland’s tour of NZ, we see two separate incidents where the same referee’s interpretation of what constitutes a formed ruck differs randomly. In the first, Peter O’Mahony bounces to his feet and grabs the ball, only to be penalised.
[Starts at 18.10]
In the second, Richie McCaw does the same, while Seán O’Brien’s protestations are unavailing.
[Starts at 7.20]
In addition, here are two instances of sealing-off, one of which is penalised, the other of which is not.
[Starts at 12.29]
[Starts at 17.55]
Videos may be damaging to health of Irish supporters, so consume with caution.
A further consequence is what has become known as screening, or as referees call it when they occasionally penalise it: ‘taking up the space’. In these situations, a tackler disengages from the tackle to block supporting players, most particularly the scrum-half. He may then accidentally fall on top of the ball-carrier, slowing down the release of the ball. As with many of the dark arts, this one is more sneaky and more successful the higher the level of the game.
In general then, the consequences of these expanded rights for the tackler have been to make the breakdown: more chaotic; more difficult to referee; the scene of random penalties; alternately a pile of players lying on top of each other or the fiefdom of an upper-class of tacklers who can take the ball whenever they like without having to work for it. By placing the duty of interpretation in the hands of the referee, and forcing illegality in many breakdown clearouts, it has also made the game more susceptible to bribery or bias. From week to week, the same offences are punished or pardoned by lottery, and spectators howl their outrage or turn to each other shrugging and confused to say ‘what was that for?’. Worse again, with the return of sealing-off, the prospect of a genuine contest at the ruck is a distant island from which the game is drifting away. Who wins at the ruck is decided by who cheats and gets away with it, not by any fair shoving and wrestling match over the ball.
Someone, Don’t Think of the Children
Those schooled in the older, harder game of amateur rugby union, when it was a violent pastime between consenting adults, could tell you one sure way to solve this problem. Bring back rucking. Rugby has always had, alongside its judicial framework, a system of natural or vigilante justice. Expand its powers again, and the laws would be more rigorously enforced. Unfortunately, so would the law of punitive retribution. Making rugby a more dangerous game would make it more expensive to insure and administrate, which is not a choice businesses are known to favour. As a franchisable circus, professional rugby must consider the cost of its activities. Rucking is not likely to pay for itself.
Other measures then, are required. Perhaps you think the tackler’s privileges should be reduced. However you got the idea, you have good reason. Forcing the tackler to go back around and through the gate will make obstructive and sealing-off offences more obvious and, hopefully, more rare. The remaining difficulty will be at the contest itself, where the clearers try to dislodge an opposition limpet scrabbling for the ball – a struggle which usually results in both limpet and picker prone on the ground, impeding further contest. The lawbook does ask players on the ground to roll away from the breakdown, but referees have been unwilling to penalise this offence. Some make an effort to shout at players to regain their feet, but penalties are exceedingly rare. Under current law interpretations, any move to regularly penalise such offences would lead to kickathons like Wales-France in the 6N this year within a week. This second change is most definitely dependent on the successful implementation of the first.
But here there is a trap. The obvious and unaddressed problem of any proposed change is what the unintended consequences might be. Rugby’s current equilibrium has been achieved by referees rigging the system to favour continuity, with a blind eye being turned to certain offences for the sake of the end product. This devil that we know is a handsome sort of game, with plenty of backs moves and speedy ball presentation. Turnovers are fast and produce tries, and the occasional counter-drive provides the illusion of a contest at the breakdown. The referees may be wholly arbitrary, but good teams still do well, and the product is attractive. Ultimately, though changes in the way the game is refereed might make it fairer and more understandable to fans, they may not make it more entertaining. Unfortunately for those of us who would prefer a game with fewer ambiguous or disputed outcomes, that will probably be the decisive consideration.