The Breakdown Of Law

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

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.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the arbitrariest of them all? But of course, that is my decision, not yours.

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.

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  1. Ciaran

     /  September 4, 2012

    Great post. Do you have times for the incidents in the NZ v Irl match?

  2. zdm

     /  September 4, 2012

    Any amateur player will quickly tell you that the pro game and the amateur game are entirely different beasts – the pro game is quickly becoming league with more forwards and a few line outs. The higher up the skill grades you go, the less of a contest a ruck becomes, the first team to get two follow up players in will win the contest unless they switch off. Most pro teams and even the better amateur teams will instil an ethos of “if it’s lost, leave it” – tries are increasingly come from broken tackles from “strike runners” so defences are schooled to leave the ruck and fan out to try and ensure that there are more tacklers than attackers to allow doubling up on the strike runners – Ireland were/are especially guilty of this with their tactic of holding the player up in the tackle in the hope of ripping the ball.
    Pro rugby is a percentages game and the defending team won’t take the risk of creating an overlap for themselves in the hope that they might win a counter ruck.

    • henryfitz

       /  September 4, 2012

      Because I didn’t want to maunder on indefinitely, I didn’t deal with another bugbear of mine, which is that foul play or otherwise is penalised according to the number of players teams have at the breakdown. An isolated player can hold onto the ball for a second; a player with support gets 3 or 4. Sealing-off when the numbers are in your favour is okay, but not when they’re against. As you say, if one side gets a couple of players in support at the breakdown, there’s never much of a contest. In my view, that’s partly because the referees decide by rote that the team going forward with supporting players at the ruck can do pretty much what they like.

  3. Xyz

     /  September 4, 2012

    A very illuminating post.

  4. Dave

     /  September 4, 2012

    Hmmm some great points there and much to ponder. Unfortunately I think that the laws of the game will remain such that they provide “entertaining” rugby. Entertainment is subjective however and perhaps a game where the decisions of the referee and perhaps his linesmen are less confusing would be more entertaining. I tried explaining rugby union to some Germans lately and I got about as far as explaining that a try is worth 5 points. When I started trying to explain what constituted a ruck and why that guy was allowed to take the ball and the other guy wasn’t, I started questioning myself! It seems as though the law changes are always reactive which for the most part will result in the consequences that you speak of. The “what if” scenario doesn’t seem to come in to play until the best (cheats) players figure out a way to play the game on their terms.

    The most infuriating thing about the ruck (in fact the entire game) as it stands is the level of interpretation that the laws allow. That scenario results in decisions like those that are pointed out in the clips. Every player says you need to play the referee but in the case of the 3rd test it’s the same bloody ref and the two decisions are at either end of the spectrum!

    For me the law should favour the attacking team but not so much that we end up with 15 man rugby league. In that case perhaps a scenario where once the tackler is off their feet they are out of the game would work. In order to compete at a ruck they must be on their feet having re-entered through the gate. Any player who wishes to compete at the ruck must enter through the gate and try to remain on their feet. Once they go to ground they are out of the game. Correct me if I’m wrong but as it stands the tackler, once they have regained their feet is allowed to compete regardless of their position relative to the tackled player? The ghost or Peter O’Mahony example. In the case of the attacking team sealing off I really think that referees should be more severe in this regard. All that said it is a physical game and players fall over. Christ who would want to be a referee?!!!

    • It was probably a bit unfair of me to single out some of Poite’s decisions for scrutiny; they just happened to have been recent. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the most consistent referees out there. Unfortunately, even the best referees struggle to police the tackler when the tackler is allowed such leeway. A tackle situation turns into a ruck in milliseconds and deciding whether or not the tackler ‘beat the ruck’ is particularly difficult when there’s so much else going on. The referee’s best guess is going to be wrong at least some of the time.

      In truth, I’m more concerned about the situation where John Barclay runs away with the ball above. That’s bordering on farcical, in my opinion. Defending teams could just send no-one into rucks and gamble on the clearers forgetting about the tackler.

      • Dave

         /  September 6, 2012

        I can’t say I agree with you on Poite and Paul O’Connell might say the same. I find him incredibly frustrating in some of his decisions, although he has been consigned to number two on my most wanted list after Nige’s Summer performance. I know what you mean regarding the Barclay scenario, but the same could be said of a maul. If there are no opposition players, the players in the maul ahead of the ball carrier are deemed offside. However you rarely see that happen where a maul is formed but the defending players do not participate.

        Perhaps the situation which constitutes a ruck must be changed? The one thing abut sending nobody into a ruck is that the fringe and middle of the “ruck” is left exposed for attack. You hear it all the time that the space is in and around the ruck when the number of defending ruck players is low and spread across the defensive line.

        I would be interested in your opinion on a solution? Not intended as a dig, I’m actually interested!

      • henryfitz

         /  September 6, 2012

        Italy pioneered the strategy of waiting for a lineout maul to be formed before sending the hooker round the back of it to tackle the ball-carrier. Of course, they had to wait for the opposition to drive past the mark of the lineout, which led to some bizarre situations. A couple of seasons ago, the IRB decided that blockers ahead of the ball at lineouts would not be tolerated, so you see less of that now. The ‘truck and trailer’ offence used to be reffed differently depending on the hemisphere, but it’s usually reffed now such that secondary mauls are allowed when the opposition have disengaged from the first maul.

        The situation as it stands with the tackle area is that once the ball is placed on the ground, everyone but the tackler must join the incipient ruck from behind the ball or the back foot, parallel to the touchline. I propose that the tackler should have to do the same thing, and I think that defenders should have to go through the gate and step beyond the ball before they can play it with their hands. I would force them to win the contest over the ball before they can actually win the ball. To facilitate this, immediate penalties should be given against players on the ground who don’t release the ball when there’s a contest.

    • Dave

       /  September 7, 2012

      Essentially that is what I was trying to articulate in an earlier reply but made a meal of it!

      Regarding the defending players having to step beyond the ball, could this result in 1. some teams not even bothering to try winning a ruck turnover due to the effort involved and 2. players actually rucking in the old sense using boots?

      The idea is admirable and I realise that good rucking teams would target weak rucks for turnovers. It still leaves a lot up to the referee to decide, whether the ball is turned over, when a ruck is called and penalising players on the ground who are holding on or have not rolled away from the tackle area.

  5. Amiga500

     /  September 4, 2012

    How about the tackler’s feet must be between his goal and the ball when playing (or attempting to play) the ball, except in the instance where the ball is between the tackled player and the tackler’s goal (i.e. spilled forward)?

    The tackler doesn’t have to come through the gate – but does have to re-orientate himself after the initial tackle. His body position should also leave him more likely to being cleared out and should naturally leave him on the ‘correct side’ of any resulting ruck.

  6. Great article, HenryFitz. Covers a lot of ground.

  7. The constant tinkering with the rules has made professional rugby veer towards the complexity of American football, where very few spectators actually understand what is going on. The total lack of clarity with interpretation and arbitrary refereeing is extremely frustrating for fans on the wrong side of the refereeing for sure (I am so sick of French rugby pundits and fans harping on about the cheating Irish at the breakdown). All that said, I personally prefer the status quo to either the Munster strategy in the 2008 Heineken Cup or the kickathons of the following year. Consistency and clarity would be great but not if it takes back to those spectacles.

  8. Excellent, well-researched post lads, bravo. Sadly I don’t see any changes to the rules avoiding unintended consequences; even if we were to go back in time to the “good old days” of head-kicking rucks – today’s full-time pro players and specialist coaches would have it sussed in a matter weeks and we’d be looking to change again. It’s human nature that for every law that is written, there are several working on ways to get around them or at least getting away with breaking them. The breakdown is one of the things that makes this game great, because it is such an immense grey area that gives fans of all nationalities fodder for debate. Were we to lose it, we’d have gridiron or Rugby League. As for the refs, we must of course demand consistency from them, especially at the highest level and even MORE especially when it goes against our team. But behind it all, we must remember exactly what they’re being asked to do when they officiate the breakdown. We could of course also have a similar post about that wonderful enigma we call the scrum, esp the front row.

  9. Paul S

     /  September 10, 2012

    Excellent article. Nice counterbalance to the selection-focussed posts. I just might need to fire up some more neurons before I start the next one to keep up with the density of the analysis!

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