This article is by Ben Cisneros, editor of rugbyandthelaw.com. ‘Rugby And The Law’ is a Sports Law blog focused on Rugby Union which considers some of the game’s biggest talking points through a legal lens. Follow @rugbyandthelaw on Twitter for regular updates on disciplinary hearings, anti-doping, concussion, commercial transactions, and much more.
The New Year is upon us and, as we enter one of the most exciting World Cup years in memory, it’s time for Rugby, too, to make some New Year’s resolutions. There are plenty of areas in dire need of adjustment; clarity around high tackles, fighting the concussion epidemic, combatting doping, striving for greater equality between Tier 1 and 2 nations etc. But, if there is one on-field issue requiring attention more than most, it is the ruck.
It is an area that drew great criticism in 2018, but is one which referees and, more pertinently, rugby’s governing bodies seem to be turning a blind eye to. It has been described by former Fiji Sevens Coach Ben Ryan as “a mess” and by former England winger Ugo Monye as “the most dangerous place on a rugby pitch”.
Players are regularly being permitted to fly in off their feet, and to perform “crocodile rolls” – in breach of the Laws of the Game – which, as players continue to get bigger and stronger, pose a significant threat of injury. Equally, players going off their feet impede a fair contest at the breakdown, making for a less entertaining game.
This article will set out the key ruck laws which are consistently being breached without sanction, analysing the consequences and considering what must be done going forward.
What is a ruck?
A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (Law 15.1). The purpose of a ruck is to allow players to compete for the ball on the ground.
“An arriving player must be on their feet and join from behind their offside line. Sanction: Penalty.”
This is the first of the laws that are regularly breached without sanction. A good example is the attempted ‘clear-out’ by Sam Whitelock on Cian Healy in Ireland’s victory over New Zealand in November (see clip here). Whitelock flies into the ruck, immediately going off his feet and, in fact, collides with Healy’s head. It was a dangerous incident which arguably merited a red card.
This law primarily exists on safety grounds, to stop players ‘flying in’ with force. Players entering a ruck off their feet are not in control and the potential for injury to another player in the ruck is clear for all to see.
This problem is easily solved: the referees simply need to apply the existing law. If players are consistently penalised, they will think twice before entering a ruck, reducing the risk of serious injury.
“Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck. Sanction: Penalty.”
This law is linked to the one just discussed. There is probably a safety element to this law, too, in as much as a player going off their feet is more likely to cause injury to a player lying prone on the floor than if they drove over them, on their feet. Equally, if a player goes off their feet they are more likely to be injured by virtue of lying prone.
However, the focus of this law is really to promote competition for the ball at the ruck. If players from the attacking side go off their feet, it will make it almost impossible for (i) a ‘jackler’ to steal the ball, or (ii) the defending team to drive the attackers off the ball. The law thus allows defences to challenge for the ball, making the breakdown a competitive and exciting area of the game which rewards technique and skill.
And yet, as with the first example, this law is consistently not enforced. The following screenshots are from the highlights of the most recent round of Premiership games, both highlighting a ruck situation in which at least one attacking player is off their feet at the ruck, preventing genuine competition for the ball.
Of course, many rucks will collapse naturally, in the course of competition for the ball, such that players end up off their feet. However, in many cases (of which the above are good examples), players simply pile on top of the tackled player, not supporting their bodyweight (i.e. off their feet) to protect the ball. This prevents competition and, as Ben Ryan has argued, replaces skill with force, making the game “less imaginative”.
By enforcing this law stringently, referees would be greatly benefiting the sport, by discouraging anti-competitive play. For a great example of this law being properly applied, see this video (here) showing referee Luke Pearce during the World Rugby Nations Cup 2015.
“Players must not…intentionally collapse a ruck or jump on top of it…Sanction: Penalty.”
This is arguably the most significant of the laws discussed, given the frequency with which it is fragrantly breached, the seriousness of injury it has the potential to inflict, and the fact that referees make a conscious choice not to apply it strictly. It primarily exists for safety reasons – collapsing a ruck can cause nasty injuries, particularly to lower limbs.
The so-called “crocodile roll” has become a regular part of rugby; a technique used to shift jacklers off the ball. Ben Ryan has been particularly vocal about its danger – see his own blog post here – given the way that players essentially use their own bodyweight to twist an opponent off the ball and drag them to ground in judo fashion.
A demonstration of how to perform a “crocodile roll” can be seen here:
As Ryan accurately points out, such a manoeuvre is actually in breach of two laws. Not only is the player intentionally collapsing a ruck, but they also go off their feet to do so (to drag the jackler to ground, the player must first throw himself to ground). And yet it is something coached and advocated by leading players (see Sam Warburton endorsing it here), and explicitly accepted by referees (listen to Nigel Owens here). It is, frankly, shocking that World Rugby are willing to allow such dangerous play to carry on outside of the laws.
The following video highlights the way in which it can cause excruciatingly painful injury:
Moreover, it is clear from Law 15.10 that this is not the way in which rucks are designed to be contested:
“Possession may be won either by rucking or by pushing the opposing team off the ball.”
A crocodile roll is quite different to “pushing” an opponent off the ball – it is arguably the opposite, as it involves a pulling motion!
It is thus argued that such a manoeuvre is in breach of the rugby’s laws and that the authorities have a duty to ensure that it is penalised, in the interests of player safety.
“Players involved in all stages of the ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips. Sanction: Free-kick.”
Lastly, it is important to note the way in which 15.3 is entirely disregarded, and the potential impact that this has on breaches of other laws already discussed.
This law will come as a surprise to the vast majority of the rugby-watching public (this author included) given that it is almost never enforced. How often do you see jacklers bent in half, locked in position over a ball, with their backsides in the air and their heads almost on the ground? Probably, in every match. Indeed, the below image shows Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll demonstrating jackling technique in this very way:
The rationale here is presumably to make a legal clear-out possible. If a jackler’s head and shoulders are no lower than their hips, then it is possible for the attacking team to get underneath the jackler and drive them off the ball. If a jackler latches on like in O’Driscoll’s demonstration, this is virtually impossible. As a result, the crocodile roll has come into use – just because you can’t get under the player doesn’t mean you can’t twist them sideways.
However, although enforcing law 15.3 would perhaps reduce the crocodile roll problem outlined above, there is a strong argument for eliminating 15.3 altogether. Firstly, encouraging players to have their heads above their hips at the ruck places the head in a more vulnerable position, increasing the risk of head injuries. Secondly, eliminating 15.3 (and enforcing 15.16(b)) will encourage jackling – an impressive skill worth rewarding and one which makes it more likely for there to be fewer players in the defensive line, creating more openings for attackers and thus a more exciting game. Finally, enforcing 15.3 effectively would be incredibly difficult given that, in a fast-paced ruck scenario, it is difficult to discern the exact body angle of a jackler.
The above analysis demonstrates that the existing laws (15.3 aside) are sufficient to ensure that the ruck is as safe as reasonably practicable. However, it has also shown that there are significant failures in the enforcement of these laws.
As Ben Ryan has explained, the way the breakdown laws are being interpreted is leading to: “more players on the floor than on their feet; brute strength and power allowing a team to keep the ball rather than guile and skill and technical ability; [and] more collisions as a result, and thus more injuries”
He also points out that it is much harder for referees to spot other infringements with bodies everywhere. Indeed, it is often the case that players fly in off their feet to make a clear-out because their opponents are already off their feet and coming in with force is the only way to shift them. The game would therefore be safer and more entertaining if laws 15.5, 15.12, and 15.16(b) were properly applied by referees, and law 15.3 removed.
Of course, the impetus for this change must come from the sport’s international governing body. As Ryan argues, there is a chance for World Rugby to be proactive as opposed to simply reactive in ensuring the safety of players. Rather than wait for evidence to emerge years down the line showing that the ruck causes a disproportionate number of injuries, World Rugby should act now, at the start of this new, exciting year by taking the common-sense approach of instructing referees to apply its own law-book.