Why the Wallabies struggle with the ‘choke tackle’

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All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock engulfs the Wallabies' James Slipper in the second Bledisloe. (AAP Image/NZN IMAGE, SNPA, John Cowpland)

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When the Wallabies played Ireland in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the Irish successfully used the ‘choke’ tackle to take away momentum from the Wallabies’ attack.

The result was the Irish holding up Australian runners six times, which led to five turnovers.

The Wallabies were slow to adapt to the Irish tactics and since that time other teams around the world have increased their emphasis on using the ‘choke’ tackle, with the Wallabies often struggling against it.

In their recent match against the Wallabies it was obvious the Springboks were trying to hold up the ball carriers and they achieved a crucial turnover when the Wallabies were in a good attacking position.

I’m sure we’ll see more of this tactic from the Springboks in Cape Town this weekend.

The laws relating to the ball not coming out of a maul are not new – not many people involved in rugby wouldn’t know of the ‘use it or lose it’ principle that applies to a maul and there has been no significant change to the laws in this area since the law book was simplified after professionalism was introduced.

Yet there still seems to be confusion from some fans, commentators and players regarding the laws on the ball becoming unplayable in a maul. The relevant law can be found here.

A maul can only be formed when at least one defender binds on to the ball carrier and at least one other teammate of the ball carrier also binds on them – therefore the minimum number of players on their feet which are required to form
a maul is three.

Once a maul is formed, if it doesn’t end successfully a scrum is called and the team that didn’t take the ball into the maul gets to feed the scrum.

There are only three ways a maul can end successfully (law 17.5):
1. The ball or the player carrying the ball leaves the maul;
2. The ball is on or over the goal-line;
3. The ball is on the ground.

It’s the last of these conditions that seems to cause most problems in understanding how the law works – the key word in that condition is ‘ball’.

In a tackle situation, if the ball carrier has at least one knee on the ground, is sitting on the ground or sitting on another player, they are deemed to have been taken to ground (law 15.3).

This applies whether the ball is on the ground or not.

The players around the ball must then release the ball and ball carrier and abide by the relevant tackle and ruck laws, including offside lines, before attempting to contest the ball again.

However, if a maul is formed the only time the ruck laws come into play is if the maul collapses and the ball touches the ground, not the ball carrier.

When that occurs and players are still on their feet, the maul becomes a ruck.

When the ball doesn’t touch the ground it becomes a collapsed maul and there is no mention in law 17 of a requirement for any player to release the ball or the ball carrier or to roll away.

This law regarding the ball becoming unplayable from a maul doesn’t apply where the ball carrier receives the ball from a kick. However, that exemption doesn’t include restarts.

The Irish obviously knew this law better than the Wallabies when they used the tactic in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

From the complaints of the Wallabies on-field and some commentators, not many Australians knew how the law worked.

After the conclusion of that tournament, the ARU sought a clarification from the IRB on the maul laws and the circumstances that occurred in that match against Ireland.

On 14 November 2011, the IRB issued their clarification.

The clarification didn’t introduce any new law and simply confirmed how most people believed the law was meant to apply.

The key statements in that clarification were:
• If a maul collapses and the ball does not touch the ground, the player on his feet is not obliged to release the ball or ball carrier unless the ball touches the ground and a ruck is formed.
• At a collapsed maul there is no obligation in law for players to roll away unless a ruck subsequently occurs.

It is therefore absolutely clear once the referee calls ‘maul’ players can continue to hold on to the ball or the ball carrier and have no obligation to allow the attacking team a chance to play the ball.

It is also clear that unless the ball is immediately playable the referee must award a scrum – there is no time allowed to make the ball playable.

The wording of the ARU request for clarification is interesting as it gives the impression the Wallabies camp felt players should be releasing the ball and rolling away when a maul collapsed.

The IRB was unequivocal in its ruling that this was not the case.

Recently, Alan Jones called for the Wallabies to change their tactics and try to play with the ‘ball in the air’ by setting up mauls in general play to drag opposition forwards in to defend the maul so the Wallaby backline had more room to move.

His view was that playing with the ball ‘on the ground’ at a ruck, where opposition forwards fan out in defence, reduces the space available for attack and should be discouraged.

That tactic might have worked in the amateur days, when defence patterns were not as good, but with better defences and the use of the ‘choke’ tackle it would be an extremely risky tactic today.

Wallaby ball carriers still tend to go into contact too high and so are often caught out when a team implements the ‘choke’ tackle, particularly backline players.

Opposition teams target the Wallabies so they have to be aware of the need to lower their body height in contact and as soon as their momentum slows to go to ground.

It is then critical support runners are in close proximity so they can get into the ruck early to protect the ball.

Once a player is held up it is very difficult to get the ball to ground, but the best way is to rip downwards and roll a shoulder towards the ground at the same time, using your body weight to help you get down.

Dropping to the ground and trying to pull the ball downwards has little impact if the defender has wrapped around the ball.

More importantly, the ball carrier has to work hard not to get held up in the first place by going to ground early.

In defence, the key is to target the ball immediately. If you can get your arms wrapped around the ball then even if the ball carrier can wrestle to ground after the maul has formed, you may be able to hold the ball up like you would in trying to prevent a try.

Today’s video shows examples of how teams have been using the ‘choke’ tackle to create turnovers.

Scott Allen has been writing in depth analysis and opinion pieces on the game since 2009. He is an experienced coach who coaches Premier Grade with University of Queensland. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottA_.

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