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Can rugby return to real rucking?

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Expert
7th May, 2019
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David Marques had just been kicked in the head by Maori prop Albie Pryor.

As he looked up incredulously at his assailant from the clinging mud with his senses still reeling, Marques knew instinctively how a gentleman rugby player should react.

He got up unsteadily, dusted himself down, and shook Pryor by the hand.

When Irish lock Bill Mulcahy asked him why he hadn’t punched Pryor back, Marques replied, “You wouldn’t understand Bill. I wanted to make him feel like a cad.”

It is doubtful whether his response had the desired effect.

The 1959 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand was not one for the faint-hearted. The tourists received ‘the order of the boot’ from the Kiwis, and the whole painful experience lasted four months.

With a few notable exceptions, the Lions’ forwards were like Marques, with too much of the gentlemanly spirit of Cambridge University and Harlequins about them.

The exceptions – who wanted to fight back, like Mulcahy and Pontypool’s Ray Prosser – were singled out for special punishment.

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“We were done up front and we were done by the boot,” said ‘Pross’ afterwards.

“I had my head booted so far up my arse I didn’t know whether I was being kicked in the face or the backside.

“When I got back home, I made a silent pact with myself that no pack of forwards of which I was part would ever be stood over like that again. We would stick together and be the aggressors, the ones who did unto others before they did it unto us.”

Mulcahy found himself being ‘shoed’ out of a ruck a couple of minutes into the match against Wanganui, only to find the referee wagging a disapproving finger above him.

“Serves you bloody well right,” said the official, “you should get off the ball.”

‘The boot’ represented the most ruthless aspect of New Zealand’s play of that era. Their rucking technique had been honed and developed by legendary coach Victor ‘Young Vic’ Cavanaugh in the South Island. It was no accident the Lions’ heaviest defeat of the 1959 tour was against Otago, 26-8. Cavanaugh’s Otago had been at the forefront of innovation in that area of the game.

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The Otago forwards hit contact points so low and hard that it “looked like they were leaning into a strong wind”, as one commentator of the time reported. The bodies of friend and foe alike were routinely churned out of a forest of legs like chaff from a combine harvester.

“The Otago forwards were superb,” Kiwi rugby journalist Terry McLean perfectly summarised it.

“They had vitality, they hunted as a pack, they were completely tireless. ‘Red’ Conway covered acres of countryside at incredible speed, and at one stage when he covered 20 yards at his highest speed to enter a ruck, the bones of every man jarred in sympathy.”

Quade Cooper

Quade Cooper and the Rebels copped it against the ‘Canes. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

It is a dim, but poignant echo of an unwanted past in the professional era. Rightly or wrongly, all of the ‘boot’ has gone out of the game. There are no more rucks. What we have instead is the dubious gift of cleanouts (offensively) and jackals (defensively).

The most curious aspect of the whole business is that the law predominantly remains the same as it always has been, and it is being broken at every single ruck:

15.1 – A ruck can take place only in the field of play.
15.2 – 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.
15.3 – Players involved in all stages of the ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips. Sanction: Free-kick.

We can also add Law 15.7: “A player must bind onto a teammate or an opposition player. The bind must precede or be simultaneous with contact with any other part of the body.”

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At every single breakdown in the modern game, shoulders are lower routinely lower than hips on both sides, and there is indeed no way to effect the ‘jackal’ biomechanically without driving the shoulders closer to the ground. Furthermore, contests are often one-versus-one, with no binding at all.

Refereeing protocols may not be ignoring the obvious for very much longer. At a recent World Rugby welfare symposium in Paris, one of the main discussions orbited around ways to promote a greater contest at the ruck and commit more (lawfully bound) players to it.

Single, unbound, missile-like hits blindsiding a defender with his shoulders below the height of his hips and his hands on the ball, was a spotlight player-welfare situation.

The premature retirement of Wales captain Sam Warburton and the long-term neck injury suffered by David Pocock only amplify the sense that the day of the jackal may soon be done.

If last weekend’s game between the Hurricanes and the Rebels is any guide, some of the better defensive teams may already be ahead of the law-making curve in this respect.

Here are the raw contact turnover stats from the game.

Team Turnovers/penalties (ground) Turnovers/penalties (above ground) Total
Hurricanes 3/2 9/1 12/3
Rebels 0/0 1/0 1/0

There are two numbers that jump out immediately. On the one hand, 75 per cent of the Canes’ turnovers were not won by ground-hogging, but by choke tackles and ball-rips with defenders still upright and on their feet.

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On the other, the complete absence of turnovers by Melbourne’s forwards is a major concern, especially considering that three oft-mentioned in Wallaby back-row despatches – Angus Cottrell, Luke Jones and Isi Naisarani – were all on the field together.

The solitary Rebels turnover was in fact won by Reece Hodge and Tom English in midfield.

English and Hodge pincered on Matt Proctor, with English ripping the ball out before the Canes midfielder hit the deck.

The main man on defence for the home side was New Zealand’s man-of-the-moment Ardie Savea, who bestrode the contact area like a colossus throughout the game. The No.7 won four turnovers in total, but only one of them occurred on the deck.

In the first example, Savea rips the ball out of the grip of Rebels’ tight-head Jermaine Ainsley, and a counter-attack down the right is triggered immediately. In the second, Angus Cottrell is the victim, with the Rebels poised to make a kill right on the Hurricane goal-line.

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Ainsley was targeted for a second turnover by choke tackle:

The Rebels No.3 is unable to get a knee on the ground, which is the typical trigger for a referee to call ‘tackle’ and ask for release by the defender(s). The choke tackle is a clean contest in law where there is no grey area, and that simplifies matters a great deal for the defenders.

The jackal, on the other hand, inhabits a murky world, a ‘dirty’ grey area in which he can be penalised for a myriad of offences subject to interpretation – not maintaining his feet, not showing clear release after the tackle, competing after the ref calls “ruck”, not entering through ‘the gate’ etc.

The Canes’ emphasis on high tackles is clearly a designed team tactic on defence, because it extends far beyond Ardie Savea alone. Here is Proctor, getting his own back as part of a choke on Dane Haylett-Petty.

The use of high hold-up tackles has many positive spin-offs for the defence. In the following example, it gives the line seven valuable seconds of breathing space to regroup for the next phase.

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By the time Cottrell gets a knee down, the advantage has clearly shifted towards the defenders. There are three Rebels consumed at or near the ruck, against only one Hurricane.

Slow ball does not allow the attack to build rhythm and frequently causes mistimings on back-line moves, where more than one pass needs to be made.

Another legitimate Wallaby candidate, Naisarani, is held up for long enough for the backs move to break down on the following play.

It was not a good day for Wallabies supporters looking for evidence that Naisarani, Cottrell and Jones would put their hands up as ‘live’ candidates for the World Cup back-row. Here is Luke Jones, getting bouldered off the ball by a late Hurricane counter-ruck that Vic Cavanaugh would no doubt have applauded.

Fraser Armstrong, followed keenly by Asafo Aumua and Isaia Walker-Leawere, are all ‘leaning into the wind’ and summoning the spirit of the South Island to win turnover via the counter-ruck.

Summary

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Rugby is no longer a game for ‘the boot’ at the ruck, for too many years it has been a game for ‘hands’ immediately after the tackle. Officials and the law-makers only pay lip service to the age-old rules which demand that players on both sides stay bound, on their feet and with their shoulders above the plane of their hips.

We no longer see that concerted death-ride over the tackled player, that brutal breeze over the ball. Now there is one player trying to grapple for the ball with his hands, and another trying to belt the living daylights out of him before he gets hold of it. It is a rather painful reinvention of rugby’s heritage, and in more than one sense.

There is hope in the fact that the tackle area was presented as a player welfare issue at the Paris symposium. That probably represents the death-knell for the jackal, at least in the longer term.

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For the time being – and up until the World Cup – players like David Pocock and Sam Cane and Sean O’Brien will have to tape themselves together and repair their broken bodies as best they can, for one last kamikaze run. It is indeed, a hard, hard way to make a living for a modern No.7.

Some of the more advanced defensive sides, like the Hurricanes, have found ways to create turnovers without undue emphasis on work on the deck. In that area of the game, Ardie Savea completely eclipsed the three Wallaby aspirants on the Rebels side. He won some ball on the floor, but he stole and slowed down far more above it.

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Australia urgently needs to find more creative ways of forcing changes of possession and to find the right people to do it. If Michael Cheika is pinning all his hopes upon David Pocock’s recovery in time to fulfil the role of turnover king at the World Cup, that expectation is already looking like a bridge too far.