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Cleanouts for dummies: How to avoid the dreaded red

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Roar Guru
1st March, 2021

With safety increasingly paramount in the game, referees are taking a hard line on shots to the head – as they should, and perhaps, as they always should have.

It’s not as if this is a new law, the players all know it is a focus, so why do the red cards keep mounting up around the world?

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the excuse brigade is still has a voice in this; “the game’s gone soft” and “what was the player supposed to do?” statements, somehow, still manage to find their way into social and mainstream media unchallenged.

I am sure their volunteerism in the breakdown crash test dummy test would be appreciated if they want to test their thoughts.

In order to assist those of obviously limited ability to either comprehend or follow the laws of the game, here is the Highlanders guide to not getting sent off at cleanout time.

1. Arrive in time
With the new breakdown directives and the five-second law being enforced the game was not only likely to speed up, but the distance from ruck to ruck is widening.

This puts a greater onus on the cleaners for the offensive side to arrive quickly in support of the carrier, and for defenders to get back and through the gate faster than in recent years.

We are already seeing players struggle with this but rather than conceding they are too late to have an impact, in they go, lemming style, often in full launch off the feet mode.

This faster game requires some thinking both about the lines run in support of the ball carrier and which players do we want to have primarily performing those roles.


For the record, the list of the last six reds for headshots, three props, one lock, two back rows (not what I would call traditional flankers)

Arriving too late to make an impact seems to the catalyst for heading for the sheds.

2. Select your target
It surely can’t be that difficult to keep your eyes open all the way into contact at ruck time.

It allows you to adjust, as best you can, should the target move before contact is made, and selecting a particular target to maximise the impact of your arrival is surely a better outcome than just blindly flying into the morass before you.

Oh, and stay on your feet while your eyes are open too.


3. Where you put your hands – this is the coaching point
Leading with the shoulder with your arm trailing or folded chicken wing style across your chest is a good way to collect penalties and yellows.

Do it anywhere near the cranium, and it’s the picture that will get you an early shot at the showers and leave your mates in the lurch.

So, as you enter the contact zone your hand should be even with or in front of your shoulder, and here’s a clue, if there is no logical place for your hand and arm to wrap/fold/go into, it’s time the abort a full scale hit.

Tomas Lavanini

Tomas Lavanini (C) of Argentina is shown a red. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

4. Just know when to leave it alone
A couple of years ago on this site I published an article comparing how David Pocock and Sam Cane took different approaches at ruck time.

Pocock would look for ways to make an impact at most rucks he attended, Cane was far more likely to assess if his impact would be suboptimal and move onto his next position.

Players need to accept that there are going to arrive at break-down situations where their exalted arrival is going to have zero impact on the outcome of said breakdown, and yes, this will mean, on occasion, allowing the other team to keep/have the ball. Gut-wrenching isn’t it?

Make a good decision and find the right defensive position to take up for the next phase.


One thing that is rapidly becoming apparent is that this current wave of refereeing focus is not going away. Lawyers and insurers – as well as players’ groups – are not going to allow a backward step.

Time to change the way players are approaching the break-down – and best get it sorted quickly.