Most people agree that getting an edge at the breakdown goes a long way towards winning rugby matches.
This article will look at the latter stages of last year’s Champions Cup. It will highlight some of the tactics used in games involving eventual finalists Saracens and Clermont.
Here the tackled Saracens player turns his body so his feet face the opposition. This allows him to place the ball far from defenders. His scrum-half is given the ball away from the feet of his own players, but the ball is still in the ruck. When done correctly, a long placement prevents the defence from competing for the ball at all.
This tactic is deemed acceptable by referees despite it preventing competition for the ball. It became more popular when referees started being very quick to penalise players for holding on if they use the squeeze ball.
Here the tackled Saracens player has a Clermont defender already standing over him. Saracens’ Vincent Koch is the man trying to prevent the turnover. As a result of the Clermont defender’s excellent body position, if Koch tries to clear him away, he is likely to fail.
Instead, Koch uses a technique called bridging. He puts his arms inside those of the Clermont player and lifts them up and away from the ball. This is highlighted in the yellow circle. He is then able to slip his body underneath the Clermont player and use it to shield the ball.
He stays over the ball and his scrum-half is able to get it.
In this GIF the Glasgow player is tackled but not held. The Saracens defender is in a good position to get over the ball and create a turnover. To prevent this, the Glasgow player rolls over twice. This gives his support slightly longer to get in position to clear away the tackler. He also prevents Saracens from creating the turnover.
Some referees will penalise a player if he rolls too much. It contravenes law 15.5 (a) “a player must not lie on, over or near the ball to prevent opponents from gaining possession of it…”. Consequently, it is not a tactic used very often.
Offloading from the floor
This tactic is an attempt to speed up the game. If not done quickly, it is against law 15.5 (b) “the tackled player must immediately pass the ball or release it…”.
However, so long as there is no defender competing for the ball, most referees will allow tackled players to offload to the scrum-half long after the tackle is complete. Here the Clermont player offloads the ball to his scrum-half after a tackle. Some Saracens players are already unable to get back onside. The offload only increases the pace of attack from Clermont.
Holding a defender’s legs
Holding on to defending players is illegal. Leinster scored a game-changing try in their semi-final because Clermont defender Aurelien Rougerie was held off the ball. Leinster made a line break in the same space Rougerie should have defended.
However, this time the TMO spotted the offence and the try was disallowed, resulting in a penalty to Clermont instead. When the referee misses it though, holding the guard player can have huge benefits.
In the second Lions test, Owen Farrell held TJ Perenara’s leg, just briefly. The referee allowed Conor Murray’s resulting try to stand. Kiwi fans may well disagree with that decision though!
Ireland also used this tactic to great effect in their 2017 6 Nations victory over England in Dublin. English defenders guarding the ruck were, time and again, just briefly held by the ankle by Irish forwards. This prevented the English from achieving their usual line speed. As a result, Irish ball carriers were able to win more collisions than they otherwise would have.
They played the referee, and these street smarts helped them win the game.
Second player jackaling
Jackaling has been made much harder by the new law changes. Now, the tackler cannot just stand up, he has to get back to his own side of the ruck before playing the ball. More and more successful jackals are therefore by a second defender.
These second defenders are looking for a side-on tackle, where the tackled player falls almost at their feet while they themselves are not moving too quickly. This side-on tackle produces a longer ‘gate’ so there is more room to compete for the ball. In the picture, Fritz Lee of Clermont is demonstrating exactly this scenario against Toulon.
This game was before the law changes but does show what is happening more often now.
The messy breakdown
Clermont desperately needs to win the ball back. Saracens are winning and the clock is red. They put several players into the ruck, trying to force Saracens off the ball through sheer weight of numbers. In this case they fail and Saracens are able to clear the ball to touch to win the game.
This tactic can easily backfire. It leaves the defensive line short of players. If the ball does comes back to the attacking side, they can often look up to find a big overlap and an easy try.
Tackler only disruption
The tackler is not trying to go for the ball here. Instead, he is trying to slow down and mess up the attacking ball. If the tackler can stay on his feet long enough, an opportunity might appear to counter-ruck. To do this, the defending side will put more numbers into the ruck and try to push beyond the ball, winning a turnover. If the tackler is unable to create a counter ruck opportunity, the defence can still rush up and try to make the next breakdown further away from their line.
This is a very common defensive tactic, and many teams use it as their default ruck defence strategy. In the picture, the Toulon replacement front row has made a tackle against Clermont. He forces several Clermont attackers to resource the breakdown to prevent a counter-ruck opportunity.
Why would a team choose not to compete for the ball? There is only one reason. If a team wants to put pressure on the opposition, they can choose to rush up very quickly in defence. They can then make a tackle behind the gain line and force the attacking team backwards. When defenders rush up, it is much harder to keep a straight defensive line. Some players may rush up faster than others.
This can create opportunities for a line break. Therefore, defenders need to be on their feet to cover for any missed tackles or positional mistakes.
Under the new laws, English Premiership teams have been using this tactic a lot. Top 14 and Pro 14 sides have not done so to the same extent. This has led to a faster, more exciting Premiership than before. Unfortunately for the English teams though, they have struggled to cope with the competition at every ruck in European games.
In the picture, we see Leinster ready to rush up against Clermont. Every player who can do so is on their feet and ignoring the competition for the ball.
Holding off the ball
A common practice in professional rugby is illegally holding a player down off the ball. This happens both when attacking and defending. Billy Vunipola of Saracens is seen here pinned to the floor, while Glasgow look to move the ball. The officials rarely seem to do anything about this kind of thing. The assistant referee is literally standing next to Billy Vunipola watching him being illegally held down. He says nothing to the referee.
Holding down often leads to violence, as players take the law into their own hands in retaliation. One of the main purposes of the tactic is to provoke a reaction which gets the opponent sent off. It can be a very useful defensive strategy if a team can hold down an important attacker such as the fly half. Openside flankers are also a popular target. They are important in speeding up attacking ball and are frequently available in rucks for an opponent to hold.
This article showed some of the breakdown strategies I have noticed teams adopting at a professional level. I am a fly half and the team I coach are too young for contact. In the distant past I was a 7. However, my teammates haven’t seen me in a ruck in years!
Please (gently) let me know in the comments if you think I am mistaken or have missed something.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!