FIRST, LET’S RUN through the details involved in the ‘tackle-only’ tactic that we saw Italy use to frustrate England during their Six Nations clash at Twickenham yesterday.
Many people will have been familiar with the ploy, which we have examined on a number of occasions in recent years and which dates back to the mid-2000s, when Ben Ryan’s England sevens teams sporadically used it in the shortened format of the game.
What we haven’t seen before is such an extensive use of the tactic throughout the course of a single game, with Italy taking every every opportunity they could to employ it yesterday.
Essentially, the defending team completes a tackle but refuses to engage in a ruck, therefore meaning that no offside line is formed.
Let’s take a look at one example from yesterday’s game.
Sergio Parisse completes a tackle on England’s George Ford, no Italian player arrives to form a ruck, and therefore there is no offside line.
We can see in the image below that three English players have arrived over the tackle to hit what they expect to be a ruck, but there are no Italian players in opposition, as Conor O’Shea’s men back away and refuse the ruck.
“A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground,” according to the World Rugby lawbook.
We don’t have any Italian players present here, so this remains open play and there is no offside line formed.
Edoardo Gori, Italy’s number nine, is perfectly entitled to be where he is in the image above.
There have been some queries since yesterday as to why Italy didn’t go and seize the ball when they were in positions such as the one Gori finds himself in above, but that would would not be legal play.
Basically, anyone who wants to approach the tackle must come in the ‘gate’.
Otherwise, there is a one-metre radius around the ball that defenders cannot step into, or they will be penalised.
Interestingly, the lawbook – up to 216 pages in length this year – includes no mention whatsoever of the ‘gate,’ but does say that players approaching the tackle or breakdown must do so from “behind the ball and from directly behind the tackled player or a tackler closest to those players’ goal line.”
So, when Italy rush up around the edges of the tackle, they cannot attack the ball, instead being forced to remain at least one metre away.
Back in 2015, the Chiefs were penalised for stepping into that ‘tackle zone’ after refusing the ruck, as we see below.
In this instance, referee Jaco Peyper tells the Chiefs that “if you go towards the tackle, you have to come through the gate.”
Again, the ‘tackle zone’ is not in the lawbook, but there is mention of “near” the tackle in this regard, with “near” being defined as “within one metre.”
So, Italy were entitled to advance up the pitch and block off passing options for England’s scrum-half, but they could not approach the tackle to take possession.
What Italy did is not new in the game, but the extent to which they did it is.
There was, however, one relatively fresh element to this aspect of the game and it points to an even greater challenge for the attacking team in these instances.
Many people have questioned why England players didn’t simply grab an Italian player and pull them into forming a ruck, as we have seen David Pocock do in the past.
Watch Pocock – in the grey scrum cap – below, during a 2016 Super Rugby game against the Chiefs.Source: Murray Kinsella/YouTube
He reaches out and grabs Chiefs player Michael Leitch, his attempt to form a ruck.
Again, back to the lawbook for a definition of a ruck:
“A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground. Open play has ended.”
Law 16.1 (b) also tells us that to form a ruck, “at least one player must be in physical contact with an opponent.”
So, Pocock has engaged physical contact with Leitch in this instance, and referee Angus Gardner appears convinced this constitutes a ruck, penalising the Chiefs for advancing into an offside position to the right of the ruck.
However, this example is from early last year and things have changed in the mean time.
Yesterday, Joe Launchbury attempted to do exactly what Pocock did in the above example, but referee Romain Poite told him it did not constitute a ruck.
We see the incident above, with Maro Itoje being tackled by Andrea Lovotti, before Dan Cole and Launchbury arrive for England.
Launchbury reaches out and grabs hold of Italy’s Luke McLean, his intention being to form a ruck.
Launchbury looks to referee Poite and screams something, presumably to indicate he feels he has formed a ruck.
However, Poite is unresponsive and happy for Gori to occupy the position we see below.
Obviously, if Launchbury had been successful in forming a ruck, Gori would be considerably offside, but play continues.
When England kick to touch, Poite goes to Launchbury to clarify.
“Pulling a player, it’s not a ruck, for me,” says the French referee. “OK? Pulling back a player in the breakdown area, it’s not a ruck, OK?”
“How we supposed to get a ruck then?” Launchbury appears to reply. “If we can’t engage then…”
“It’s not a ruck,” says Poite. “I can understand, but it’s not a ruck, OK? Blue must make the contact, you cannot pull the players.”
James Haskell approaches a few seconds later.
“Just for clarity, on the ruck, what do we need to do for it to be a ruck?” says the England openside.
Poite: “I can’t say. I am the referee, I’m not a coach.”
It’s a witty reply from Poite, but there has been some questioning of his handling of this situation.
The thing to remember here is that Conor O’Shea revealed that Italy had informed Poite of their intention to use this tactic in their meeting before the game.
Poite, therefore, would have clarified the situation for himself before the game and it transpires that World Rugby have informed referees that the attacking team cannot form a ruck by grabbing an opposition player.
Poite was simply acting exactly how referees have been told to handle this situation and it’s now clear that grabbing an opposition player does not constitute the formation of a ruck.
The defending team must actively look to engage for that to happen.
This naturally narrows the options for the attacking team in counter-acting this tactic, but England eventually showed the way with their heavily-delayed response to Italy.
They focused on simple pick and drives or snipes from their scrum-half. Continue to attack the centre until there is a linebreak, or the defence engages in a ruck – the formula is rather simple. Flood into this channel and overload against the defence.
Last year, the Chiefs were cleverly targeted in this manner by the Blues, as we see below.
Of course, it helps that the Blues have powerful backs like Rene Ranger and the freakish 19-year-old Rieko Ioane in this instance, but England had similar success when they finally adapted such tactics.
Below, England put together a short sequence of attacks right over the tackle.
An even higher-tempo version of this attack from England would be even more effective, of course.
Italy’s impressive discipline meant they often had defenders waiting just in behind the tackle to prevent such attacks, but had England been more consistent in bringing major tempo to their pick and drives, offloading support lines, and sniping runs, they might have had even more success than they did.
Below, it’s Super Rugby side the Southern Kings who provide us with an example in their 2016 Super Rugby clash with the Blues.
In the instance above, we see the damage that can be done when the defending team does not leave bodies in behind the tackle and it’s something for attacking sides to keep a close eye out for.
Eddie Jones has suggested that World Rugby will need to change the laws in this regard, but it is worth noting that New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup trialled a law last year whereby the offside line was formed when one player on the attacking team arrived over the ball after their team-mate has been tackled – with no requirement for a defensive player to be involved.
The trial also meant that the traditional ‘jackal’ turnover was completely removed from the game, with a major rise in defenders instead attempting to kick the ball out of the breakdown as they counter-rucked. The results were not popular.
Those trials were scrapped for 2017 and it remains to be seen what developments, if any, take place in this area.
The ‘tackle-only’ tactic is something that has been discussed by World Rugby as part of their routine post-Rugby World Cup law review, but so far we await any amendments to the laws, or word that no amendments are forthcoming. Watch this space.
Anyone who was watching the space around the rucks in Ireland’s clash with France on Saturday might have noticed les Bleus attempting to spring this tactic on one occasion.
The French effort was well handled by Nigel Owens.
We see the incident below and, at first glance, it appears to be similar to what Italy were allowed to do.
The key here is that a ruck is formed after Sean O’Brien is tackled to the ground by Kevin Gourdon and Baptiste Serin.
Now, we could argue over the nature of the ‘tackle’ here, in that O’Brien is not held and therefore a tackle possibly hasn’t taken place, but let’s not go there for the purposes of the matter at hand!
Louis Picamoles arrives after O’Brien has been brought to deck and has a brief sniff for the turnover, engaging in a contest with Robbie Henshaw for a split second.
While Picamoles almost instantly decides to back away from that contest and disengage, Owens has seen enough in the above snapshot for the formation of a ruck.
Simply put, once a ruck is formed and the offside line is in place, the ruck does not ‘end’ until the ball leaves the ruck, or when the ball is on or over the goal line.
Rabah Slimani is folding around from the right-hand side for France and what he sees is the image below.
Slimani clocks Picamoles on his feet to his left, not engaged in a ruck, with CJ Stander, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Robbie Henshaw apparently not involved in a ruck either.
What Slimani hasn’t taken into account is that Picamoles’ actions, however brief, constitute the formation of a ruck and that the ruck has not ended simply because Picamoles is not in it anymore.
The lawbook does not specifically state that a ruck remains a ruck even when contesting players step away from it, but the only ‘successful end to a ruck’ listed in law 16.6 is the aforementioned “[a] ruck ends successfully when the ball leaves the ruck, or when the ball is on or over the goal line.”
Slimani doesn’t take that into account and looks to advance up the left-hand side of the ruck to block off a potential passing option for Conor Murray, but referee Owens rapidly tells him off.
“Go back, go back,” says Owens, correctly ignoring the subsequent French protest.
Of course, Italy weren’t completely accurate in their use of the tackle-only tactic against the English.
Below, we see a mix-up as the wide defenders form a ruck and Gori shoots up regardless.
Poite penalises the Italians for offside.
This example also underlines to us just how big a risk Italy took in employing this tactic to such a degree against England. It was an incredibly ballsy coaching decision from Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter to go all in, but the results were largely positive.
England did eventually react and make damaging inroads close to the tackle, however, and it should be pointed out that Italy have major work to do on a wide range of other aspects in their game.
As for the tackle-only tactic, it remains to be seen what developments are on the horizon in this area, with World Rugby’s law reviews continuing.
What we can say for certain is that Italy turned what had expected to be one-way traffic into a chaotic traffic jam at Twickenham, one that was utterly absorbing to watch.
The sheer scale of the discussion and debate around this fixture, and particularly the laws of the game, is hugely positive for rugby and Italy deserve great credit for their intelligence and discipline in carrying out a plan that briefly promised to halt England.