No Ruck

Analysis: The Chiefs' brilliant 'tackle only' tactic backfired against the Blues

The ingenious defensive tactic has made a return in Super Rugby this year.

LAST YEAR, WE looked at the Chiefs’ use of an intriguing defensive tactic in Super Rugby, whereby they refused to engage in rucks and therefore ensured that no offside line was formed.

The fascinating tactic, which has been used in the world of sevens too, bemused several opponents and allowed the Chiefs to apply huge pressure as they followed up their restarts.

Damian McKenzie celebrates scoring a try with teammates The Chiefs have been stunningly brilliant in Super Rugby this year. Photosport / Bruce Lim/INPHO Photosport / Bruce Lim/INPHO / Bruce Lim/INPHO

The ‘tackle only’ tactic drew some negativity from SANZAAR, who felt it was possibly against the spirit of the game, while the Chiefs found themselves penalised for approaching the opposition halfback on a handful of occasions.

If you’re not familiar with the article we wrote on this topic last year, or simply need a refresher, it might be useful to go back and read it before continuing.

As it transpired, the ‘no ruck, no offside’ tactic faded out of the Chiefs’ game as last season’s Super Rugby competition progressed, and it appeared that brilliant head coach Dave Rennie and his backroom staff had consigned it to the scrapheap.

Not so. Recent weeks have seen the Chiefs renew their use of this ingenious tactic, and there have been several particularly noteworthy examples.

Forcing the point

Below, we see the Chiefs successfully use the tactic against the Force in round five.

This incident comes directly from a Chiefs restart, as we had seen with the vast majority of examples last season. In fact, this is the very opening kick-off of the game.

Identically to many times last season, left wing James Lowe is the chaser and tackler from the Chiefs’ kick and brings Force receiver Marcel Brache swiftly to deck.

As that is happening, we can hear several Chiefs players screaming, “Tackle only, tackle only!” This serves both as a cue to their team-mates and as a cue to the referee.

In a way, the Chiefs are ‘coaching’ the referee, providing him with a clear guideline as to what is occurring. They are essentially telling him, “There’s only a tackle here, no ruck, so that mean’s there’s no offside line.”

No Approach

Hika Elliot immediately races up around the right side of the tackle, but crucially he does not approach halfback Alby Mathewson. If he had done so [as indicated by the yellow arrow], a penalty against the Chiefs would have followed as Elliot would not have approached the tackle through the ‘gate’.

By standing a clear metre or more away from Mathewson, therefore outside the ‘tackle zone,’ Elliot is not seen to be approaching the tackle illegally. Behind Elliot, there are four more Chiefs players rushing forward and referee Mike Fraser says, “Tackle only.”

'Tackle Only'

It leaves us with the bizarre-looking situation above as Mathewson opts to pass, with the Chiefs smothering Force hooker Heath Tessmann as soon as he collects the ball, ensuring a five-metre gain for the defence.

The retreating Mathewson briefly appeals to Fraser for offside, but the referee again reiterates, “Tackle only.”

Perfect execution by the Chiefs.

Difficult viewing

Early in the Chiefs’ next Super Rugby fixture, we saw another attempt at the same tactic. Again, it’s a restart scenario after the Brumbies have kicked a penalty, but this time the Kiwi side get their execution wrong.

It’s prop Mitchell Graham who completes the tackle this time, bringing Scott Fardy to ground.

Immediately, we can hear Chiefs scrum-half Brad Weber – generally the key communicator of these no-ruck opportunities – screaming, “Tackle only, tackle only!”

Weber Calls

Referee Angus Gardner takes the cue and says, “Tackle only” as Chiefs flanker Tom Sanders advances right in front of him.

The problem here is that almost at exactly the same time as Gardner verbally indicates that there is no ruck, Chiefs hooker Elliot rushes forward to engage over the ball with Brumbies prop Ben Alexander, therefore creating a ruck.


Elliot had initially backed away from any contact over the ball as Weber called, “Tackle only,” but the hooker feels he can knock Alexander backwards on the counter-ruck and engages with the prop.

Weber identifies the creation of a ruck immediately and starts to shout at this team-mates who are up the pitch beyond the ball, “Out, get out, out!”

Sanders and openside Sam Cane react by backing up, but Michael Allardice holds in what is now an offside position.

However, Gardner again says, “Tackle only. Play on,” despite the ruck having formed.

Offside - Play On

There are four Chiefs players offside as Tomás Cubelli picks the ball from the base of the ruck, but Gardner’s interpretation means they go unpunished. Cubelli lofts a long pass over the heads of Sanders, Cane and Allardice as play continues.

This example points to the difficulty for referees in these situations, with the tactic being used at high speed. We also get an indication of how influential the Chiefs’ ‘coaching’ of match officials can be.

Sometimes when you’re told what to see, that’s exactly what you see, even when the picture changes.

Pocock pounces

In the second half of the same game, we see the Chiefs attempt to use their no-ruck tactic in a different situation.

This example comes as the Brumbies look to exit their 22 from an initial lineout platform on their right-hand side of the pitch.

The Brumbies play into midfield, where Cane tackles Jordan Smiler.

Again, no Chiefs player engages to form a ruck and scrum-half Weber provides the verbal cue with his familiar call, “Tackle only, tackle only.”

Allardice advances forward several metres to the left of the tackle zone, while Sanders does the same over on the right. The player we’re interested in here, however, is number eight Michael Leitch.

He comes forward on the immediate left-hand side of the tackle, but the intelligent David Pocock grabs hold of Leitch’s shirt.

Pocock Creates?

Pocock’s actions present us with a fascinating conundrum. Does this constitute a ruck?

The definition of a ruck in World Rugby’s lawbook is as follows:

“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.”

Pocock is certainly in physical contact with Leitch, but the Chiefs back row has not attempted to engage with his opponent, or “close around the ball.” That said, the lawbook does not tell us that both players must be ‘bound’ or competing with each other for a ruck to be formed.

Pocock makes physical contact with Leitch and that is enough.

That’s certainly Gardner’s reading of the situation, as he blows for the penalty after Cubelli passes the ball. Frustratingly, the ref mic is almost inaudible in this instance, so we don’t know exactly what Gardner is saying to the Chiefs.

It appears that Gardner penalises Sanders over on the right side, having felt that a ruck had formed with Pocock’s grasping of Leitch.


Gardner heads to that side of initial tackle and subsequent ruck, indicates an offside offence and shakes his head as Aaron Cruden objects. “Clear offside, thanks,” says Gardner and the Brumbies kick clear to touch.

Pocock’s intelligence in this instance wins out.

Blues backfiring

Undeterred, the Chiefs again unleashed the tactic last weekend during their round seven victory over the Blues, but this time the result was far more costly.

We get another different scenario here, as the Blues attack to the outside right edge in phase play, advancing over the half-way line.

This is perhaps the Chiefs’ most ambitious and risky use of the ‘tackle only’ tactic.

Whereas restarts allow Rennie’s men to be organised in sending a specific tackler forward and then act with a collective understanding of what’s going to occur, this is eighth phase in open play.

That said, several of the key exponents of their tactic are in place, Lowe acting as the tackler with Leitch and Cruden either side of him, and Weber arriving in behind.

Leitch Calls

Leitch begins to shout, “Tackle only, tackle only” in the moment above, as Lowe moves in to tackle Blues hooker James Parsons. Again, it’s the cue for his team-mates and the match officials.

Crucially, it’s also a cue for the opposition this time.

After our piece on this tactic last year, the widespread suggestion was that opposition teams should simply pick and go right over the tackle whenever the Chiefs stood off.

Tana Umaga’s Blues had their analysis done, and carried out exactly that counter tactic.

Cruden to Ref

Ranger is arriving to the tackle on the left of the image above, while it’s worth noting Cruden over on the very right. He’s also now shouting, “Tackle only” and beginning to advance up beyond the tackle.

Note Leitch’s position in the top-left corner of the image too. He’s beyond the ball, with no intention of retreating in behind. Lowe, meanwhile, is backing away from Akira Ioane [19] in his effort to ensure that no ruck forms.

Weber is cut off by the retreating Lowe too, meaning that when Ranger dynamically scoops up the ball and bursts forward, the Blues centre is moving into space.

Ranger Takes Space

Let’s be clear that it’s a tiny pocket of space, and it takes some typical magic from Ranger to fully exploit it, but it only exists because of the Chiefs’ desire not to form the ruck and ensure there is no offside line.

Rangers offloads majestically, but he’s given a window to do so because Lowe is moving backwards, Weber has poor access to the Blues midfielder and Cruden is coming from a wide position too.

The one-handed offload is delicious from Ranger and then the thrillingly-gifted 19-year-old Reiko Ioane, who has been a star on the sevens circuit for New Zealand, takes over. His pace to burn past Weber is impressive and then he bounces through the tackle attempts of Damian McKenzie – a rare error from the 20-year-old sensation – and Stephen ‘Beaver’ Donald to finish.

This try is about the quality of Ranger and Ioane, but the opportunity comes from the Chiefs’ attempt to shut down the Blues with their clever defensive tactic.

On this occasion, it backfired.

Watch this space

The examples above underline both the effectiveness and the dangers of the Chiefs’ use of the ‘tackle only’ tactic.

Rennie’s men have also been doing extraordinary things in attack in Super Rugby this year, with their kick return and use of turnover possession perhaps the most effective in world rugby right now.

The Hamilton-based franchise are never anything less than fascinating to watch and we will follow their use of the ‘tackle only’ tactic with keen interest in the coming weeks and months.

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