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Analysis: Intelligent Chiefs push the boundaries by refusing the ruck

This just doesn’t look right on first viewing.

THE CHIEFS HAVE been one of the most intelligent rugby teams in the world in recent years and continue to test the limits of the game in attack and defence.

James Lowe and Rhys Marshall celebrate winning The superb James Lowe has been centrally involved in the Chiefs' clever tactic. Source: Photosport/Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO

Under the guidance of head coach Dave Rennie, assistants Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge and up until recently the great Wayne Smith, the Super Rugby outfit benefit from having one of the most powerful brain trusts around.

An intriguing defensive tactic following restarts this season is just the latest example of the Chiefs driving rugby innovation. The Kiwi franchise are generally an excellent restart team, regathering on short kicks or at least applying real pressure on kick chase.

Their latest method of following up restarts has seen them go a step further.

What’s it all about?

The first time we spotted the Chiefs using this tactic in the current Super Rugby season was during the round two meeting with the Brumbies, and here’s how it looked:

This is the very first kick off of the game, with Aaron Cruden sending his kick down on top of Scott Fardy [6] on the Brumbies’ 22-metre line, left wing Hosea Gear [11] following up to tackle the Wallaby flanker.

First things first, it’s an effective tackle from Gear, with no need for an assist tackler to enter the fray.

Brumbies Round 2.1

Nearby Brumbies players Ita Vaea [8], Josh Mann-Rea [2], Ben Alexander [3] and Sam Carter [5] arrive in to support the tackled Fardy, intending to resource what they presume is going to be a ruck.

Crucially, no Chiefs player commits to engaging with these Brumbies players, and therefore no ruck is formed. For anyone rusty on their rugby laws, a ruck requires one or more players from each team to be on their feet in a contest over the ball.

Ruck World Rugby's definition of a ruck as the Laws of the Game. Source: World Rugby

Clearly, a ruck is not formed in the video above, as the Chiefs actively avoid committing a player on their feet in contact “around the ball on the ground.” That in turn means that open play has not ended.

Had a ruck formed, open play would have ended and the offside line would in turn have been formed, preventing the Chiefs from running beyond the tackle zone as they do here. No ruck means no offside line.

Offside Law 16.5 (a) Source: World Rugby

We see Liam Messam [6] shoot up well past the point of breakdown to cut out a potential Brumbies passing option behind the tackle, while openside flanker Tevita Koloamatangi [7] performs a similar role to the Chiefs’ right.

Hooker Hika Elliot is tasked with standing directly behind the tackle and waiting for Brumbies scrum-half Nic White to pick up the ball, whereupon he tackles him to the ground.

Brumbies Round 2.2

The Brumbies play a phase away to the left through Rory Arnold [4] on the pick and go, where he’s tackled to the ground by the Chiefs’ Siate Tokolahi [3]. Again, the Chiefs do their best not to form a ruck, but they get penalised on this occasion.

Messam goes up around the right-side of the tackle area towards White, but referee Steve Walsh blows his whistle and indicates a penalty.

“That ball there formed it, six,” Walsh appears to say, “your tackle man was still there.”

The impression is that the now-retired Walsh has decided there has been a ruck ["it"] on the second occasion the Chiefs attempt the tactic.

PIC 5

There does appear to be the briefest moment of contact in the split second above, as the Brumbies Scott Sio [1] looks to clear Tokolahi out, but the Chiefs tighthead is already backing away and is certainly not looking to engage in physical contact.

Arguably, Sio comes right off his feet and could be penalised in that regard, although that idea is balanced by the fact that Tokolahi is backing away.

Either way, you’d have to see the Chiefs as harshly done by in this instance. Walsh didn’t like the look of the situation, decided a ruck had been formed and therefore ruled Messam as being offside.

Perhaps more clarity in communication from Walsh would have helped in our understanding. As we’ll see later, a different referee felt the Chiefs were approaching the tackle but not coming through the gate; is that what Walsh is penalising here?

An interesting debut for the Chiefs tactic, one we followed closely in their next few games.

Chiefs crusade

To round three and the Chiefs’ meeting with the Crusaders, their New Zealand rivals. Undeterred by the penalty Walsh awarded against them during the clash with the Brumbies, Rennie’s men wheeled their tactic out again.

Cruden restarts the game, landing his kick just beyond the Crusaders’ 22-metre line, where James Lowe [11] completes a tackle on Luke Romano. As with the Brumbies, the ‘Saders commit four players to what they presume is going to be a ruck.

Again, the Chiefs stand off. A tackle, no ruck formed.

Saders Round Three

Ben Tameifuna [3] bursts up around the left side of the huddle of Crusaders players, with Johan Bardoul [19] swiftly following suit. Crusaders scrum-half Mitchell Drummond recognises what’s happening and scoops up the ball, being tackled by Bardoul and Elliot.

Referee Mike Fraser rightly has no issue, and play goes on.

The next time the Chiefs use their defensive tactic, the match official rules that a ruck has been formed.

Cruden restarts to a similar zone, Lowe tackles Romano again, then does his utmost to roll out and away from the tackle.

To the left, Elliot attempts to push through on the left of the huddle of bodies, while Bardoul presumably asks if he can do the same on the right.

“No, it’s a ruck, it’s a ruck,” says Fraser and Bardoul doesn’t move any further forward.

PIC 7

Where’s the ruck? Well, as we can see above, wily Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett grabs Lowe’s jersey, fully aware of what the Chiefs are again attempting to do.

It’s difficult to be certain, but this appears to constitute the ruck in Fraser’s eyes and points to a potential counter-tactic for attacking teams against the Chiefs.

Furthermore, it could be argued that Elliot [2] and Richie McCaw [Crusaders 7] are on their feet, in physical contact, and have ‘closed’ around the ball on the ground.

PIC 8

Either way, Fraser rules it’s a ruck and the Chiefs cannot run up beyond a newly-formed offside line. The impression here is that the referee is fully aware of what the Chiefs are attempting, and is looking for any possible way to rule that a ruck has been formed.

The match officials are understandably tuned in to what’s going on.

Storming the restart

And so we come to the most high-profile example of the Chiefs tactic, which came in their round five fixture against the Stormers.

Cruden restarts once again, left wing Lowe completes a fine tackle on Duane Vermeulen and then rolls away.

Manuel Carizza [5], Vincent Koch [3], Jacobus Van Wyk [14] and Steven Kitshoff [1] head to the point of breakdown, all presuming that they will provide protection for scrum-half Louis Schreuder in a ruck.

PIC 9

Lowe’s Chiefs teammates have stood off, and referee Jaco Peyper says, “tackle only, there’s no offside,’ as Tameifuna and Elliot head up around either side of the ruck and in behind Schreuder to cut off his passing option.

In the background, Messam moves up the pitch and stands in front of Stormers out-half Kurt Coleman, further reducing the possibility of him getting the ball from Schreuder.

PIC 10

As this is still open play, the actual blocking off of the passing options is not technically illegal.

Stormers lock Jean Kleyn [4] decides to take matters into his own hands, dragging Elliot away from the huddle of Stormers bodies, then shoving Tameifuna just as Peyper blows his whistle.

PIC 11

It could be argued that Kleyn is committing a penalty offence here by interfering with Elliot and Tameifuna, as they are not in possession of the ball.

PIC 12 Law 10.4 (f). Source: World Rugby

However, Peyper is already in the process of penalising the Chiefs, having processed what he views as a Chiefs infringement. The referee signals the penalty to the Stormers then stops the clock in order to speak to Messam.

“Where’s the captain? Need to explain it,” says Peyper. Messam arrives in with a look of confusion on his face and his arms spread open in a questioning manner.

“Look, they went towards the tackle,” explains Peyper. “if you go towards the tackle, you have to come through the gate.”

“They didn’t touch him [Schreuder] though,” argues Messam.

It’s not about playing him, replies Peyper. “If you approach the tackle, you [must] come through the gate. You can play away from the tackle. Ok?”

Messam ponders the explanation for a second or two, then heads back with another question: “We have to go that way?” he says moving his hands apart from each other.

“Look, the guys came around and they were in the way of the… they approached the tackle,” says the referee. “It’s got to be through the gate.”

“Are we good if we just stay there?” asks Messam.

“If you went to the 10, that’s fine,” answers Peyper and the exchange ends.

The gate

World Rugby’s 212-page law book doesn’t include a single mention of ‘the gate,’ despite the frequency with which it is used when discussing the tackle, breakdown and ruck.

That simply points to the confusing nature of the laws of rugby, although laws 15.6 (c), 15.6 (d) and 15.6 (g) do refer to players being required to come from “behind the ball and from directly behind the tackled player or a tackler closest to those players’ goal line.”

PIC 13 Law 15.6 (d) is what referees largely base 'the gate' on. Source: World Rugby

In this Stormers instance, there is only the tackled player [Vermeulen] on the ground, and therefore ‘the gate’ is as wide as his body.

That means that if the Chiefs do look to enter the tackle zone [usually done to create a ruck], they have to come through the gate on their defensive side of Vermeulen.

Peyper’s perception is that Tameifuna and Elliot [mainly the latter, one would have to think] are indeed approaching the tackle in this instance, but not doing so through the gate. There is no issue with the Chiefs pair coming up beyond the point of breakdown, but Peyper is unhappy with their proximity to the tackle.

Are they any closer to the tackle than Elliot was in our very first example in this article? It’s a matter of inches really, but then Peyper has probably already viewed the Chiefs previous use of this tactic and is looking for this infringement.

Sonny Bill Williams Sonny Bill and the Chiefs are innovative in attack too. Source: Photosport/Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO

The referee simply doesn’t want the Chiefs so close to the tackle zone. Most referees view the ‘tackle zone’ as being within a 1 metre radius or rectangle of the tackled player/tackler/both, and view any step inside that area as intent to approach the tackle.

That’s presumably what Peyper sees Tameifuna and Elliot doing in this instance, and views their entry into the ‘tackle zone’ [also not in the law book] as not being through the gate.

In terms of taking a lesson from this incident, the Chiefs will perhaps not come so close to the tackle when they shoot up around the sides next time.

Peyper’s reasoning could be argued with of course, but he indicates that there is no issue with the Chiefs flooding forward further out, nearer the out-half ["10"].

Development

The Chiefs refusal to engage in the ruck reminds us of the lineout tactics involving a refusal to engage in the maul. As we’ve detailed before, Ireland have used that latter approach with some success, but that in turn has lead to swift developments in the area of mauling and ‘maul defence.’

We would expect something similar in regards to this Chiefs tactic, which appears to be in its infancy. Sources tell us that SANZAR officials have contacted the Kiwi franchise in relation to this tactic, outlining their beliefs that it is against the Spirit of the Game.

PIC 14 Law 10.4 (m). Source: World Rugby

It seems highly unlikely that we’ll see the Chiefs pinged under Law 10.4 (m), which punishes actions contrary to good sportsmanship, but referees are now well aware of the tactic and will surely be looking for a chance to penalise it.

That said, the Kiwi franchise are simply building something intelligent around the laws of the game and are within their rights to push the boundaries.

Preventing opposition teams from making easy exits is of paramount importance in the game, and the Chiefs have come up with an extremely clever method of achieving that.

Clearly, the scrum-half cannot safely box kick away from the tackle zone in these instances, while the passing option out to his out-half is very often shut down by one of the Chiefs players covering off the passing option.

Dave Rennie Dave Rennie is a superb coach. Source: PHOTOSPORT/Bruce Lim/INPHO

It’s a nasty situation for the team wishing to exit, and Rennie, Strawbridge, Coventry, the Chiefs players and, most probably, Smith deserve credit for their typical ability to think outside of the box.

Innovation should be welcomed in the game, and we will watch with some interest to note whether an attacking team can exploit the Chiefs should they attempt this tactic again soon.

Furthermore, it will be intriguing to discover if other teams have picked up on the Chiefs’ tactic and attempt to mimic it elsewhere.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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