The Day of the Jackal
In decades past rugby fans had the pleasure of watching the jinking runs of Phil Bennett or Jonathan Davies or the balanced running of Phillipe Sella or Jeremy Guscott. Players such as Barry John, David Duckham, David Campese, Mark Ella, Mike Gibson and Serge Blanco brought crowds to their feet with their attractive, inventive rugby.
The advent of professional rugby has brought a number of changes to the way the game is played, and in today’s rugby world side steps and swerves have been replaced with the blitz defence, pillars and perhaps the most recognisable skill of 21st century rugby – the jackal.
Some of the biggest names in modern rugby have made their names through their mastery of the jackal. Richie McCaw, Sam Warburton, David Pollock are some of the greatest exponents of the skill from the openside position but the backs have also got in to the action with Brian O’Driscoll in particular developing his defensive game in his later years to the point that his trademark became the jackal rather than the midfield break.
Like the opportunistic scavengers they are named after, the rugby playing version is the name given to a player who attempts to win the ball from an attacking player when the attacker has been tackled and brought to ground. The jackal then approaches the tackle area from his defensive side and hinging at the waist bends over to pick up the ball.
What the law says
Sounds simple? It does indeed and the World Rugby (or what we all still call the International Rugby Board) Laws of the Game provides a nice explanation of what you can and can’t do at the tackle area. This is what law 15.6 says:
After a tackle, all other players must be on their feet when they play the ball. Players are on their feet if no other part of their body is supported by the ground or players on the ground.
Sanction: Penalty kick
Let’s explore what the law says here a little further and have a look at the first sentence – “…all other players must be on their feet when they play the ball”. The key words here are “…on their feet…”. Surely even the most inexperienced referee can spot when a player is on their feet at the tackle area? Well, no not always because “on their feet” does not just mean having their feet in contact with the ground!
That’s right, the laws don’t define the defender as being “on their feet” solely as someone who has the bottom of their Adidas Flankers planted firmly on terra firma. It is the second sentence in the law which helps define when a defender is on their feet or not and this is achieved by bringing in the defining words …”no other part of their body is supported by the ground or players on the ground.”
In practise this means that a defender must be supporting their own body weight at all times in the tackle area in order to be able to play the ball. This means our defender can’t rest his knees on the back of the tackled player on the floor nor can he cannot support his body weight on his hands, arms or elbows.
The IRB, sorry World Rugby has even provided a useful still in the law 15.6 description to show what a player looks like when he is off his feet at the breakdown. In the picture you can clearly see number 13 on his hands and knees over the ball – and there are a few other players in white who are also not supporting their body weight. The sanction is a penalty kick for the attacking team.
Why is law 15.6 important?
Since the game has turned professional the ruck area has become a key focal point of attention for the attacking team but perhaps even more importantly so for the defending team. There are a couple of reasons why.
Firstly if a defender (our jackal) can win the ball at the breakdown they can then attack against a disorganised defence who weren’t expecting to lose the ball in contact. Secondly, because the attacking team knows that they are vulnerable if they lose the ball at the breakdown they will often deliberately infringe and give away a penalty rather than face an attacking team with turnover ball.
Even if a jackal can’t win the ball they can often slow down the attacking ball so that their defence has time to reorganise.
The key to success in rugby as an attacking team is to find space and the faster the ball can be presented for distribution after a tackle is made the higher the chances of success. Defending teams know this and the jackal has developed as the key weapon to countering this and to slow down the ruck ball.
How the law is applied?
In most professional rugby games law 15.6 either isn’t applied or if we are being generous we can say it is inconsistently applied. Whether this is because of a conscious decision by the governing bodies we don’t know but what is clear is that the ineffective refereeing of the ruck, and in particular the body position of the first jackaling defender is slowing down the ball which we know gives time for defences to reorganise.
When you watch your next professional rugby game follow the first defender who attacks the ruck. In the majority of cases the jackal will spider over the ball on to his hands and then attempt to attack the ball as he comes back up to a standing position. It is almost a given that this jackal will be resting his knees on the tackled player on the floor and if you are really lucky you may even see the defender fall on to one or both elbows before coming back up towards the ball.
These actions are all contrary to law 15.6 and should be penalised by a penalty kick.
Actually don’t take my word for it, let’s look at a real example from perhaps one of the greatest exponents of the illegal jackal playing today. Peter O’Mahony plays for Munster and Ireland and in this screen shot taken from the 2014 Ireland v Wales 6 Nations game a tackle has been made and O’Mahony is the jackal over the ball.
Notice his right elbow is on the turf and his right hand and lower arm is also in contact with the grass. Is he supporting his body weight? No, he is clearly in contravention of the law but the referee in this case gave a penalty against Wales for holding on at the ruck.
How do we get out of this mess?
We need to speed up the game and provide attacking teams with cleaner and faster ball. A quick and easy way to do this is by ensuring referees consistently and rigidly apply law 15.6 and require the defenders to support their own body weight at the breakdown.
The law is clearly written – we now need referees to apply it.
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