King of the Jackals – Steffon Armitage?

Last week theblitzdefence asked if the ruck area was being refereed correctly given the explanation in law 15.6 around defenders playing the ball after the tackle. https://theblitzdefence.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/the-day-of-the-jackal/. Even though law 15.6 makes it clear that a defender must be supporting their own body weight at the tackle area this law is applied very inconsistently in the modern game.

Rather than analyse the law in conceptual terms it would be good to see how this law was applied in practice. Thankfully it looked as if the rugby gods were looking after us because on the 24th January the European Rugby Champions Cup pitted the Scarlets against Toulon and this gave us a chance to analyse the much vaunted King of the Jackals, Steffon Armitage.

Armitage moved to Toulon for the 2011/12 season and has matured in to one of the finest players in the Top 14, culminating in the ERC European Player of the Year for 2013/14. His physique – and with it his playing style, has developed over the last few years so he now primarily operates as a destructive open side with a focus on the jackal and slowing opposition ball at the ruck.

He is now regarded as one of the best open sides in the world and he therefore provides us with a good case study to see how law 15.6 is applied at the highest level of northern hemisphere rugby. The referee was Wayne Barnes from England and Armitage was playing opposite another conventional open side in John Barclay.

Background to the game

The Scarlets have been decimated with injuries to their tight five and as a result couldn’t call on a number of players who would have made the match squad. These include Samson Lee (neck injury), Ken Owens (returning from long term neck injury), Rhodri Jones (dislocated shoulder), Emyr Phillips (dislocated shoulder) and Phil John (knee).

This meant the forward battle was always going to be a struggle against the powerful Toulon pack who boasted a number of top internationals on their bench.

The first half

Armitage had a quiet first half from a defensive perspective, due in no small part to the fact Toulon dominated possession and territory and built up a comfortable 3-19 lead by half time. The French team had a number of strong ball carriers who repeatedly breached the Scarlets gain line meaning for most of the first half they had strong front- foot ball to play off.

Even though Toulon had large amounts of possession Armitage only made two carries of note in the whole game, the second of which resulted in him losing possession in contact.

Unlike other top class open sides it is noticeable that Armitage very rarely tackles players around the legs, more often preferring to smother the player around the chest and instigates the attack on the ball as the attacker begins the fall to ground.

The second half

The paucity of Scarlets possession in the first half didn’t allow Armitage to show his talents but the second half saw the open side have a big influence on the game through his work at the breakdown as the Scarlets came back in to the game.

In the defensive line Armitage tends to stand out 2 players from the ruck and often defends in the 10 channel when a shortened lineout is called. The Scarlet’s lack of ball carriers who could breach the gain line was always going to stifle their attacking game but their tactics of probing around the narrow Toulon channels with lightweight backs was baffling because this brought Armitage right in to the game.

Wayne Barnes gave 4 penalties to Toulon at the breakdown as a result of Armitage’s work and also penalise him once. We will now look at these 5 incidents in detail.

43 minutes – Armitage wins penalty

This incident is perhaps the most difficult to judge given the attacker Rob Evans ends up on top of players from the previous ruck so obscuring the ball. The Scarlets have put themselves in a difficult position by playing an inside ball to a static player who is tackled by one Toulon player allowing Armitage to attack the ball.

The ball is not visible to the camera but from Aled Davies’ body language the ball has got to floor and Armitage is playing at it. We can’t conclude if Armitage was supporting his weight on his hands but a glance at his body shape and in particular his feet position suggest he is resting on the players on the ground.

Verdict: inconclusive

Armitage 43.08

53 minutes – Armitage wins penalty

Again the Scarlets put themselves in trouble; they win decent lineout ball but Scott Williams is well tackled by the Toulon 10 and Barclay is slow to support giving Armitage time to attack the ball before Scott Williams can position his body.

This is a text book legal jackal. Armitage’s legs are planted wide and perpendicular to the touch line, he can try and rip the ball with both hands, his spine is straight and he has kept his head down to make it harder to clear him off the ball.

Verdict: great steal and good decision from Barnes

Armitage 53

57 minutes – Armitage is penalised

A Scarlets rolling maul is halted so Aled Davies plays a switch with Kristian Phillips, sending a small winger in to the heart of the Toulon defence. The outcome is inevitable with one Toulon player tackling low allowing Armitage to hit high and then begin to attach to the ball as the defender falls to ground.

This is a common pattern we see with Toulon where the first defender takes the attacker around the legs allowing Armitage to focus on the ball and defender’s upper body.

Armitage spiders over the ball and places both hands on the floor. Wayne Barnes is well placed and penalises him for being off his feet at the ruck.

Verdict: good decision from Barnes

Armitage 57

58 minutes – Armitage wins penalty

The Scarlets struggle to make headway over the gain line and the ruck forms. Armitage seems to then come over the ruck, after it has formed and then places his hands on the ball.

Verdict: Incorrect decision from Barnes

Armitage 58

74 minutes – Armitage wins penalty

There is no wonder Armitage has a chuckle after winning this penalty given the fact he is clearly resting both hands on the floor and he goes off his feet at the ruck. The surprising thing about this decision is that Wayne Barnes is well placed to see the offence and it is very similar in nature to the 57 minute offence where he penalised Armitage.

Verdict: Wrong decision from Barnes

Armitage 74

Is he the King of Jackals?

There is no doubt that Armitage is very strong at the breakdown and when he gets his feet and body position in the right place he can cause all sorts of problems to the attacking team. His body shape makes him very difficult to knock off the ball and it is nearly impossible to dislodge when he is allowed to place one or more hands on the floor.

Armitage actually makes few full tackles for an open side but his role in the Toulon back row is to attack and disrupt the ball as the second defender. He does this particularly well and often starts to hold on to the ball before the defender has reached the floor. This takes a great deal of upper body strength.

While saying Armitage is very good at his specific role we have to question if the adjudicating of the ruck area at this level is according to the written laws. Numerous penalties given in the game were for players resting their hands, arms or even elbows on the floor over the ball. Wayne Barnes was consistent in the application of this interpretation of the breakdown and there are examples of the Scarlets winning penalties in similar dubious circumstances.

What is confusing is that Barnes was in good positions to see most of the incidents which seems to indicate that not supporting your body weight at the ruck is tacitly, if not expressly, permitted at the top level. This goes against the written law and brings confusion to supporters and viewers alike.

It’s not all about Armitage…

We couldn’t have an article on the jackal without showing perhaps the most obviously illegal steal of the night by Lobbe. Barnes gave a penalty against the Scarlets in this incident. If a player’s nose is on the floor that is usually a good sign the player is off his feet!

Lobbe 78

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