The return of the rolling maul

There are a few things in life that just keep coming back time and time again because they are so popular people can’t do without them. Facial hair, tank tops and dance music are a few examples that spring to mind but the other is the old favourite the rolling maul.

It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed the only attacking ploy top teams adopted was to kick for the corner, win the line out and use an effective rolling maul to power over the line. The International Rugby Board (IRB) – as World Rugby was then known tried to come up with ways of reducing the impact of the rolling maul through the trialling of the Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) which permitted a maul to be collapsed by the defending team.

Even thought the ELV which allowed a maul to be collapsed wasn’t adopted the rolling maul seemed to go out of favour for a few years and defending teams developed new ways to counter the ploy; drive the maul at an angle towards the touchline, stand off the maul and the single man sack of the ball carrier being three options that have garnered interest.

It seems though that this season has seen a resurgence of the rolling maul to the point that it is again one of the prime attacking weapons in top class rugby games.

What do the laws say about the maul?

There is no doubt that a rolling maul is a very technical aspect of rugby and when it is set and correctly formed it is very difficult to legally stop. This article though is only going to look at one aspect of the rolling maul which is how attacking players (those with possession in the maul) join the maul once it has formed as this is one area which has developed over the last few years.

Law 17.4 sets out to define the offside lines at a maul. It states that….

The offside line. There are two offside lines parallel to the goal lines, one for each team. Each offside line runs through the hindmost foot of the hindmost player in the maul. If the hindmost foot of the hindmost player is on or behind the goal line, the offside line for the defending team is the goal line.”

Given that the offside line is the hindmost foot of that player’s side of the maul it follows that if a player from the attacking team (that team with the ball) wants to join the maul he must…

Players joining the maul. Players joining a maul must do so from behind the foot of the hindmost team-mate in the maul. The player may join alongside this player. If the player joins the maul from the opponents’ side, or in front of the hindmost team-mate, the player is offside. 

Sanction: Penalty kick on the offending team’s offside line”

This is pretty clear to understand. If an attacking team sets up a rolling maul the ball is usually passed to the player at the back of the maul to keep the ball safe and to develop a wedge shape which provides more effective forward thrust. If a player then wants to join the attacking side of the maul he must join from behind the hindmost foot of his side of the maul or alongside this player.

What happens on the pitch?

The latest twist on the approach to the rolling maul is for attacking players to join the maul ahead of the ball and ahead of the hindmost foot.

Let’s look at an example from last weekend’s 6 Nations game between Ireland and England. With 31 minutes on the clock Ireland set up a rolling maul in the middle of the pitch (rather than from a lineout) in open play. As we can see in the screen shot below Rory Best with the white scrum cap has the ball in his possession but he is loosely bound to the player infront and the effective wedge shape hasn’t been developed. An old favourite of theblitzdefence, Ireland’s number 6 Peter O’Mahony (see The Day of the Jackal article) is at the back of the maul but is about to turn an average rolling maul in to a very effective one.

Illegal maul Ireland

O’Mahony then joins the maul infront of the hindmost feet and the ball carrier to create a perfect wedge shape which then carries Ireland twenty metres down the field and in to a drop goal scoring position. See his body position in the screen shot below.


It doesn’t take a student of the game to realise that this is an illegal entry to the rolling maul and should have been penalised by a penalty to the defending team.

It isn’t just Ireland who employ this illegal tactic. Italy were perhaps the team that was most affected by the demise of the rolling maul but it was the rolling maul which won them the game in the last minute against Scotland. See how many Italian players you can see join the maul in an off side position? See 78.22 on the match clock.

Does it matter?

It does matter because rugby should be a game that rewards skill and technique. By allowing attackers to enter the maul from offside positions the game’s adjudicators are reducing the skill required to set up an effective legal rolling maul; in other words they are making it too easy to develop a rolling maul which is nearly impossible to legally stop.

The law in this area is clear, referees now need to apply it.


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