IN MAY, WORLD Rugby moved to clarify a number of laws ahead of the World Cup, focusing on the straight feed at scrum time, challenges for the ball in the air, players joining mauls correctly and contact with the neck.
“Every time the head or the neck is deliberately grabbed or choked, the offending player runs the risk of receiving a yellow or red card,” said the World Rugby statement following a meeting of the Laws Representation Group in April.
“Cleanouts around the neck must be penalised. Match officials should work together to ensure that foul play is strictly penalised and that player welfare is paramount.”
It’s a point that has proved to be particularly notable in the refereeing of Test matches in the last few months, match officials clearly acting under World Rugby’s directives to do their best to eradicate tackling and rucking around the neck.
A fortnight ago, Ireland conceded three points against Scotland for the below rucking action from hooker Sean Cronin.
The call in this instance was made by assistant referee Marius Mitrea around 20 metres away over on Ireland’s left touchline, rather then referee Pascal Gauzère, who was within three metres of the ruck.
It’s a fine spot from Mitrea and it’s difficult to argue with his assessment of the situation when we see Cronin bound around the neck of Scotland centre Peter Horne.
Gauzère paused the match clock after awarding the penalty in order to give Cronin a warning.
“Your cleanout is around the neck,” said the French referee. “It’s just a penalty. Be careful. Cleanout around the neck.”
No card, but a penalty seemed to be an entirely accurate and fair call from the match officials. Good refereeing and a strong application of the clarification World Rugby had made earlier this summer?
Paul O’Connell was penalised for what assistant referee Luke Pearce perceived to be the same offence during Ireland’s defeat to Wales on Saturday, the English match official bringing the play to referee Craig Joubert’s attention.
Similarly to the Cronin example above, referee Joubert – close to the action – didn’t notice any infringement himself, with Pearce on the far left touchline instead highlighting O’Connell’s actions.
“As the guy in the blue scrum cap (Justin Tipuric) is trying to get the ball, he gets neck rolled off it,” Pearce tells Joubert once he has got the South African’s attention and halted play.
“Penalty only?” asks Joubert.
“Yeah,” confirms Pearce.
Joubert heads to O’Connell to deliver the news, ignoring his attempt to appeal and saying: “Cleanout by the neck. It’s one of the key focus areas. Penalty.”
Speaking post-match, Joe Schmidt shared his unhappiness at the decision and the manner in which the penalty was awarded.
The Ireland head coach will naturally be more concerned by his side’s ineffectiveness with ball in hand at times, several unforced errors, the limited impact of the Irish maul and other disappointing elements, but he felt this was a poor decision.
“One of them in the 59th minute, if you have a look, is called by a man 50 metres away (Pearce) when the referee is three metres away, for a cleanout around the neck and it’s this fella (O’Connell) with both arms under the armpits,” said Schmidt.
“Those are the fine margins that matches swing on, but they happen to both sides.”
Does Schmidt have an argument here?
In the blurry image above, we can see that O’Connell’s left arm is tucked in under Tipuric’s chest, while his right hand is reaching around under the Wales openside’s left arm. Clearly that means the Tipuric’s head and neck are nearby, but O’Connell doesn’t actually directly bind onto the head or neck at any stage.
O’Connell’s contact and grip throughout is around Tipuric’s shoulders and under his chest, and it appears that the only reason Tipuric’s neck gets into a slightly awkward position is because the openside flanker fights to stay close to the ball rather than ‘accept’ O’Connell’s clearout.
For us, it’s a certainly a harsh penalty in as physical a sport as rugby union but the opposite has been firmly argued to us and it’s open for debate, as with many decisions made by rugby referees.
The ‘tin opener’ or ‘croc roll’ that O’Connell is attempting here is something that has become a key feature of modern rugby, as the rucking player looks to roll the jackaling defender away from the ball to prevent a steal or turnover penalty.
That’s at the very core of this issue – the jackaling player.
Let’s go back and look at Scotland’s Peter Horne in the instance where Cronin engages him around the neck.
Is Horne really in control of his body weight here? Is he legitimately and truthfully on his feet to compete for the ball?
The clip above suggests that Horne is not in control of his body weight and that without the arrival of Cronin, he would flop down over the ball, off his feet.
Let’s jump back to the O’Connell example and take a look at Tipuric.
Is Tipuric really in control of his body weight here? Is he legitimately and truthfully on his feet to compete for the ball?
In the freeze frame above, we see Tipuric’s left hand firmly planted on the ground in front of tackled player Jack McGrath, while the Welshman’s right hand also gives him a degree of support.
Again this is something that is unfortunately now accepted in rugby. Below, we get an example of an Irish player competing for and winning the ball only by initially supporting themselves with their hands.
When we freeze the frame, below, is McGrath really in control of his body weight? Is he legitimately and truthfully on his feet to compete for the ball?
In a game that moves as quickly as rugby, with so many different potential offences in every phase, it’s impossible for referees to pick up everything, but this hands-on-the-ground style of breakdown competition has been accepted too easily.
It has almost become the norm over many years, meaning attacking teams have had to find an answer. A jackaling player threatening the ball as McGrath and Tipuric do in the examples above is very, very difficult to remove.
That’s where the croc roll and targeting of the neck have come in.
Professional teams and sides below that level have actually been training to specifically target the neck area, forcing the jackaling player to forget all about that ball and worry about the safety of their head and neck, as well as the flow of oxygen into their body.
It’s brutal and violent, but it’s a reality of the way the game and its focus on winning. Essentially, the jackaling player is often cheating by putting their hands on the ground. Sometimes the only way to counteract that cheating is for the rucking player to take the law into their own hands.
Chicken and egg
The Paul O’Connell penalty still seems a harsh one now after multiple viewings and it’s essential that match officials are highly accurate in their execution of the directives handed down by World Rugby.
Nonetheless, the fact that tackles and rucking around the neck are being clamped down on is obviously a good thing. The safer this sport is, the more it will attract new supporters and players.
Late on in the Ireland defeat to Wales, we saw James King penalised for the above tackle around the neck of Sean O’Brien. Again, that’s an encouraging thing to see.
Whatever your viewpoint on the penalty against O’Connell for his clearout on Tipuric, the underlying issue in all of this is the power of the jackal.
It’s for the improvement of the game that World Rugby is looking to remove neck contact of course, but there must be a concurrent focus on reducing the instances of defending players competing for the ball when not in control of their own body weight.
If that concurrent focus doesn’t happen, we will only see the weight of the breakdown favour going further and further in favour of the defensive team.
Cut ‘hands on the ground’ out of the game as much as possible and watch the instances of rucking in or near the neck fade, while the crucial balance of competition at the breakdown between the attack and defence is maintained.