Is the ‘jackal’ a protected species? – Northern Hemisphere (part one)
What is the true value of a player who can compete for the ball with his hands on the ground, after a tackle has been made? This has been a besetting question for coaches at professional level ever since the new laws at the breakdown were introduced on 1 August 2017, in time for the start of the new Northern Hemisphere season.
The amendments were as follows:
Law 15.4 ©
The tackler must get up before playing the ball and then can only play from their own side of the tackle “gate”.
Rationale: To make the tackle/ruck simpler for players and referees and more consistent with the rest of that law.
A ruck commences when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (tackled player, tackler). At this point the offside lines are created. Players on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used.
Rationale: To make the ruck simpler for players and referees.
The laws were designed to make life simpler, by not allowing the tackler to interfere on the ‘wrong side’ after a tackle had been completed, and permitting the referee to call ‘ruck’ with only one attacking player standing above the ball – he no longer needed to be engaged with a defender.
The window for players to have a crack at the ball on the deck looked to have shrunk in the phrasing of the Law 16 amendment: “Players on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used.”
In practice, consistent refereeing of the new laws has proved far from simple. When the new rules have been applied quite straightforwardly, as they were by top French official Jerome Garces in the recent Leinster-Saracens European Cup semi-final, they tend to result in very high ball retention figures. In that match, only four rucks were turned over out of a combined total of 242 built, giving a massive 98.3% retention rate.
In some other high-profile games, referees have attempted to ‘protect the jackal’, and the ability of a defensive player to compete with hands on the ground, as if he is an endangered species. The current pair of articles examines two games (one from each hemisphere) in which officials tried to create this balance, or continuity with the old laws, but in so doing opened a Pandora’s Box of confusion for coaches and players.
The referee for the Scotland-England game was Welshmen Nigel Owens, acknowledged as probably the premier whistler in world rugby. Owens permitted Scotland to make seven turnovers on the deck in the course of the game by favouring the jackal, and at least five of those were open to question by the letter of the new law.
Those turnovers were influenced not only the outcome of the match, but also had an impact on the rest of England’s Six Nations. England went on to lose the game against France in the next round largely because of similar breakdown problems, and that caused the England coaching staff to reassess their approach to a vital area of the game. The effects have been far-reaching.
The first example of Nigel Owens ‘protecting the jackal’ occurred in only the 2nd minute of the game.
England prop Mako Vunipola has taken the ball up into contact, and the recycle should be straightforward with two support players (Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes) close at hand. Instead Scotland second row Grant Gilchrist (in the red hat) is allowed to dig in over the ball. This is the critical moment:
In this frame Gilchrist has clearly pushed his weight further forward and his right knee is resting on Vunipola’s back. Would he topple over or stay upright, Vunipola was removed from the picture? Nigel Owens makes the judgement call in favour of the defender, where other referees may have asked Gilchrist to release.
The second example revolved around the issue of the jackal showing a clear release of the tackled player before attacking the ball on the ground.
No clear release is visible as Scotland open-side flanker Hamish Watson takes Anthony Watson to ground, but play is allowed to continue with a turnover. Interestingly, Owens went on to penalize Watson for the same offence in the 13th minute.
The third example relates directly to the new laws regarding the function of an attacker standing above the tackle ball, and thereby creating a ruck.
After the ball-carrier Chris Robshaw is tackled, Maro Itoje is the first cleanout player to arrive, taking out Scotland prop Simon Berghan:
Itoje is on his feet and above the ball as he arrives, so under the new laws he has created an offside line and no hands can be used thereafter. But the next Scotland defender (John Barclay) is allowed to step in and attack the ball with his hands anyway. Barclays’ action looks entirely natural as there is no England player in the immediate vicinity to oppose him (and it’s hard to see what else he is supposed to do!), but it still contravenes the new law.
The fourth example was a different version of the same issue.
England number 9 Danny Care goes in to remove Scotland number 8 Ryan Wilson, and the ball is still at his feet, and hence in the ruck as Finn Russell fishes it out:
Arguably Chris Robshaw is also bound on and therefore providing the ‘hindmost foot’ even further back in this example too.
The final example may have had a direct bearing on the outcome on the game as a whole, and crystallized more clearly than any other the issues with implementing the new laws, while staying in touch with the contest provided by the old. Here England lock Joe Launchbury is jackaling for the ball.
Nigel Owens begins by favouring the defender on the ground as in the other instances. Even though Launchbury clearly commits an offence by planting his right knee on the ground to gain traction, and is therefore “off his feet” and out of the game at that point…
…Owens calls ‘Lost now!’ over the ref-mic without giving the penalty (or penalty advantage). It is only when Danny Care is able to use the time bought by Launchbury’s jackal to break on the ball and make an interception that the referee awards the penalty in retrospect. It is an awkward moment created by the match-long favouring of the defender in these situations.
Referees are still struggling to integrate the new breakdown laws while keeping a genuine contest after the tackle. When the laws are applied to the letter, as they were by Jerome Garces in the Leinster-Saracens semi-final, the possibility of a turnover shrinks measurably.
When the referee tries to recreate the contest by giving more licence to the defender(s) as Nigel Owens did at Murrayfield, it can generate severe problems of interpretation – for the players on the field at the time, for the coaches in future (England for the remainder of the Six Nations), and ultimately for the official himself (Owens’ U-turn in the Launchbury incident).The simple solution has become instead, very complex.
(The following article will examine how the same issues are being addressed in Super Rugby….)